Read We the Underpeople Online
Authors: Cordwainer Smith,selected by Hank Davis
Tags: #Science Fiction
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
"Introduction" copyright © 2002 by Agberg, Ltd. "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" copyright © 1964 by Galaxy Publishing Co. First appeared in
August 1964. "Under Old Earth" copyright © 1966 by Galaxy Publishing Co. First appeared in
February 1966. "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" copyright © 1961 by Galaxy Publishing Co. First appeared in
June 1961. "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" copyright © 1961 by Mercury Press. First appeared in
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
June 1961. "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" copyright © 1962 by Galaxy Publishing Co. First appeared in
copyright © 1975 by Genevieve Linebarger. Contains "
The Planet Buyer
" copyright © 1964 by Cordwainer Smith and "
" copyright © 1968 by Genevieve Linebarger.
A Baen Book
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
ISBN 10: 1-4165-2095-3
ISBN 13: 978-1-4165-2095-5
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
First Baen printing, December 2006
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smith, Cordwainer, 1913-1966.
We the underpeople / by Cordwainer Smith ; edited by Hank Davis.
I. Davis, Hank. II. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
He erupted into our midst without warning, a little over half a century ago, with one of the strangest science-fiction stories every published. The magazine it appeared in was pretty strange, too: a crudely printed semi-pro affair called
, emanating from Los Angeles in such tiny quantities that each issue became a collector's item almost as soon as it appeared.
The publisher of
was William L. Crawford, an old-time science-fiction enthusiast whose s-f publishing career went back to the early 1930s, when he brought out two little magazines called
, setting the type for them himself. No more than a thousand copies of each issue were printed, though they ran outstanding stories by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clifford D. Simak, and Robert E. Howard.
, which had a wobbly eight-issue existence between 1947 and 1951, was as amateurish-looking as its Crawford predecessors—no two issues had quite the same format, and even within a single issue several typefaces usually were employed—but it, too, managed to run some valuable fiction, by A.E. van Vogt, Andre Norton, L. Ron Hubbard, Isaac Asimov in collaboration with Frederik Pohl, and Murray Leinster. But the one story that ensures this scruffy magazine's immortality in the history of science fiction was the third item in its (undated) sixth issue, released in January of 1950: "Scanners Live in Vain" by an unknown writer with the strange name of Cordwainer Smith.
How that story came into the hands of Bill Crawford of
is something I can't tell you. John J. Pierce, a pioneer in the arcane field of Cordwainer Smith studies reported in a piece first published in 1993 that "Smith" wrote the story in 1945 and submitted it to the pre-eminent science-fiction editor of the day, John W. Campbell of
Astounding Science Fiction,
who rejected it as "too
extreme." In those days stories rejected by Campbell had few other possibilities for publication—the only markets were two fairly juvenile pulp magazines called
Thrilling Wonder Stories,
which had the same editor, and a third and even more juvenile pulp called
. The remaining two magazines,
were entirely staff-written and did not welcome unsolicited submissions.
So once a story had been to Campbell and to the editors of the
there was essentially no place to publish it except some amateur magazine, and "Smith," who must have been a devoted science-fiction reader, somehow discovered
and sent his story to Bill Crawford. And that was how my teenage self happened to read, in the spring of 1950, a story that began with this startling, jarring passage:
"Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table bit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg was broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex: and automatic. The inventory included his legs, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face and back with the Mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry. He talked with his voice, even though he knew that his wife hated its blare and preferred to have him write.
"'I tell you, I must cranch. I have to cranch. It's my worry. isn't it?'"
Nobody—with the possible exception of A.E. van Vogt, whose dreamlike, surreal
The World of Null-A
was first published around the time Cordwainer Smith was writing "Scanners"—wrote science fiction that sounded like that. The lucid, unadorned prose setting forth the immeasurably strange—it was a new kind of voice.
I read on and on. One bizarre term after another tumbled forth: Scanners, the Up-and-Out, the habermans, the Cranching Wire. In time, it all made sense. By the end of the story, forty pages later, I knew that some incomparable master of science fiction had taken me to an invented world like none that had ever been portrayed before.
But who was this Cordwainer Smith?
Suddenly, everybody in the little inner world of science fiction—there couldn't have been more than a few hundred who really cared about it in any more than a casual way—was asking that question. But no answers came forth. William Crawford let it be known that the name was a pseudonym—but for whom? Van Vogt? Hardly. If he had written it, he would have been proud to publish it under his own name. The prolific Henry Kuttner, famous for his innumerable pseudonyms? Heinlein? Sturgeon? None of the theories seemed to add up. The name itself provided no clue. ("Cordwainer" is an archaic term meaning "leather-worker" or "shoemaker.")
