The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

Olaf Stapledon: Winner of the First Annual Cordwainer Smith "Rediscovery" Award (2001)

Here is the award itself:

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

Stapledon scholar Robert Crossley accepting the award on behalf of the Stapledon family:

Bob Crossley with the award

Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg
(photo by Kelly Hart)

The Award Ceremony: Robert Silverberg's Remarks

Fifty years ago, when I was a teenage fan, a story called "Scanners Live in Vain" was published in an obscure and scruffy little science fiction magazine called Fantasy Books, and sent a shock wave through the world of science fiction, such as it was in 1950, a much smaller place.

Nobody there had quite read a story as strange and wonderful as "Scanners Live in Vain," and the talk all year was, "Who wrote that story?" The byline was Cordwainer Smith... Nobody knew who Cordwainer Smith was. The story didn't get a Hugo, because Hugos hadn't been invented yet.

Word came around that Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym, but a pseudonym for whom? We didn't know, and it was not for many years that it turned out that Cordwainer Smith's real name was Paul Linebarger, that he was a mysterious man, a scholar, a diplomat, for all we knew a secret agent.... He had a really remarkable background in scholarship and espionage.

Beginning in 1955 and continuing for a decade thereafter, he brought us a group of astoundingly original short stories and a couple of novels which marked the world of science fiction forever. The influence of Cordwainer Smith's stories has been incalculable.

Well, he left us thirty-five years ago, but his memories and his stories remain with us. The great stories of Cordwainer Smith have been collected in a fine fat volume by the NESFA Press called The Rediscovery of Man. One of his great themes was that far in the future, after many changes in the nature of the human race, we would rediscover that which had led to the civilization of our future.

The two daughters of Paul Linebarger, Rosana and Marcia, have created the Cordwainer Smith Foundation, to preserve the memory of their father and his work but also to further the ideals for which he stood, because he was a profoundly philosophical man who had many important things to say. And one activity of the new Cordwainer Smith Foundation is the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, which is designed to focus new light on an important science fiction or fantasy writer whose major work has in recent years fallen into undeserved obscurity.

The Foundation found four judges to establish the award: John Clute, Scott Edelman, Gardner Dozois, and Robert Silverberg. We had a lively email discussion and arrived at a winner, and it developed after we had chosen our winner, that Paul Linebarger, when he was 19 years old, had written an essay on that writer's work. And I will read an extract from the term paper that he wrote at George Washington University:

The book has the distinction of having the greatest cast of characters and the longest period surveyed of any novel that I have ever read or heard of. The cast of characters includes all men from the present time to the death of man; and the time covered is two thousand million years. . . .

This romance is well worth reading if only for the sheer novelty of it. The grandeur of its conception, whether successfully fulfilled and expressed or not, is not exceeded by any other modern writing I have seen.

The theme of the book is man's search for purpose. All the species and races of men are haunted by the purposelessness of being; and the battle of two billion years is only half-won when men die.

Cordwainer Smith might almost have been talking about his own future work, but in fact he was talking about Last and First Men, by W. Olaf Stapledon, who is the winner of the first Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery award.

The Award Goes to the Stapledon Family in England

Thanks to University of Liverpool Librarian Andy Sawyer for this report:
John Clute gives the award to John Stapledon
John Clute (left) presents the award to John Stapledon, son of Olaf Stapledon

On Monday November 5th, 2001, the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was officially handed over to John Stapledon, the son of the author of Last and First Men, Star Maker, Odd John, and Sirius. John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and one of the award judges, presented the award at a gathering sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation at the Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool, which holds the Olaf Stapledon Archive and the Science Fiction Foundation, and hosted by Andy Sawyer. An exhibition of books by Olaf Stapledon and Cordwainer Smith was shown.

Serena Stapledon holds the award
Mrs Serena Stapledon holding the award

The gathering was brought together to enable the transfer of the award to take place in a short ceremony which would continue the sense of how fundamental the work of Stapledon is to modern science fiction. John Clute said that he, as one of the judges for the Cordwainer, "felt strongly that Stapledon had been a central figure in the great century of science fiction that had now passed, who used the free arena of sf to expound a cosmogony of daunting vastness; and that the young SF readers of 2001 should not let his memory slide away. Hence the Award." Mr Stapledon expressed how honoured he was to receive the award to commemorate the fiction of his father. It is the wish of the Stapledon family, he said, that the award would eventually join the Stapledon Archive, which is one of the most important archives of a science fiction writer in a British library.

On Reading Last and First Men

In the months between when Stapledon was chosen for the first Rediscovery Award and the time the award was presented, I read his most famous work, Last and First Men. Normally, I tend to inhale books, but this was one I savored—and skimmed. Most science fiction doesn't make my bedtime reading pile, usually because I'm too likely to want to know what happens next and read for hours. This didn't have that effect on me, though I found it a bit disquieting for bedtime. It reads more like a history book than a novel.

