Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, November 12, 2012

1965: Space Lords (Smith, Cordwainer)

The faults and triumphs of absurdity and poetry in SF (3/5)

Last year in 2011, I picked up the novel Norstrilia (1975) to discover why it was held in high regard among older science fiction readers. After grudgingly completing the novel and surmising that only nostalgia could provoke such admiration for the novel, I gave it a sold two-star rating and suggested to myself that a collection of short stories by Cordwainer Smith may hold some redemption. Here is where I stared down my copy of Space Lords and swore at it not to annoy be as much as Norstrilia did in the prior year: absurdity springing up everywhere, bad poetry and ballads spread throughout, and a plot direction with less bearing than a drunk giraffe.


Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Benjacomin Bozart, the Senior Warden of the Guild of Thieves on the planet Viole Siderea, has been training for two hundred years along with three hundred thousand people to rob the riches from the wealthiest planet of Norstrilia. His tourist disguise gives him access to a calm people, but the secrets divulged are unknowingly laced with subterfuge of their own. All his planning is null is he meets the psychotic minks of Mother Hitton. 24 pages ----- This is when absurdity can be effective, when one absurd plot is supplanted by another even more absurd countermeasure. It’s silly and bit scary, but nevertheless effective.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1964, novella) – 1/5 – Descending from the New City to a realm of surreal underpeople and a bodiless computer, the human therapist Elaine is oblivious to her prophetic stature to the Old City denizens of human-form: rats, bears, goats, snakes, and bison. Through doors and meeting a wider cast of eccentric characters both human and underhuman, Elaine finds herself back on Earth entwined in fate and mentality with the once dog underhuman D’joan. 77 pages ----- Absurdity typically has a difficult uphill battle with aimlessness, and here is where aimlessness rears its head and leaves the reader asking for logical progression and direction.

Drunkboat (1963, novelette) – 2/5 – Lord Crudelta, of the Instrumentality, straps Artyr Rambo on a rocket, tells him his love is dead or dying, and leaves him to his own means to get to Earth. A hospital on Earth finds Rambo on their grounds without a ship and without clothes. He mindlessly ignores hospital attire and performs swimming strokes on the room’s floor, while the doctors are baffled. When Lord Crudelta comes to Earth, his dirty actions are apparent. 32 pages ----- The “how” is usually regarded as a null point when the “why” overshadows an absurd plot. But here even the “why” fails to produce on more levels than one.

The Ballard of Lost C’mell (1962, novelette) – 3/5 – Lord Jestocost is inspired like no one else to help the underprivileged underpeople and he has just found his ticket to benevolent emancipation using his telepathy. C’mell utters the name “Ee-telly-kelly” during her father’s funeral and Lord Jestocost summons her to divulge the same name of her people’s secret leader. Once ethereally summoned, the two strategize how to develop the underpeople’s rights under the noses of the Lords. 21 pages ----- It’s at all typical when as absurd story has a good humanistic thread woven into it, but the non-corporeal leader of the underpeople seems too whimsical to be dramatic.

A Planet Named Shayol (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Mercer has committed a heinous crime against the imperial family and is sent to an orbital hospital to prepare for the tough life on the prison planet of Shayol. The deprivation on the planet is experienced by all who reside there, all their needs taken care of by the skin-piercing dromozoa. Once locally infected, each site grows a human limb or organ, which is lopped off and sent back to the hospital. Death is their only hope. 38 pages ----- Here’s an excellent horror/absurd story where the horror builds dramatically only to be deftly cut short of a decent ending. Best story in the collection!


On the subject of bad poetry and ballads, Cordwainer Smith has this to say in his epilogue:

“One last word about the bits of incidental verse. I am one of the most minor poets of America, but I thoroughly enjoy incorporating it into science fiction. I am not happy about the 1960s and with the terrible divorce which now exists between poetry and people in most of the English-speaking world. Something is wrong. Perhaps the poets. Perhaps the people. Perhaps you. Perhaps me” (206).

He may like to rhyme and perform repetition, but those are about the only poetry skills the man possesses. He says he “used Chinese, Persian, and Japanese verse forms with English words and rhythms” (206) but much of this was probably lost on the reader.  Then again, I guess it depends on why the reader is reading the book. If it’s for nostalgia, then the poetry may be a brilliant addition to the wonderfully absurd stories, but if you’re approaching the short story collection with a perceptive and discerning eye, then the quality of the stories may match the quality of the poetry.

A fantastic cover by Jack Gaughan (Pyramid Books, 1968)!
I’ll skip any more Cordwainer in the future but I will preserve this copy on my shelves for the two haunting tales which sandwich the lesser tales between them.


  1. Cordwainer Smith is certainly one to inspire different reactions. I for one LOVE the guy's work. I find it lyrical and exciting and it blows me away. I read Norstilia earlier this year and was blown away by it. Space Lords was my first experience with his work and it was Dead Lady of Clown Town, one of your least favorite stories, that made me a fan. It remains one of my favorite short stories, period. I read another collection after that and I think that made Norstilia even more enjoyable for me as there are references to so many of these characters in that novel.

    For me there isn't a lot nostalgic about the stories as I've never read anything like Smith's work. His work feels somewhat timeless to me given its unique presentation. He made me care about his characters with his short stories but Norstrilia really kicked that up a notch, especially with C'mell.

    I'm sorry you didn't have the same experience, but that is the fun of reading and discussing books. As you no doubt think I'm crazy at this point you may not be interested, but if you are here is my review of Space Lords:

  2. Haha, there are differing opinions out there other than mine and each one is just as correct as mine... some like Cordwainer, others don't. I can't see the draw, but others see and relish in it--fine for them. I'm sure I like some stories which others would shriek at. Just a matter of taste, like oysters (mmm).

    1. I left this in response to your comment on my site and it seems appropriate to leave here too:

      "I wouldn't go so far as to say you are in the minority. I've seen many who don't feel that his work clicks with them, but I've also come across a lot of people who see what I see and that is something completely special. Does it make him better than a lot of other authors? Not necessarily, he is just one of those who really does it for me, I read his work and by and large it transports me to an interesting place in my imagination. I'm glad you gave him another try even though he didn't end up being to your taste."

  3. I'm just now discovering your blog, I wish I'd discovered you months and months ago!

    I'm sorry to hear Cordwainer Smith didn't work for you. This was the first Smith I read (last year), and I adored it and have since bought 2 more. Yes, it is completely absurd, and I don't usually go for absurdity, but something about his writing style really worked for me. I found Drunkboat very romantic.

  4. Glad you enjoy the diversity of reviews here. I like my fair share of absurdity (a la Fritz Leiber, Douglas Adams or Frederik Pohl) but Cordwainer just struck a raw nerve with me, something which I wish I could put my finger on exactly, but seems to escape me.