Cordwainer Smith was the pen name of Doctor Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger: Science Fiction writer, poet, and psychological warfare expert. In fact, he literally wrote the book on psychological warfare — the standard US Army textbook on the subject. He looked like a classic nerd, wrote weird little SF stories about cats, and was apparently regarded with respect by a generation of top US diplomatic/intelligence specialists. He was a man of the world, but had particular ties to China and the Far East — his godfather was Sun Yat-sen, and he and his father were confidants of Chiang Kai-shek. He also liked Australia.Most of his Speculative Fiction work describes the future history of the Instrumentality of Mankind, which was richly described but left a lot to the reader's imagination. Influenced by Chinese short stories, Smith's books cannot be mistaken for anyone else's work.One suggestion: Read the stories first. This page could do no justice to discovering the wonder of Smith's words.
Works by Cordwainer Smith with their own trope pages include:
A Load of Bull: Bull-Men are often prominent characters in Smith's stories. They include B'dikkat in A Planet Named Shayol and B'dank in Norstilia.
After the End: A good chunk of the Instrumentality tales are set after the Ancient Wars, which left only Morons and Saints barely surviving a wasted, poison world, hiding from death machines. "Mark Elf" and "Queen of the Afternoon" are set in an era following some recovery. And even in stories set millennia latter, the scars of the war remain.
Aliens Are Bastards: The Apicians are downplayed. With superior telepathic powers and equal weaponry, Mankind can do nothing but put up with their rude guests. On the bright side, they do pay for their meals. Even then, however, they insist on paying cash on the nose, which is considered bad form in a credit-driven society.
Alien Sky: The planet Xanadu in "Down to a Sunless Sea" has no sun, but its surface is illuminated by the light of its two moons. It's never explained how the moons shine with no sunlight to reflect.
Arc Number: "Five-six" appears in several of Smith's tales, mostly as names of people and places in different languages.
Aristocrats Are Evil: Played with the Lords of the Instrumentality. They are corrupt, ruthless, callous, and make arbitrary decisions. However, they are devoted to protecting humanity and benevolent, creating a utopia for mankind.
In "Under Old Earth", Santuna takes it to an extreme - not only is she bald, but she has no body hair.
The cover art for the Instrumentality of Mankind anthology includes a bunch of bald people floating down to Venus. One is clearly female.
Bears Are Bad News: Inverted with the Bear in "Mark Elf" and "Queen of the Afternoon". Wise, educated, and sporting spectacles, when the Bear shows up things improve for the human characters.
Big Dumb Object: Smith was never averse to sheer scale, with buildings reaching up to the stratosphere and all. But crucially, the titular craft of "Golden The Ship Was - Oh - Oh - Oh" is ninety million miles long, taking it beyond the Planet Spaceship range and into this category. Even if it is mostly foam. Smith may have been parodying the trope before it really got started.
Bilingual Bonus: More like Multilingual Bonus — many names in the Instrumentality cycle have secondary meanings if one knew the language used. And Smith used Chinese, Russian, German, Finish, Japanese, and many other languages for his theme naming.
Bittersweet Ending: In "Down to a Sunless Sea" Kuat's plan for conquest is foiled, but only at the expense of Lari's legs, Madu's innocence, Griselda's life and Lord Kemal's peace of mind.
Body Double: In Norstrilia, Rod gets ten body doubles when he arrives on Earth. Eleanor is surgically modified to look like him, and nine robot doubles are also sent out.
Body Horror: "A Planet Called Shayol" has a lot of this.
Brown Note: "The Fife of Bodhidharma", "No, No, Not Rogov!".
Brain/Computer Interface: The Wu-Fienstien in "The Burning of the Brain". Except for one symbolic lever, the ship's controls are either electronic or telepathically controlled.
Norstrailian "Sheep". Granted they were once sheep, but are now house-sized and very ill creatures that generate an immortality drug.
The "Dragons" or "Rats". To telepathic people or cats they appear like those creatures. But they're anything but those.
Canon Discontinuity: Averted with "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All". It's plot is eventually reworked into "Drunkboat", with "Colonel" reading like a beta version of that tale. However, it does not contradict any of the previous continuity, and presents how planoforming was discovered.
Cat Girl: Literally with C'Mell. What's particularly notable about this example is that she may have been the first literal cat girl, arriving in 1961.
As well as dog girls, snake girls, buffalo girls....