Glorious images of various human activities or civilizations lifted me up. Then, like a roller coaster, a dreadful catastrophe would occur, and maybe hundreds of thousands of years (but only a few paragraphs) later, something else quite different would happen.

I'll quote some bits from the beginning of the book to give you a taste. In the introduction, one of the last men comments, from the far distant future, on the compression in the tale:

The narrative that I have to tell may seem to present a sequence of adventures and disasters crowded together, with no intervening peace. But in fact man's career has been less like a mountain torrent hurtling from rock to rock, than a great sluggish river, broken very seldom by rapids. Ages of quiescence, often of actual stagnation, filled with the monotonous problems and toils of countless almost identical lives, have been punctuated by rare moments of racial adventure. Nay, even these few seemingly rapid events themselves were in fact long-drawn-out and tedious. They acquire a mere illusion of speed from the speed of the narrative. [page 14; all page references are from the Dover paperback containing Last and First Men and its sequel, Star Maker.]

Here is a bit that makes me wonder if my father's immersion in psychological warfare also owed something to Stapledon. The narrator from the future is telling of the outbreak of the "Anglo-French war" when he says:

Then occurred one of those microscopic, yet supremely potent incidents which sometimes mould the course of events for centuries. During the bombardment a special meeting of the British Cabinet was held in a cellar in Downing Street. The party in power at the time was progressive, mildly pacifist, and timorously cosmopolitan. It had got itself involved in the French quarrel quite unintentionally. At this Cabinet meeting an idealistic member urged upon his colleagues the need for a supreme gesture of heroism and generosity on the part of Britain. Raising his voice with difficulty above the bark of English guns and the volcanic crash of French bombs, he suggested sending by radio the following message: "From the people of England to the people of France. Catastrophe has fallen on us at your hand. In this hour of agony, all hate and anger have left us. Our eyes are opened. No longer can we think of ourselves as English merely, and you as merely French; all of us are, before all else, civilized beings. Do not imagine that we are defeated, and that this message is a cry for mercy. Our armament is intact, and our resources are still very great." [pp 21-22]

The message, which goes on to say the English will no longer fight, is in fact sent. But the next day a French bomber hits a London school with particularly gruesome results. The narrator continues a bit later,

We have now observed in some detail the incident which stands out in man's history as perhaps the most dramatic example of petty cause and mighty effect. For consider. Through some miscalculation, or a mere defect in his instruments, a French airman went astray and came to grief in London after the sending of the peace message. Had this not happened, England and France would not have been wrecked... Indeed, so delicately balanced were man's primitive and developed impulses at this time, that but for this trivial accident, the movement which was started by England's peace message might have proceeded steadily and rapidly toward the unification of the race. It might, that is, have attained its goal, before, instead of after, the period of mental deterioration which in fact resulted from a long epidemic of war. And so the first Dark Age might never have occurred. [p. 24]

And so it goes. The range of Stapledon's mind is astonishing and beautiful, with wry humor and more than a little tragedy.

--Rosana Hart, Cordwainer Smith's daughter

Some Olaf Stapledon links... get more from your favorite search engine...
Dani Zweig writes short reviews of Stapledon's best-known books.
Interesting one-page bio and description of Stapledon's main works. This site has a discussion forum.

The Stapledon collection resides at the University of Liverpool. Contact:
Andy Sawyer
Science Fiction Librarian, Special Collections and Archives
University of Liverpool Library
PO Box 123, Liverpool L69 3DA, UK.
Reviews Editor: Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction
The Science Fiction Foundation:

Buying Stapledon's books

Here are links to (the American one) for some of Stapledon's books, as well as for Robert Crossley's biography of him.

Olaf Stapledon ReaderAn Olaf Stapledon Reader, edited by Robert Crossley
For many people, this would be the best Stapledon book to start with. Edited by Robert Crossley, who accepted the Rediscovery Award on behalf of the Stapledon family, it has a helpful introduction and commentary by Crossley, along with long excerpts from Stapledon's fiction, essays and talks, memoirs and meditations, letters, and poems. After I had begun Last and First Men, I really enjoyed reading some of the items in here to get a sense of Stapledon the man.

 Odd John and Sirius book cover Odd John and Sirius, paperback
Several people have told me that both of these novels are more accessible than Last and First Men or Star Maker. According to the cover blurb, Odd John is the "definitive fictionalization of the mutated superman. After a strange birth and childhood, John is suddenly compelled to accept the fact that he is different. Sirius deals with a dog with a superhuman mentality.


 last and first men Last and First Men, paperback

See my notes above about this book.




Last and First Men and Star Maker, paperback
This is the version I read;the print is quite small.

Olaf Stapledon: Speaking for the Future, by Robert Crossley
This biography of Stapledon was published by the University of Syracuse Press.

Talking Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919, edited by Robert Crossley


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