BOOK REVIEW: The Rediscovery of Man, by Cordwainer Smith

Rating: 2 out of 5.
  • A Collection of 11 Short Stories
  • Gollancz SF Masterworks edition published in 1999
  • Deeply Weird Space Opera
  • 365 pages

What is the future of Man? Will it be a glorious era of enlightenment and immortality, or will it be an untold horror of slavery and oppression. The answer lies somewhere between the two, and is certainly far stranger than you might imagine . . .

As I continue my delve into Gollancz SF Masterworks series, I am confronted by a worrisome possibility. Maybe I don’t actually enjoy classic SF all that much. Certainly I have a different definition of what constitutes a masterwork than the good people at Gollancz. There are plenty of books I would consider landmarks of the genre that have not (yet) been reprinted under the banner, and even leaving aside the obvious issues of rights, there are inevitably oversights. On the flip side, there have been many Masterworks that I have not enjoyed. Now, a classic of the genre is not determined by my enjoyment alone, and many are the books that, while not enjoyable, I recognise for their position in the canon of science fiction. Take Dune for example. It absolutely deserves the pedestal it is put on, but there are numerous holes to be poked in the actual writing of the book. And then there are books like The Rediscovery of Man. Books that not only did I find deeply unenjoyable, but that I struggle to find canonical merit it.

Almost all my issues stem from one glaring problem, and that is the writing itself. As the introduction and afterword go to great lengths to say, Smith was heavily influenced by Chinese narratives. Now, I’ve read some modern Chinese SF and largely enjoyed it, and while there are some elements of it that are very different to what I am used to as an Anglophone reader, nothing is quite as bizarre as what Smith does in this collection. He has a fascination with shoving invented words into sentences. Ideas are flung around at random with no effort made to explain them. The writing itself is dense, but the stylistic choices make these stories all but impenetrable. Only two days after finishing the book, I’m struggling to recall any details. I cannot visualise anything that occurs in this book, no matter how poetic the prose declares itself to be. That, in case it wasn’t apparent, is a massive problem.

Not everything is about the writing itself, however. The stories take place over several thousand years (and I am grateful for the included timeline). The glimpses and hints we get of the wider world are tantalising. But that’s all we get. Glimpses. For actual stories, what we have are bizarre Joan of Arc retellings, and far too many stories about cats. Seriously, Smith has a thing for putting cats and cat people in his stories. As someone who would happily orchestrate the execution of every animal companion in science fiction, this was never going to go down well with me. Less cats and more structure would have made these stories so much better.

It’s inevitable that a book won’t work for every reader, and here is one that absolutely did not work for me.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also like:
Space Chantey, by R. A. Lafferty
Stars and Bones, by Gareth L. Powell
Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

3 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: The Rediscovery of Man, by Cordwainer Smith

  1. Omg just beam all those little companions over to my ship, no reason to kill them!

    Curious thought about what makes a book qualify. I did some Googling to see if there is an American publisher doing the same thing. It’s the same books through the Gateway imprint. (They are all also available on Kindle through Gateway for fairly cheap prices, cool for accessibility’s sake). There are what, 190 ish of these books? What qualified them? A question applicable to any collection within any genre though.

    What I was trying to do was compare another publisher’s list of classics (Signet or ACE or something) to see what titles they used for more selective collections. After the “popular” classics, what’s left in the canon? Are they just trying to sell more books or do they have merit? And I wrote an essay, great

    (Also you might be interested in the fact that your blog pops up as the fifth item on Google page one for this collection, so keep doing whatever you’re doing haha)

    Like

    1. Ah, the sweet smell of cult success. Thank you algorithms.

      Regarding the Masterworks, I believe they are largely books of historical importance to the genre (like Dune), and science fiction that has fallen out of print. When they get the rights from an author, or their estate, they publish as many of that author’s works as they can. Digital and physical rights operate differently though, which is why there’s a Gateway ebook of an H. Beam Piper work, but no physical version.

      The one that confuses me is Alastair Reynolds’ revelation Space, which had only 13 years between original publication and Masterworks edition. I guess he must have a good agent.

      Like

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