China Takes Over Venus: The Chinesian Goonhogo. It becomes a superpower by virtue of surviving the apocalypse. In fact, it's the only nation to survive. In "The Queen of the Afternoon", the rest of the world not under the Goonhogo is ruled by Chinese philosophers. "When the People Fell", in which China takes Venus by sheer weight of numbers is something of an Ur Example of Chinese space colonization plots.
Civilized Animal: The Middle-sized Bear in "Mark Elf" and "Queen of the Afternoon". No, he's not an Underperson — the Bear is simply an intelligent and civilized being. Yeah, even for the Instrumentality stories, this comes out of nowhere.
Comfort Food: Eggs for Lord Jestocost, who makes it a point to eat some once a year as a treat.
Crystal Spires and Togas: Subverted in that the Instrumentality deliberately allow the people to go back to a more retrograde way of life, with their approval. Still, one does see an interesting mix of amazing tech and weird and sometimes archaic furniture.
Cyborg: The use of living rat and wolf brains as components in technology. Also, individual robots sometimes have other kinds of animal brains; two different robots are described having a chicken brain and an owl brain.
Depraved Homosexual: Arguably, the klopts in "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal". It's not clear if they are depraved because they are homosexual, or because of the social, psychological and hormonal disruptions brought about by their need to become a monosexual culture or die out.
Divided for Publication: Norstrilia was originally split into two volumes, The Planet Buyer and The Underpeople (with a chapter and a half of additional bridging material). Smith died before the second volume appeared, and so never got to see the single-volume version.
"The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is a retelling of Joan of Arc.
"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" was written during the peak of the civil rights movement.
A number of his stories were also inspired by Chinese literature. The aforementioned "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" was influenced by "conspiratorial scenes" in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
"Drunkboat" is an allusion to Arthur Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre". The main character Artyr Rambo is named after the poet.
The planet Mizzer, the homeworld of Casher O'Neill. Its natural and political climate mirrors that of 1950's Egypt.
Doomy Dooms of Doom: In Norstrilia, Rod is the heir to the Station of Doom. It was named back when it was actually dangerous.
Easter Egg: A rather impressive one in "On the Storm Planet" (also collected in Quest of the Three Worlds). The author manages to have the first letter of consecutive sentences to spell the phrases "KENNEDY SHOT" and "OSWALD SHOT TOO". And all without breaking the narrative flow.note Actually in at least one printing, one of the letters isn't at the beginning of a sentence; apparently an editor decided to combine two sentences, replacing the period with a semicolon. Fortunately this is corrected in the most recent collections.
Eldritch Abomination: The reason Planoform ships require pinlighting teams in "The Game of Rat and Dragon".
Electric Instant Gratification: For recreation and pain relief. Admiral Tedesco is so addicted to it, that he exceeds the legal usage and ignores his everything. The only thing that brings him out is the call to defend Earth.
The Empire: The Bright Empire, the Goonhogo (the surviving Chinese government), and the Empire mentioned in "A Planet Named Shayol".
Hegemonic Empire: The Instrumentality of Mankind. It's a bit vague how it's actually ruled, but its Lords and Ladies are collectively very powerful:
The Instrumentality was a self-perpetuating body of men with enormous powers and a strict code. Each was a plenum of the low, the middle, and the high justice. Each could do anything he found necessary or proper to maintain the Instrumentality and keep the peace between the worlds...
This was all the business of the Instrumentality. The Instrumentality had the perpetual slogan 'Watch, but do not govern; stop war, but do not wage it; protect, but do not control; and first, survive!'
Planoforming, allowing for ships to make a series of FTL jumps through Space Two. "Drunkboat" discovers Space ³, which allows for instantaneous travel without the use of a spaceship!
There's brief mention of ships capable of entering "nonspace", allowing for FTL without the need for Planoforming. It's also a nice place to hide stuff as well.
Fluffy the Terrible: The "Kittons". Lets just say there's a good reason why they're sedated most of the time.
A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Norstrilia starts with Rod making enough money to literally buy everything on Earth; by the end of the book, he's given away almost all of it (though he keeps enough to be rich).
Foregone Conclusion: Norstrilia, for example, tells you exactly how everything's going to turn out in the prologue.
See, that's the story. Now you don't have to read it.
Except for the details.
Future Imperfect: The great Terran metropolis of Meeya Meefla — which is what you get when you try to pronounce "MIAMI FLA." phonetically. Incidentally, this is the one city in the Instrumentality whose name has changed the least in the centuries since its founding.
