She got the which of the what-she-did,

Well, now, speaking of older books that ought to be put back into general circulation. Here’s a post about Cordwainer Smith at

What a peculiar body of work Cordwainer Smith left us. If he was writing those books today, they would be exactly as far from the main currents of SFF as they were in the fifties.

She got the which of the what-she-did,
Hid the bell with a blot, she did,
But she fell in love with a hominid.
Where is the which of the what-she-did?

This cryptic verse opens “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” by Cordwainer Smith, and may serve as emblematic both of some of the author’s persistent themes and his own rich and distinct strangeness. Smith was one of the Great Peculiars of science fiction, producing strong, intricate, highly-wrought, highly weird stories that will never be mistaken for the works of anyone else. No one else had a mind like Smith.

So true. If you’ve never read anything by Cordwainer Smith, you so should.

This post — by Walter John Williams, btw — goes on to explain a little about Cordwainer Smith’s / Paul Linebarger’s life, which as you may know was nearly as peculiar as his fiction. Some of this I knew, some I didn’t.

The story “Scanners Live in Vain” suffered five years of rejection by all the major science fiction magazines until it was published in 1950 by Fantasy Book, a minor market. There it came to the attention of editor and writer Frederik Pohl, who saw its virtues and published it in his widely-read anthology Beyond the End of Time, where it was immediately recognized as thematically and stylistically revolutionary.

Interesting! I, never much of a short story fan, still have a hard time believing that “Scanners Live in Vain” got rejected so much. Rather a grim story, but still.

Williams goes on:

…Beyond the sort of neologisms to which all science fiction is prone, the writing is accessible to any literate reader.

But the straightforward sentences reference characters and a world that are often completely strange. Extreme emotions are displayed, and so is extreme cruelty. The stories take place in a distant time and place, and many are narrated from an even more distant future by a hieratic voice that may or may not belong to Smith, and which seems to ring down the ages from an impossibly remote and alien epoch.

Remarkable stories. Well worth revisiting today. I’m pleased to see, now that I check, that Smith’s work is available on Amazon, some in ebook form.

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10 thoughts on “She got the which of the what-she-did,”

  1. Smith was the very first author brought back into print by NESFA’s program of reissuing older SF in hardcover with the intent of keeping them in print forever.

  2. I just checked the publication date on our NESFA edition: 1993. It’s time to get him more notice again.

  3. In his real identity as Paul Linebarger, he also seems to have led an interesting life, including being the godson of Sun Yat-sen and writing a seminal treatise on psychological warfare. (Long out of print, but now republished in print and very inexpensive Kindle format.)

    IIRC, Pohl was responsible for a lot of Smith’s evocative titles, which feel inseparable from the works themselves.

  4. I’ll have to check him–ooh shiny!! A new Garth Nix Abhorsen book, one that looks a lot happier than the previous.

  5. Craig: and a good choice he was, too!

    Mike: Williams had stuff in that post I didn’t know — and another thing I didn’t know what that Linebarger’s book on psychological warfare was available on Kindle. Hmm. Not necessarily a topic I’d look for, but still.

    Pete: I know, right? WAY TOO MANY BOOKS.

  6. I’d known about his book on psychological warfare, but not the others under other pseudonyms.

    Pete, the Teen has gobbled the new Abhorsen and is impatiently waiting for me to read it so we can Discuss! (I’m partway through.)Apparently liked it a lot.

  7. Just finished the new Nix book as well. Wrapped up a fair number of plot threads, which was nice!

  8. Rachel, then you are in for a treat! Sometime or other… This book very much reads like a conclusion, sigh. Book 4 was fairly horrifying.

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