The hubbub died down within a few months, and the unknown Mr. Smith and his remarkable story receded into obscurity and might have remained there forever but for Frederik Pohl, not only a writer but an editor of s-f anthologies. Pohl knew about "Scanners" because he had had a story in that same issue of
and he republished it in 1952 in a paperback called
Beyond the End of Time,
a fine fat collection that also included work by Bradbury, Asimov, van Vogt, and Heinlein. Science-fiction paperbacks were few and far between back then, and everybody who liked s-f pounced on the Pohl anthology. Thousands of readers who had never so much as heard of
now discovered Cordwainer Smith and clamored for more of his work.
They would have to wait a few years. Nothing more was heard of the mysterious Cordwainer Smith until the autumn of 1955, when
Galaxy Science Fiction,
one of the leading s-f magazines of the day, offered the second Smith story: the eccentric, powerful little tale, "The Game of Rat and Dragon." Very likely Fred Pohl had some involvement in this, too, for he was a close friend of Horace Gold,
editor, and probably facilitated contact between the writer and Smith.
And then, beginning in 1957, a torrent of Cordwainer Smith stones came forth, each of them told in the same startlingly individual way as the first two, and—as gradually became apparent—each set in the same astonishingly original future Universe. There was one in 1957, two in 1958, four in 1959, one in 1960. and, between 1961 and 1965, sixteen more, most of them meaty novellas. They appeared in a wide range of science-fiction magazines, from the most minor (the short-lived
) to the top of the line
Fantasy and Science
Pohl, who had replaced Horace Gold as editor of
in 1961, published most of the major ones, such instantly hailed masterpieces as "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," "Think Blue, Count Two," and "'The Dead Lady of Clown Town." It was obvious by now to everyone involved with science fiction that a major writer was at work in our midst.
A little information about him was beginning to leak out, too. Some time in 1963 word emerged that "Smith" was a pseudonym for one Paul Linebarger, who lived in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., and had some sort of involvement with the national military or espionage establishment. When the World Science Fiction Convention was held in Washington that year, Linebarger was not among those present, but Fred Pohl arranged for a small group of writers—I was not among them, alas—to visit him at his house. It was the only time, I believe, that he had any personal contact with the world of professional science-fiction publishing.
The extent to which the details of Paul Linebarger's life remained unknown even after that can be seen from the review I wrote in 1964 of the first Cordwainer Smith novel,
(which was actually a section of the larger work later published as
"Rumor has it that the author of the stories appearing under the byline of 'Cordwainer Smith' is a military man who has spent much of his life in the Orient and who now holds a high position in the Pentagon. However, I have a theory of my own.
"I think that Cordwainer Smith is a visitor from some remote period of the future, living among us perhaps as an exile from his own era or perhaps just as a tourist, and amusing himself by casting some of his knowledge of historical events into the form of science fiction. . . .
"The evidence is partly stylistic. Cordwainer Smith writes a strange, eerie prose, which though grammatical does not appear to be ordinary in any manner. Astonishingly flat declarative statements alternate with wildly soaring prose; syntax is odd and often distorted; in every way, there seems to be an alien mind putting the words together.
"The structure of the stories, too, is unconventional. Most science fiction writers go to some length to explain what is happening in their stories, and what the background details mean. Smith does a little of this, but only enough to make his work intelligible. The rest he takes for granted, as though it is
tiresomely familiar to him that he does not see the need to spell out the details.
revealing thing, though, is the fact that every Cordwainer Smith story fits into a common framework—from the first one, published in 1950, on. Aside from this novel, there are about a dozen longish novelettes and a good many short stories in the Smith
so far, and this entire voluminous output hangs together. Smith hops across a span of perhaps fifteen thousand years, zigzagging to tell in detail a story that he has encapsulated in a sentence or two of an earlier story, but his work is always consistent. One can examine his first story or his second, or his third, and see the seeds of the tenth or twentieth. Nor is any story really complete in itself; it refers back and forth to the others, each a segment out of a vast and bewildering whole.
"It is frightening and a little implausible to think that Cordwainer Smith, circa 1948, was able to visualize an imaginary universe with such detail that he could spend the next decade and a half inventing internally consistent and externally consistent stories about it. I prefer to believe that Smith is merely making use of historical or mythical material that he learned from childhood on—spinning out for us the equivalents of the
or the courtship of Miles Standish.
"The book at hand, which appeared in shorter form last year in
is typical of his output. Maddeningly oblique, stunningly evocative, it teases and taunts, giving us an incomplete story with little hint of the real nature of the events. Though it defies coherent summary, it fascinates and compels. Rod McBan, a Parsifal-like innocent from the planet known as Old North Australia, where every man is a millionaire, escapes execution as a mental defective through some maneuver not readily intelligible to the reader. Then a computer induces him to execute a coup in futures of stroon, the immortality drug that is the source of Old North Australia's wealth, and he ends up so rich that he buys the planet Earth, again for uncertain motivations. He comes to Earth and is spirited away by the cat girl C'mell, one of Smith's most enchanting creations. Here the book ends, with a clear promise of more to come.