Galactic Conqueror: Raumsog attempts to be one, by trying to take over Earth. He fails, badly.
Kuat in "Down to a Sunless Sea" dreams of becoming one, but is foiled before he can even conquer his homeworld of Xanadu.
Geisha: The job of a "girly-girl" is compared to this - they entertain off-worlders through dance and conversation.
When colonizing the stars, humanity had to adapt to several different worlds. These changes results in many True Humans looking nothing like humans.
Inverted with the Underpeople. They're animals genetically modified to be human. In fact, they're more human than True Humans.
Humongous Mecha: The titular "Mark Elf" manshonyagger - a "Model 11" German-made man-hunting robot, continuing its mission long after the war was over.
Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Dealt with in "Drunkboat" and "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All", where Space Two and Three turn out to very, very strange places. Not that the interstellar void is any safer, with the Dragon / Rats lurking to eat human souls.
Hypocritical Humor: There's a very dark example, illustrating the Instrumentality's corruption, in "Golden the Ship Was - Oh! Oh! Oh!" The Lords of the Instrumentality accept huge bribes from the tyrant Raumsog not to attack his planet. Then they declare the bribes off the record and attack his planet anyway, killing 95% of the population including Raumsog himself.
I Choose to Stay: At the end of Norstrilia, Eleanor decides she likes being Rod and stays on Earth in his body.
Interspecies Romance: In The Game Of Rat And Dragon, humans and cats must telepathically link to fight off aliens that Mind Rape humans traveling through deep space. The protagonist finds he enjoys being linked with his feline partner a little too much and the story ends with him repeatedly reminding himself "She's a cat!"
In a 1980 Radio Adaptation of The Ballad of Lost C'mell the story opens with a human woman and an Ox-Man trying to leave Earth for New Mars so they can start a family It...doesn't end well...
In the original version of the aforesaid story the cat-girl C'mell falls in love with the human Lord Jestocost, and spends the rest of her life regretting that he couldn't love her back. Not that their relationship could ever have been legally consummated anyway.
Paul Linebarger even did this with his pen names. "Cordwainer" is an old surname meaning "bootmaker", which in combination with "Smith" gives an image of a man who performs specialized, useful work; "Felix C. Forrest", another name he published under, was derived from the Chinese name he adopted, Lin Bailo ("forest of incandescent bliss").
Military Coup: Mizzer goes through one, overthrowing the decadent Hereditary Dictator Kuraf. At first, many (including Kuraf's successor Casher O'Neill) thought it was a great idea. Then the coup's leader institutes a reign of "terror and virtue", which drives Casher's mission of revenge.
Military Science-Fiction: Oddly enough, "The Game of Rat and Dragon" has been published in at least two sub-genre anthologies. One editor pointed out that the story technically doesn't qualify. Of course, it does deal with cat-piloted Space Fighters as they battle alien horrors.
"War No. 81-Q" (both versions) and "Golden the Ship Was-Oh! Oh! Oh!" deal with more traditional military matters. Well, in Linebarger's own way.
Mundane Luxury: The planet Pontoppidian is a literal "gem planet". It's people have plenty of diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. But simple things like tea, worms, and soil are a luxury on the planet.
Naked on Arrival: Colonel Harkening in "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All" and Artyr Rambo in "Drunkboat" both appear naked and almost catatonic on Earth after traveling through Space-2 and Space-3 respectively.
Casher O'Neill in "On the Storm Planet" is transported from Henriada to his homeworld of Mizzer in much the same way by T'Ruth and gets badly sunburned, although his mental faculties recover more or less unimpaired.
The wind-people in "On the Storm Planet" are pretty feral and don't go in for wearing clothes.
"Three to a Given Star": The three protagonists have been transformed into living weapons as punishment for earlier crimes, but once their mission is completed they are allowed to resume human form, stepping out of their mechanical bodies on an uninhabited (by humans) planet as a kind of naked Adam and two Eves.
In "Under Old Earth" Santuna is naked (and depilated), but it's not clear if this also applies to her lover Sun-Boy.
In "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" it's implied that C'mell is nude for at least one of her brief appearances, though it's unclear why. (Not that anyone would complain.)
Probably not strictly relevant, but a British paperback cover for The Underpeople (the second half of Norstrilia) depicts a corridorful of young women wearing nothing but silver caps and boots.
Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Lord Jestocost and Lord Crudelta, whose names mean "Cruelty" in Russian and Italian respectively. Subverted in that they're not sadists but merely insensitive, but benevolent.
Noodle Incident: Many major events, both historical and personal, are alluded to but never specifically described in-story. Smith apparently had plans for more stories, but he died before he could reconstruct them from his lost notes. As an example, we never learn the nature of the "crime without a name" committed by the main character of "A Planet Named Shayol", nor how the robot, rat and Copt rediscovered the Old Strong Religion as referred to in "On the Storm Planet".
Numbered Homeworld: Fomalhaut III, Khufu II and Earth's Two and Four (and presumably Earth Three).
One-Gender Race: The Arachosians in "The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal".
One-Product Planet: Norstrilia, which has the monopoly on the immortality drug Stroon. In addition, there's Viola Siderea (an Underworld) and Shayol (see below). The novel Norstrilia also mentions Khufu II, which produced a lichen more luxuriant than the finest fur, and became almost as wealthy as Norstrilia - until the lichen was killed off by an infection and the Khufuans were reduced to begging.
Some of the Underpeople. It seems to vary from underperson to underperson; some are more animalistic in appearance than others. In the story On The Gem Planet one of the Underpeople is a Tiger-Man who is very clearly described as looking more like a tiger then a man, though this seems to be unusual among underpeople.
The Unauthorized Men in "Queen of the Afternoon". Called "puppy-dog people" by Juli vom Acht, they're intelligent, small anthropomorphic animals. However, they are not Underpeople - the Unauthorized people seem to have their origins from the Ancient Wars.
Population Control: Norstrilia practices population control by way of a Rite of Passage: you go into a room, are examined by a panel, and either come out a full citizen or are given a painless death.
Posthumous Collaboration: Genevieve Linebarger, Paul's wife and story collaborator, finished "Down To A Sunless Sea" and "The Queen Of The Afternoon". May also apply to Smith's other posthumous stories, "War No. 81-Q (rewritten version)", "The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All" and "Himself in Anachron".
Really 700 Years Old: T'ruth in "On the Storm Planet" looks between ten and thirteen years old, but Casher knows she must be older because Administrator Meiklejohn has been sending unsuccessful assassins after her for eighty years of whom Casher himself is the latest. He can't bring himself to kill her precisely because she looks so young. She's actually nine hundred and six, more than twice the normally-allotted span even for true humans, but has an artificially-extended life expectancy of ninety thousand years.
The Vomact family, the decedents of the vom Acht sisters. Various Vomacts show up through the series - some helpful, others malevolent.
C'mell, who figures in several of the underpeople tales and Norstrilia.
Casher O'Neill, the focus character of the Quest of the Three Worlds sequence.note This comprises three stories, "On the Gem Planet", "On the Storm Planet" and "On the Sand Planet", together with a loosely-connected story, "Three to a Given Star". These were collected together in 1966 with the individual story titles stripped out and presented as a novel, Quest of the Three Worlds. Whether they, or at least the first three, really constitute a novel is debatable. Later collections have simply printed the four stories in chronological order with their titles reinstated.
The Remnant: The Manshonyaggers robotic killing mecha built by the long defunct Sixth German Reich.
Revision: Done in a rewritten "War No. 81-Q". The story is reworked to fit into the Instrumentality universe, as well as add some backstory.
Rightful King Returns: Averted with Casher. Though the rightful heir to the Hereditary Dictatorship, O'Neill doesn't want the position. Nor does he want to restore his infamous uncle to power. He just wants to stop Col. Wedder.
Rip Van Winkle: "Mark Elf" and "The Queen of the Afternoon" are about three German sisters from 1945 who end up in the future.
Slept Through the Apocalypse: The origins of the Vomact family. They're the decedents of three German sisters, the vom Achts. During the end of World War II, they were placed in suspended animation in some experimental rockets, and sent into space. Sleeping and preserved, they are awakened thousands of years after the Ancient Wars.
Solar Sail: Prior to the discovery of Planoforming, solar sails were used for interstellar voyages that lasted years (if not decades or centuries).
Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: Gives two unique ship types: Football sized Fighters piloted by cats, and the Golden Ships, a sphere 90 Million miles in length.
Standard Sci-Fi History: Plays the trope straight, but then the Instrumentality appears to have reached its Apex, it stays stuck in an Interregnum of stagnation until it decides to re-diversify humanity.
