Rebecca's Reviews > The Best of Cordwainer Smith

The Best of Cordwainer Smith by Cordwainer Smith
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did not like it
bookshelves: scifi, abandoned-ship

Whoa, I file this under giving-sci-fi-a-bad-name. At first I just found it not my cup of tea. I don't go in for short stories or mythical far future stuff to begin with. And Smith is so obsessed with moralizing about traditional gender roles it borders on misogyny. But I tried to persevere and finish this for the SF Masterworks group.

Then. Then I got to the story "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal" which holds the dubious honor of being the most hateful piece of fiction I have ever read. It's literally about GAY MONSTERS FROM SPACE COMING TO GET US. Not even in a metaphorical way. It's... not subtle. So the premise is on some far away planet "femininity became carcinogenic" (!) and thanks to another sci-fi standby, a cold-hearted woman scientist, all the women transgendered into men. Cue B-movie as produced by the Family Research Council.

"Since they did not have the rewards of family life, they became
strutting cockerels, who mixed their love with murder, who blended
their songs with duels, who sharpened their weapons and who earned the
right to reproduce within a strange family system which no decent
Earth-man would find comprehensible... The family, as they recalled
it, was filth and abomination which they were resolved to wipe out if
they should ever meet it."

"Mankind could not meet the terrible people of Arachosia without the
people of Arachosia following them home and bringing to mankind a
grief greater than grief, a craziness worse than mere insanity, a
plague surpassing all imaginable plagues."

Hoooooly crap. I felt dirty just retyping that. This from a man who is widely considered a visionary and master of the genre. I don't want to censor his writing or lessen the inspiration readers have taken from him, but it makes me sad that amidst the rave reviews I couldn't find one single reference or discussion online regarding his gender issues, let alone this virulent homophobia. Scifi community, you're letting me down!
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Reading Progress

May 25, 2010 – Started Reading
May 25, 2010 – Shelved
May 25, 2010 – Shelved as: scifi
May 30, 2010 – Finished Reading
January 17, 2016 – Shelved as: abandoned-ship

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Oli (new) - rated it 4 stars

Oli Freke I think you've missed the point and are being rather over-sensitive! It's just one sci-fi 'what if', and it didn't come across to me as a homophobic attack at all. More like an exaggerated war-like Viking culture gone wrong.

message 2: by EA (new)

EA Solinas Oli wrote: "I think you've missed the point and are being rather over-sensitive! It's just one sci-fi 'what if', and it didn't come across to me as a homophobic attack at all. More like an exaggerated war-like..."

Not to mention what a world would be like if it didn't have any feminine influence at all, just giant seas of testosterone.

The gayness of the people of that planet is also due to necessity rather than normal orientation, so it's not really comparable to actual gay people.

The biggest problem that I saw was that I don't think Smith really understood intersexuality, because the klopt are really more hermaphroditic than male.

Carl Sigh. Part of me understands where the OP is coming from, and part of me thinks the OP is being too presentist when it comes to working out how to read materials from another era.

I suppose if Smith/Linebarger had a track record of writing copious amounts of material focusing on gender and sexuality, and all of it with a similar slant, I would find "Suzdal" to be evidence of a disturbing ideologue. However, I don't, since he clearly is not if you read more than just this one story (and too bad the OP doesn't see the worth of Smith/Linebarger's work in general). In the story that was singled out, to a large extent I see a man of his times in his attitudes about homosexuality. Sure, I'm both sad about how people thought about this in his day and happy that things have changed, but the story is not about homosexuality--however glaring the stereotypical presentations of the Arachosian Klopts might be--it's about using time to defeat an enemy. The turtle crew members still stick with me as a brilliant idea in the context of a Smithian universe with its particular ideas about space travel and how humanity might adapt to the time scales required. Likewise, the solution of taking advantage time dilation to create a defending civilization of a species that will breed and evolve quickly enough to protect humanity is perfectly logical and, in the context of 1950s science fiction, brilliant. Not recognizing this--and Smith is very aware of the time factor when it comes to space travel, as evidenced by seemingly ALL of his other stories--is missing the forest for the trees.

That said . . . why Smith/Linebarger decided to make his antagonists in the "Suzdal" story a race of homosexuals I don't know. At the very least, you have to admit that in the context of the universe of this story he at least provided a rather rock-solid in-universe rationalization as to how this race came into being. From a 21st century perspective, I can easily single out cringeworthy descriptions (the unfortunate piece de resistance: "They, themselves, were bearded homosexuals, with rouged lips, ornate earrings, fine heads of hair, and very few old men among them."--Yikes . . .) and thinking about what such a society would be like (e.g., "The little boys somehow realizing that they would never grow up to have sweethearts, to have wives, to get married, to have daughters."). However, at the very least, I think if you went back and read what the standard take of homosexuality was among educated mainstream society ca. 1955ish, you wouldn't find anything unusual about how Smith talks about the Klopts--it is, for better or (granted, mostly) worse, a logical extrapolation of the thinking of his day. To dismiss someone as being a creature of their times is surely a mistake.

And ultimately, for the purposes of the "Suzdal" story overall it doesn't matter that the Arachosians are queer, despite how much space Smith devotes to describing the "tragedy" of how they came to being (that's not to deny that it's an interesting point to query, since he cleary spent considerable time working out how they came to being--though the answer to why he did so it might say as much about what he thought his audience expected as much as it does about his own thinking, and I rather expect they were in agreement). Frankly, on rereading that story I'm still not entirely sure what message he might have been trying to convey, if any, though if I were to hazard a guess based on Suzdal's life, the Klopts' entire existence, and the cat civilization's as presented, it's simply that actions proceed by their own internal logic and the outcome of that logic is not something that we can always predict. Quite a thoughtful story, in fact, even if there are some dated elements that are offensive by early 21st century standards.

Moonglum I also felt uncomfortable with this particular story. I like Cordwainer Smith alot, but I thought the story you mention was bad, though there were several other equally bad stories in this collection.,Good sci-fi stands up to time. This story doesn't, but others, like 'A Game of Rat and Dragon', or 'The Ballad of Lost C'mell', or 'A Planet Named Shayol' do work well today, both because of Smith's language, because of the influence of world folklore, literature, and myth on his stories, and because of his compassion for marginalized beings.

James I'm going to have to agree with Oli Freke and Ea Solinas here, in that this reviewer clearly missed the point, and is judging Smith and the Suzdal story on her own prejudices. As Solinas points out, the Arachosians are suffering from a forced homosexuality, and are not simply regular, everyday gay folk. Thus to assume this story reflects anything Smith might have thought about ordinary homosexuals in his own society is completely unfounded, and calling it "hateful" is absolutely ridiculous. This is speculative fiction. Smith was speculating on what would happen to a culture made up only of males who then (assuming most were heterosexual, as is the norm for humans) would be necessarily frustrated in their natural romantic and sexual inclinations. That he concludes this would result in a twisted and monstrous society would, if anything, more reasonably point to a kind of misandry, as he's suggesting men on their own could not preserve a healthy culture. But, as I said, it's speculative fiction, and doesn't really need any defense beyond that.

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