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When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith

When the People Fell

by Cordwainer Smith

Other authors: Hank Davis (Editor), Frederick Pohl (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Instrumentality of Mankind

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A collection of stories from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, by classic SF author Cordwainer Smith (real name: Paul Linebarger).

I'm not sure I even know where to begin talking about these. Cordwainer Smith is just an odd writer, and nothing one can say about his stories seems to really describe them properly. Well, I guess I'll start off by saying that almost all of the stories in this collection are set in the same sprawling future history, though some are only incidentally connected, while others follow directly on from each other and feature the same characters. It's strange, though, because the things Smith focuses on in building that future history aren't the things that most writers would emphasize. It all feels very strongly connected, with events from one story echoing on into later ones, but the history itself feels underdeveloped. Some specific (and almost always slightly surreal) bits of technology and social development get a lot of attention, but for the most part the details of both technology and society are left quite vague. He includes lots of little touches -- like strange, evocative names for things -- that feel very much like they've come from an unfamiliar, incomprehensibly distant future reality, but those are inevitably blended with elements that feel like mid-20th century America lazily cut-and-pasted onto the future.

Also paradoxical is the fact that, in some ways (and despite the fact that he does focus on some themes that were popular in his time, like psychic abilities, or the idea, in the 50s, that space might be fundamentally hostile to the human psyche), his stories often have something of a timeless feel to them. Partly because of how they barely bother to try to project the technology of their day into the future, and partly because they don't quite feel like what other writers were doing at the time. And yet, many of them have also not aged well, mostly because of the way they handle their female characters. Which is ironic, because I think Smith actually tried harder than most people at the time to write women into his stories. He not only makes a point of including them, he often gives them inner lives, and a fair number of them are intelligent, skilled professionals. And yet, despite all of that, they are still utterly steeped in the unthinking sexism of the author's time, and are viewed through a very, very male gaze. (A gaze, in fact, that clearly likes its women to actually be girls, or at least to look very young and feel very innocent.) There were times when it made me so uncomfortable, I couldn't help wishing he'd just avoided writing women at all. And then there's the story "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal," which is well-written, wonderfully imaginative... and possibly one of the most homophobic things I've ever read in my life. (And, yes, I fully recognize that it's not exactly fair to blame writers for being the products of their times and writing according to the prevailing social attitudes of those times. But it's equally, or probably even more unfair to expect readers not to be products of their times or to blame them for being uncomfortable when encountering unpleasantness in the products of the past. In other words, this is a perfectly valid thing for 21st-century-woman me to be unhappy about.)

Also a bit paradoxical, I think, is the fact that I found very few of these stories, in themselves, to be all that satisfying. There are a few in the middle -- namely, the fantastic "Scanners Live in Vain" and the compellingly disturbing "A Planet Named Shayol" -- which hit some sort of sweet spot and just completely work. But, for the most part, the earlier stories feel interesting and intriguing but seem to me to stop short of actually going anywhere meaningful, while some of the later stories feel longer than they need to be. And yet, despite there being only two stories in this entire 800-plus-page volume that I feel like I can point to and say, "Yeah, that is unambiguously great stuff," my overall feeling, at the end, is surprisingly positive. Those 800-plus pages actually went pretty fast, and left me with the sense that I'd just had an interesting and generally worthwhile experience. If nothing else, I feel like I've now filled in an inexcusable gap in my classic SF reading.

Rating: Based on all of the above, how the heck do I rate this? Considering it as the sum of its parts, I guess I'm going to call it 3.5/5, but as an overall experience, I'm almost tempted to make it 4/5 instead. ( )
  bragan | May 8, 2017 |
I got this book in a Baen eBook Bundle-- for paying twice as much as I'd pay to get one book, I got five. I dimly knew Cordwainer Smith as someone who wrote classic sf, but I didn't have very specific memories of him except enjoying "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal."  This book-- which collects about about half of Smith's short fiction, most of it set in the "Instrumentality of Mankind" future history-- won me over in short order. Even when the stories aren't plot- or character-interesting, the ideas are amazing and lyrical, the prose completely unlike anything else from 1950s sf, the narratives playful with stories layered inside stories. I mean, I love Isaac Asimov, but it's hard to imagine that at the same time that he was churning out robot and Foundation tales, Smith had come up with something as distinctive as this.

It's enough to make me do a story-by-story review, something I don't do much anymore.

"No, No, Not Rogov!"
One of several  World War II-centric stories in the book, this is about a pair of Soviet scientists, their keepers, and the machine they built to read American brainwaves that connected them to something they couldn't have imagined. There's a tragedy of repression and detachment here, hidden under a (perfectly) perfunctory style.

"War No. 81-Q" (Rewritten Version)
In the future, wars are licensed and no one dies. The elaborate mechanics of this premise make the story a delightful and imaginative read, no matter what it actually does with the premise.

"Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon"
These were probably my least favorite stories in the book. The ideas come thick and fast, but too much so: they feel random and arbitrary (though I can't be displeased with the talking bear) rather than part of an immense universe. They're about a couple of German girls launched into space during World War II who crash back down in the far future and end up leading a not-very-interesting revolution against not-well-defined bad guys.