Star Scraper: Earthport, a wineglass shaped building made of a rust-, weather-, stress-, and time-proof material.
The Wu-Feinstein is designed to look like Mount Vernon, with plenty of space for the rivers, grass, and buildings for it's passengers.
And there's the Golden Ships, with 90 million miles of space for a crew of one.
Stealth Pun: Kind of. "...[T]he only living city with a pre-atomic name. The lovely meaningless name was Meeya Meefla [near] the warm, bright, clear beaches of the Old South East." ("The Dead Lady of Clown Town"). In other words... A mispronunciation of "Miami, Fla".
Another variation is "Mark Elf". The title means what it says, but there's nobody called Mark and no elves.
Story Arc: The collection The Quest of Three Worlds. The first three stories ("On the Gem Planet", "On the Storm Planet", and "On the Sand Planet") tell the story of Casher's mission of vengeance only to find something greater.
"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons". Everybody knows that the planet of Norstrilia has a secret weapon. What it is, nobody ever lives to tell.
In "Golden the Ship Was-Oh! Oh! Oh!", Earth and the Instrumentality seem defenseless against Raumsog's invasion. However, they bust out an awesome Golden Ship to stop the attack. And then zig-zagged, as it turns out the Golden Ship is just a decoy. The Instrumentality's real attack happens during the distraction.
Telepathy: Common enough after the Ancient Wars, with the Unauthorized Men, some of the True Men, Pinlighting humans and cats, the Underpeople, and the Lords of the Instrumentality having the ability to mentally "Spiek".
Thieves' Guild: Rules the planet Viola Siderea. Once a decent planet, FTL travel ended up bankrupting the planet. To survive, its people became thieves.
Time Dilation: Played with in "The Crime And The Glory of Commander Suzdal". It's mentioned that Suzdal would subjectively experience thousands of years of traveling through non-space - the inverse of regular time dilation. Though once he heads back to Earth "the time will wind back up again", and by the time he returns it would only be a few years objectively since he left. And this is only some of the wacky time travel hi-jinks in this tale.
Time Master: In times of danger, Chronopathic people can transport themselves (and whatever vehicles they ride) back to a position they were a few seconds previously. Useful in avoiding enemy attacks. The Instrumentality has developed Chronopathic devices to generate the same effect.
Vestigial Empire: The Goonhogo is the last nation that managed to survive the collapse of civilization prior to the Instrumentality.
What Could Have Been: Linebarger lost all his enthusiasm for the Instrumentality stories after he accidentally dropped the notebook in which he kept his plot ideas into a lake, rendering it unreadable and useless. He died before he could reconstruct any of the lost stories, and it's doubtful whether he would have bothered to try.
What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The stories concentrating on the Underpeople. They can love, sing, think, pray... but they're less than nothing to the Instrumentality.
Who Wants to Live Forever?: Subverted. When a certain planet is found to have the components to make one immortal, the opportunity is there, although the Instrumentality seems to settle for 400 years (there is a dismissive reference to people who try to live longer than that).
Nostrillians themselves don't feel compelled to follow the Instrumentality's lead on this, however. Also, Lords and Ladies of exceptional value are sometimes allowed to live longer; Sto Odin, the eldest Lord of his era, was over 1000 years old at the time of "Under Old Earth" (in which he sacrifices his own life to save Manhome).
Wild Child: "On the Storm Planet" has the wind-people of the eponymous Henriada, who manage to survive being flung around by tornadoes and live on the fringes of human society. T'ruth temporarily captures a few of their children with the intention of giving them new motivation.
Would Hurt a Child: Benjacomin Bozart in "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" kills an 11-year-old Norstrilian boy after snatching the name of the eponymous secret from his mind (although just learning the name is enough to seal his own death warrant).
You Can't Fight Fate: In "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" the Abba-Dingo machine predicts that Virginia will love Paul for the rest of her life... and that Paul will love Virginia for 21 minutes. Poor Virginia. There is some implication that this effect makes the Abba-Dingo an Eldritch Abomination.
You Are Number Six: In-between the later age of Solar Sails and the Rediscovery of Mankind, most people on Earth have numbers instead of names. But to avoid sounding impersonal, the numbers are in different languages. For example, Sto Odin is "101" in Russian.
Go gently now, reader. Your Job is done.
— Cordwainer Smith, Epilogue from the collection Space Lords (1965)