The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

R. A. Lafferty: Winner of the 2002 Cordwainer Smith Foundation "Rediscovery" Award

Why did our jury of Robert Silverberg, Scott Edelman, Gardner Dozois, and John Clute select R. A. Lafferty for the 2002 Rediscovery Award?

I speak of an eccentric author who, beginning in 1959—in his 40s, rather late to start a career in science fiction—went on to write more than 200 short stories, which were collected in at least 19 short story collections, and 21 novels. The first three of those novels appeared the same year, 1968—Past Master, The Reefs of Earth, and Space Chantey—the very first of those being nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

He was praised in the '60s by Roger Zelazny, Samuel R, Delany and Harlan Ellison, and embraced as part of the New Wave, but he was never part of any wave. He was a unique teller of tall tales, and we were privileged that he decided to make his home in our genre. Neil Gaiman, writing in The Washington Post, said that he was "a genius, a oddball, a madman," and that "he was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that there ever was."

And at the time he was working in a genre all of his own, the field saw him as one of us, so much so that he was nominated for the Hugo Award four times, for the Nebula Award seven times and for the Philip K. Dick Award as well. He received the Hugo Award in 1973 for his short story "Eurema's Dam," and later on, when he was no longer writing, the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. During the end of his life, small press publishers championed him, and for that we must all be grateful.

He never wrote on anything but a manual typewriter, and he never learned to drive, but still, he drove us to see new visions of science fiction and fantasy. Speaking of his own work, he said that the life of a writer was like "dropping rose petals down the Grand Canyon and listening for the landing."

— Scott Edelman, speaking for the award jurors at the Awards ceremony,
September 1, 2002, at ConJose

(Read the full text of Scott Edelman's remarks at his website.)

Frederick Pohl's Acceptance Speech:

"Thank you, Scott. On Ray's behalf, I'm glad to accept it, for I've long been an admirer of R. A. Lafferty. I'd like to tell you a little bit about his writing career. It was not always marked with great success. For the first five or six years of it, his only reward was a check for a few pennies a word. His stories hardly ever were much more than a thousand words. I'll save you the trouble of multiplying it out -- that meant maybe twenty-five or thirty dollars at a crack, maybe eight or ten times a year, for some of the brightest and freshest stories the world has ever seen. I know how little Ray was paid in those early days, because I was the editor who accepted them. [Audience laughter]

"Then to make his problems worse, he took some bad advice: he took on a literary agent, who told him at once that his only salvation would be to get out of this dead-end field of science fiction and write folk stories... Ray did as he was advised. So for the next few years he appeared seldom in any science fiction publication. I don't think he appeared anywhere outside either.

"Fortunately, he then fired that agent. Then things began to pick up. Other magazines opened the floor, book publishers began to bring out his stories in volume collections, and finally critics began to notice that he was alive, and so did the people giving awards.

"He would have treasured this particular award, and on his behalf I would like to thank the judges for giving it to him. I just wish he had received it and some of the others a little earlier in his life. Thank you."

About R. A. Lafferty

"My brain reels," moaned Homer the man. "Reality melts away."

Photo of R. A. LaffertyThis line from Lafferty's "The Hole in the Corner" captures my experience within a few sentences of reading his tall-tale style. Guess I'd have to add that I start giggling as well. Or guffawing. But after a while he has me thinking.... His dreamlike stories reveal a world that is truly strange. In browsing the web, I found more than one comment likening Lafferty's strangeness to Cordwainer Smith's. Myself, I found Lafferty's worlds required a greater stretch than my father's, but then I grew up inside my father's world. Lafferty is definitely an original.

A Midwestern Catholic who lived most of his life in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lafferty was born in 1914, a year after Cordwainer Smith. He died in 2002, but stopped writing in 1984 after a stroke. Even a few years ago, many of his works were out of print, but now you can find many of them somewhere on the net.

His books at

(Click on the title or the image of a book to go to Amazon. Once there, you have to click on the title to get to the page with reviews.)

Cover of 900 GrandmothersNine Hundred Grandmothers

This collection of some two dozen of Lafferty's stories is an excellent introduction to his writing. One reader's review at Amazon commented that out of the perhaps 10,000 books that the person had read in his lifetime, this one was the favorite!


Lafferty in Orbit Cover of Lafferty in Orbit

This is a series of stories that appeared in Orbit, edited by Damon Knight. Side-splitting humor plus the quirkiness and depth you always have with Lafferty.



Okla Hannali Cover of Okla Hannali

This beloved historical novel about the Choctaw's adaptations to the ever-changing demands of white encroachment isn't science fiction per se, but its exploration of how societies modify is a common SF theme. Being written by R. A. Lafferty, it is funny as well. A gem that deserves to be better known.

Amazon had many more listings for Lafferty.

Some websites on R. A. Lafferty

A thoughtful essay on Lafferty, at, extended my understanding in many directions. Good place to start; includes some lengthy quotes, so you can get a flavor of R. A. Lafferty.

The R. A. Lafferty Devotional Page at
begins " Reading a Lafferty story is a full body experience. After a few sentences your brain goes into hyperactivity, your belly is aching from laughter and..." It includes reviews of novels and short stories, a brief bio, accolades of others, and more. By a German fan.

About the Rediscovery Award

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

"The Cordwainer," as the award has been nicknamed, goes to to a science fiction or fantasy writer whose work displays unusual originality, embodies the spirit of Cordwainer Smith's fiction, and deserves renewed attention or 'Rediscovery.' It is awarded annually during Worldcon. Thanks to the organizers, it has been given during the Hugo evenings.

Jurors for this year's Award are four of the most distinguished and encyclopedic minds in contemporary science fiction, all Hugo winners themselves: Robert Silverberg, Gardner Dozois, John Clute, and Scott Edelman. They were free to choose any writer, living or dead, for the Award. 


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NEW! His spy thriller  Atomsk, written as Carmichael Smith, is now on the Kindle!
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