We the Underpeople

Posted by : atcampbell | On : February 20, 2007

We the Underpeople by Cordwainer Smith

There were 9 people present at the discussion of We The Underpeople by Cordwainer Smith. Everybody read some portion of the book. A lot of people have read some of the stories that make up We The Underpeople, and other Cordwainer Smith’s stories before, sometimes decades ago. So the discussion revolved not so much around We The Underpeople, as around Cordwainer Smith’s writing in general.

Most people in the group loved it. What they liked about Smith’s stories was their political subtext and his manner of storytelling. The latter, everybody agreed, is unusual. It seems as if Smith wasn’t so much writing novels and stories in the traditional Western sense, as creating a set of myths. People familiar with Paul Linebarger’s (Cordwainer Smith’s real name) biography inferred that his storytelling style was inspired by Chinese culture, with which he became very familiar during his stay in China. Several readers remarked that Smith’s stories were structured as Chinese parables. They are set in mythical time. Everything in them has happened a long, long time ago, and the heroic feats of the characters have been exaggerated to mythical proportions. And the ostensible purpose of Smith’s stories is to enlighten the readers about what really happened. “I’m sure you know the story of C’mell. Everybody knows the story of C’mell. Well, you think you know it, but this is what really happened.” (That’s not a real quote from the book — that’s how one reader paraphrased Cordwainer Smith’s approach.)

Some people compared Cordwainer Smith’s storytelling style with that of Stanislaw Lem’s in Cyberiad. Like Lem, Smith creates fables, myths and legends rather than conventional stories. And like Cyberiad, this story collection does not feel dated despite having been written several decades ago, as it does not have specific technology in it that would date it. “The computers are disembodied voices,” said a reader. “There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no concept of how big it is. Contemporary authors would throw in tubes and knobs and dials, and it would date it.

Cordwainer Smith’s storytelling style did not appeal to everybody in the group. As one person pointed out, “Norstrilia didn’t have much of a plot. A stupid boy wanders around and people and animals tell him what to do. He is completely passive. He doesn’t have an original thought in his head. He only does what others tells him to do.” This led to a debate whether that was intentional and supposed to be enjoyed, or if it was a critical flaw of Cordwainer Smith’s writing. (I find myself in the latter camp.)

Reader 1. [The protagonist’s passivity] was part of the point. What he was trying to portray, is how easily people fall into doing what they are told, and not questioning.

Reader 2. I can see that, but most people like to read about take-charge individuals.

Reader 3. But he wanted something — he wanted the stamp! And then the Cat guy tells him what to do, and the next thing he doesn’t even want the stamp! The only time he had a definite desire, it got brainwashed out.

Reader 2. The protagonists are really not active or interesting.

Reader 3. Even in one of my favorite stories, Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, the girl who activates the defense mechanism only sits and does what she’s told. She might as well be replaced with a machine.

Reader 4 pointed out that Chinese mythos and Native American mythos are structured the same way. The characters wander here and there until the event happens. That way the characters, and the listener learn about the world they live in. And the world where Cordwainer Smith’s stories take place is, by everyone’s admission, quite rich and interesting to learn about.

Passivity of the characters notwithstanding, at least half of the people who were present at the discussion count Cordwainer Smith among their favorite writers. It is my impression that those were the people who were well educated in political science, and who were familiar with Paul Linebarger’s biography and his work in China. Perhaps a good understanding of and interest in political science can really enhance one’s enjoyment of Smith’s writing, although I personally thought the politics in Smith’s novels and stories were quite transparent and did not require a great sophistication to understand. Political figures in all those stories were more like symbols than real people with complex agendas.

It was also acknowledged that he influenced several generations of science fiction writers, such as Ballard and Delany, all the New Wave people, as well as Charles Stross. One person in the group, who read Charles Stross’s Glasshouse clearly, felt Cordwainer Smith’s influence on “the deep stuff about psychological warfare” in Glasshouse.

Some people got a chuckle out of the humor in Norstrilia. The whole setup with stroon (an immortality drug) being produced by sick sheep was a bit farcical. Especially the part where if you steal a sheep and smuggle it out of Norstrilia, it gets better and stops making stroon. This led to speculation if Frank Herbert’s spice in Dune is re-cast stroon. Norstrilia was written a lot earlier than Dune, so some readers thought it was conceivable that Herbert borrowed the idea of how the spice is made, from Cordwainer’s stroon.

— Elze Hamilton