"Scanners Live in Vain"
Apparently I read this before, as I called it a "highlight" in an old review, but I only remembered the vaguest of outlines. I can't tell why, as this story is amazing. The difficulties of love, an incredible and unique future with a cool civilization, a terrible choice. Like the best sf, it reveals to its reader both an unknown world and something of himself. Few stories are this good. And to think that having come up with such a premise, Smith only mined it for one story-- Asimov would have kept the Scanners going with increasingly unnecessary sequels for decades.

"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul"
About Helen America, the first woman to pilot a sleeper ship through space, and her strange love story. Pretty sweet.

"When the People Fell"
Despite giving its (great) title to the collection and some strong imagery, this one doesn't have a lot to offer for some reason. As close to perfunctory as Smith's stories come.

"Think Blue, Count Two"
One of those stories that makes you hate yourself for being a human being, but in a good way. A girl who has the right personality to make anyone think she's their daughter is guarded by a telepathic mouse brain in a plastic cube.

"The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All"
This one is all right again. It gets a little goofy, but I didn't mind too much.

"The Game of Rat and Dragon"
In the future, the only way for ships in deep space to protect themselves against telepathic mind-destroying dragons is to link human telepaths to cats who fly football-sized spaceships that launch light bombs.   Yup, you read that right. Another great idea done well.

"The Burning of the Brain"
Somehow, less happens in this one than you would think.

"From Gustible's Planet"
Delightfully bonkers story about a race of aliens who inadvertently rekindle humanity's carnivorous instincts. Near-genocide has never been so hilarious.

"Himself in Anachron"
A man travels through time backwards, and Smith uses this as an excuse to mess up cause and effect. I'm surprise Steven Moffat hasn't ripped this off for Doctor Who, but it's smart.

"The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal"
This one is still "so mad it has to be brilliant."  I summarized the plot to my wife and her advisor while we were driving together, but that doesn't do it justice. Much love to the turtle people who crew Suzdal's spaceship for generations while he sleeps.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Good, but not as good as the title.

This is pretty similar to "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All". One is a rewritten version of the other, but I'm not sure which way it goes. Maybe it's just because I read it earlier, but "The Colonel" was better. I'm not sure why they're both counted as in-continuity, unlike the two versions of "War No. 81-Q."

"A Planet Named Shayol"
The Instrumentality's prison-planet turns out to be the most horrifying thing I could have imagined: a planet where people are infected with a cancer that makes them grow body parts that can be harvested to use as spare organs-- and they live forever. Gross, but triumphant.

"On the Gem Planet"
The first of three stories about Casher O'Neill, a man wandering the galaxy to find the resources to reclaim his home planet from his dictator uncle. In this one, he helps some people figure out what a horse is for. There's more to than you'd expect from that description, I guess.

"On the Storm Planet"
Casher O'Neill returns in one of my favorite stories in the book, a harrowing journey into a house no one ever returns from... because no one ever wants to. The twists never stop, and Casher is a great protagonist, and he gets an ever greater companion here.

"On the Sand Planet"
The resolution to the Casher stories is not everything it could have been. There are some great moments, but then he discovers a secret telepath city which doesn't have anything to do with anything as far as I could tell. There is room for dozens of Casher adventures between "Gem Planet" and "Storm Planet"; someone should write them.

"Three to a Given Star"
Three people have their minds turned into the controls of a spaceship, a giant robot, and a terrible weapon. It's epic and heartfelt.

"Down to a Sunless Sea"
This is the only story in the book where looking at the title didn't remind when what it was about. Either it was bad, it was forgettable, or I was in a hurry because the book was almost over.

There are just a few non-Instrumentality stories at the end. "Western Science Is So Wonderful," about a Martian demon who tries to join the Chinese Communist Party but moves to Connecticut instead is the best, but the only uninteresting one is the original version of "War No. 81-Q." Despite not being set in the Instrumentality, most have the same feel, and I imagine its tiny things that keep them "out" of that continuity.

When I finished this, I immediately knew I needed to read more Cordwainer Smith; he's the first new writer I've read in a long time who provoked such a reaction. An sf great whose career was tragically short.
  Stevil2001 | Sep 7, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cordwainer Smithprimary authorall editionscalculated
Davis, HankEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pohl, FrederickIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kidd, TomCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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There is a Baen collection called When the People Fell.

This is not the short story When the People Fell. Do not combine the two.
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"A sweeping saga of the centuries to come ... from the bizarre dark age that followed the global war, to the new civilization that arose from the ashes and reached out to colonize the stars." "At first, the colonists use ships with gigantic sails, cruising on the waves of starlight, their captains having to become something part human and part machine; then later moving by planoforming ships which travel faster than light, but must defend themselves against the malevolent, mind-devouring creatures lurking in the dark between the stars." "Then came the reign of the all-powerful Lords of the Instrumentality, who ruled Earth and its colony worlds with ruthless benevolence, suffocating the human spirit for millennia - until the time of the Rediscovery of Man, when the strange, lost concept of freedom was reborn."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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