Why Should I Read?...
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell”
Cordwainer Smith, 1962
For a writer with such a small output—20-odd short stories and an episodic novel—Cordwainer Smith has been a surprisingly influential writer within sf. He is one of those writers, like Vance and Lafferty, who is sui generis. There is no-one who writes remotely like Smith; and one Smith is probably about the right number.
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is perhaps not Smith’s best story (that has to be “Scanners Live in Vain”) but it is representative of his mature, finished, voice. The plot—not that we read Smith for plot—revolves around C’mell, a woman engineered from cat DNA (I did say don’t worry about the plot) and her role in the rebellion of the ‘underpeople’. C’mell, a girlygirl (a kind of courtesan) at once intrigues against and falls in love with Lord Jestocost, a representative of the Instrumentality of Mankind, the rulers of human space who deny the rights of those derived from animal stock. Recounted as baldly as that, it sounds unremarkable, even clichéd. Smith is famous as a Christian writer, but this aspect of his work is subtly integrated. What is more apparent in his attitudes and subject matter is that he is writer whose period of maturity coincided with the Civil Rights movement.
What lifts the story out of mediocrity is Smith’s extraordinary narrative voice. Most sf draws its cultural nourishment from the Western European literary model, but Smith, an accomplished Orientalist, draws at least as much on traditional Chinese techniques. The result is fiction which is at once alien, startling, beautiful, ornate. Despite the astonishingly distant narrative voice, Smith’s work is oddly engaging, and the strange love story at the heart of “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is at once haunting and understated.
How has it influenced me?
Smith is one of those writers who defies imitation. I find a little of him goes a long way—which, since there is very little, is not a disadvantage. His style is one I have neither the capacity nor the desire to emulate, but he is a powerful illustration of just how far it is possible to develop a narrative voice. There are those who argue that the best stylists are invisible: while I understand that argument, I don’t entirely agree with it—and Smith is one of the greatest examples that for some good writers, style is the defining aspect of the work.
Lessons for the aspiring writer
Do your own thing – no matter how bizarre it seems, and regardless of whether anyone else is doing it
A highly distanced narrative voice need not result in emotionally uninvolving fiction