Unbearable desolate happiness, without the sting of grief, the wine of rage, the hot fumes of fear

Cordwainer Smith - We the Underpeople

Science fiction was more ambitious in the post-war decades.  Reading the short stories and novels from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, is like watching a whole culture flex its mind, exploring uncharted areas of itself, (disguised as outer space and remote worlds etc., but us all along, always us).  And that was happening in real life as well, but you see it clearest and earliest in all these authors who were twisting and turning all the dials of humanity to see what would happen if..

Cordwainer Smith fits into this somehow.  Not at the center, but in a corner by himself.  The stories collected in We the Underpeople are set in a future that struggles with two great problems: Discrimination and perfection.  The discrimination theme works somewhat, such as when the man-animal hybrids get their own Jesus / Joan of Arc, even if the parallel to the civil rights struggle is a bit obvious.

I’m more fascinated by the perfection theme.  Humanity has rid itself of all risk, creating an anemic culture where nobody is unhappy, but nobody is really happy either, nobody does anything fun or extraordinary.  The rulers try to fix this by reintroducing an acceptable level of artificial risk, but it’s all very clumsy, even tragicomic.

Cordwainer Smith’s language has a rough edge, which I like, and the stories do to, which I don’t, not always.  There’s a garage band feel to it: The energy is beautiful, even when the notes are off.  It’s a good, wild ride, for the most.

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