Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Space Lords

Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Space Lords

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 38.)

My last entry–oh those many weeks ago, sorry–sparked a discussion about the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction that led a commenter named "Miller" to write:

"How's this for a definition–genre fiction's goal is to get the reader turning the pages through compelling plot, where literary fiction gets page-turning by compelling language/structure/themes?"

That's as good a distinction as I've read, and like most cut-and-dried distinctions it breaks down within a few minutes of taking it out for a ride. It works for, say, Issac Asimov but the road gets bumpy around Ray Bradbury, if not before. (I'm guessing a lot of you reading this have refutations beginning "But what about" already formed.) "Miller" pretty much admits the problems in his/her next paragraph so it's not like I'm breaking anyone's heart here. As genre fiction gains more mainstream respectability and genre-inspired literary works become more common, maybe the time for making such distinctions has passed, as Times Literary Supplement critic Michael Saler argues in a review of David Hajdu's comic censorship history The Ten Cent Plague and Michael Chabon's essay collection Maps And Legends. In fact, this pretty much seems to be the central thesis of the Chabon book, which now queues up behind The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen Of The Road in a stack of Chabon books I'm eager to read. Did the distinction ever really apply? Certainly the golden age of pulps created a set of formulas and expectations and attracted its share of hacks, but it's not like there was ever a default voice for genre fiction. Only the most deadened professional writers don't, on some level, want to write well and authors have long put their best literary spin on the genres of their choice, sometimes quite successfully. Sometimes not. Which brings us Cordwainer Smith, specifically the five-story collection Space Lords. Unmistakably the work of a writer as concerned with literary style as compelling storytelling, the collection will confound readers looking for breezy plotting. Take "Drunkboat," for instance, in which the hero, emerging near-crazed from an interdimensional journey through "space-three," describes his experience upon being asked "Where did you go?":

"Where crazy lanterns stared with idiot eyes. Where the waves washed back and forth with the dead of all the ages. Where the stars became a pool and I swam in it. Where blue turns to liquor, stronger than alcohol, wilder than music, fermented with the red red reds of love. I saw all the things that men have ever thought they saw, but it was me who really saw them. I've heard phosphorescence singing and tides that seemed like crazy cattle clawing their way out of the ocean, their hooves beating the reefs. You will not believe me, but I found Floridas wilder than this, where the flowers had duman skins and eyes like big cats."

The hero's name is Artyr Rambo and any resemblance to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud is not at all coincidental. "The Drunken Boat" attempts to recontextualize Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre" into a science fiction setting, specifically the far-future universe shared by almost all of Smith's stories. (More on that in a bit.) A poem about a sinking ship, "Le Bateau Ivre" is written in the voice of the ship itself, recalling the many wonders it has seen as its "life" nears its end. Here's a verse translated into English by Oliver Bernard

I have seen the low-hanging sun speckled with mystic horrors. Lighting up long violet coagulations, Like the performers in very-antique dramas Waves rolling back into the distances their shiverings of venetian blinds!

The poem cycles through one fantastic image after another before the ship resigns itself to death: "I can no more, bathed in your langours, O waves / Sail in the wake of the carriers of cottons." I don't know what, beyond sheer admiration, possessed Smith to experiment with giving this a science fiction twist and I'm not sure Smith does either. "This is one of my boldest attempts at englishing some of the great poetry of France," he writes in the preface. "I hope that if you like my version, you will go read Rimabud himself, later on." Nor am I sure why it should take 30 pages to accomplish what Rimbaud gets done in 100 lines. It reads more like an exercise than a story that needed telling. And that's my main complaint with Smith in general, or at least the stories I encountered here. He strives for literariness but finds lifelessness instead. Billed as "a rendition of the true narrative of Joan Of Arc," "The Dead Lady Of Clown Town," one of Smith's most famous efforts, pushes forth all kinds of interesting notions about destiny, artificial intelligence, and the borders of humanity but they all just lie there on the page. There's no momentum to the telling and the occasionally lyrical but just as often clunky prose doesn't offer enough by way of compensation. (And while it does feature the trial and execution of a martyr named D'Joan, what its central scene, in which a bunch of animal-human hybrids die one-by-one–with each death described in some detail–after demanding rights and speaking out for love, has to do with Joan and the Siege Of Orleans eludes me.) Maybe a greater knowledge of Smith's Instrumentality Of Mankind universe would enrich my appreciation. The setting for the lion's share of his fiction, it's a world 14,000 years in the future in which an all-powerful aristocracy controls the galaxy, usually quite cruelly. Inspired, again per the preface, by Dante's Inferno, the eponymous planet of "A Planet Named Shayol" is a penal colony in which the prisoners are used to grow extra organs for harvesting. For my money, it's the best of the bunch. The inspiration seems to come from the Inferno's fifth canto's stanza about Paolo and Francesca, adulterous lovers doomed to be physically inseparable in hell, buffeted about by the inconstant wind. Smith takes just the germ of the idea and builds on it rather than trying to squeeze the whole of The Divine Comedy into a science fiction trapping that was never meant to hold it. It makes no apologies for trying to be at once science fiction and literature, a quality Space Lords doesn't achieve often enough. But the potential's there and I don't doubt that Smith's someone who helped writers like Chabon and Jonathan Lethem see it. A few more notes about Smith: In case you couldn't have guessed, that's not his real name. Born Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, he was a Professor Of Asiatic studies at Johns Hopkins, a friend of Chiang Kai-Shek, and an advisor to John F. Kennedy. He also achieved the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army and wrote the book on psychological warfare. Literally:

That, for better or worse, is not in the box.

Next: The Alien Condition by various authors

Then: The Blind Spot by Autin Hall and Homer Eon Flint

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