Wednesday 4 October 2017

Infinite Stars, Space Opera, Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space: Night Passage, and Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man

I seldom request advance review copies of books – I get offered them quite a lot but my blogging is so intermittent these days and I've such a backlog of old books (and comics) to blog about that the thought of having to do a timely post on a new book as well is almost too much to bear – but when Titan Books (where – full disclosure – long ago I ran the graphic novels department) sent out an email about this:

Infinite Stars, an anthology of space opera and military science fiction to be published on 24 October (jacket illustration by Luca Oleastri), I couldn't resist nabbing a copy. Put together by writer and editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt, the near-700-page hardback collects short – and not-so-short – SF stories both new and vintage by authors both neophyte and veteran, among the latter Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Silverberg also provides a fantastically entertaining introduction explicating the origins of space opera – the phrase and the form – concentrating especially on the exuberance of its early–mid twentieth century pulp-magazine incarnation; stories in the words of one critic of "incredible heroes, unbelievable weapons, insurmountable obstacles, inconceivable science, omnipotent villains, and unimaginable cataclysms" – or as Wilson Tucker, who in 1941 coined the term space opera as a pejorative, put it: "the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn".

All of which might by itself have been enough, given my recently rediscovered fervour for SF, for me to want a copy. However, my real reason for getting the anthology was that it contains a brand new Revelation Space universe story by Alastair Reynolds. Titled "Night Passage", it's set 200 years before the events of Revelation Space (2000) and details humanity's first encounter with a mysterious region of altered spacetime – which will become known as a Shroud – and a potentially cataclysmic rupturing of trust between the command crew of an interstellar spaceship, the Equinoctial, and a contingent of their Conjoiner (a hive-minded human faction) passengers. It's a fine tale, told in the first person by the ship's captain, Rauma Bernsdottir, and exploring notions of shame and forgiveness and how false assumptions can lead to catastrophe.

Of the twenty-three other stories in the anthology I've only read a handful thus far, but of those, one I really liked was a beautifully written vintage story by Cordwainer Smith, "The Game of Rat and Dragon". First published in 1955 (in Galaxy Science Fiction), it's a far-future tale of the conflict between a force piloted by telepathic "pinlighters" and their feline partners – the cats' lightning-swift instincts having been found to complement the humans' intellects – and ferocious alien Dragons, and forms part of Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind series. I was drawn to it in particular because a couple of months ago in Leigh Gallery Books in Essex I picked up this:

A 1988 Gollancz first edition of The Rediscovery of Man (jacket illustration by John Avon). Originally published in the States in 1975 as The Best of Cordwainer Smith, it includes "The Game of Rat and Dragon" alongside eleven other stories from Smith's Instrumentality universe – led off by the first story set in that future history, 1950's "Scanners Live in Vain" – and an insightful introduction by John J. Pierce (who also provides brief intros to each of the tales). The portrait that Pierce paints of Smith, alias Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, is an intriguing one. Godson of Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, the Milwaukee-born Smith was a colonel in US Army Intelligence, advisor to the British forces in Malaya and the US Eighth Army in Korea, Professor of Asiatic politics at Johns Hopkins University, and author of Psychological Warfare, "still regarded as the most authoritative text in the field".

But as fascinating as all this is, it's Smith's fiction that's arguably the most extraordinary thing about him, especially those stories set in his Instrumentality universe. "In Cordwainer Smith's epic of the future," writes Pierce, "the Instrumentality of Mankind has the hallmarks of both a political elite and a priesthood. Its hegemony is that, not of the galactic empire so typical of less imaginative SF, but of something far more subtle and pervasive – at once political and spiritual. Its lords see themselves not as mere governors or bureaucrats or politicians, but as instruments of human destiny itself." Highlighting "the spontaneity of his work", the "elusive... allusions in his stories" and "the strong sense of vocation expressed by the scanners, sailors, pinlighters, Go-captains and the lords themselves", Pierce notes that "Smith was a mythmaker in science fiction", stating in closing: "The work of Cordwainer Smith will always retain its enigmas. But that is part of its appeal. In reading his stories, we are caught up in experiences as real as life itself – and just as mysterious."