In wild places like this one, passion is everywhere and unavoidable and feels so much bigger that any passion we humans can own. Maybe this is because wild things accept their passionate nature fully, submit to it easily, while our overdeveloped brains, in the face of overwhelming passion, send up billowing clouds of smoke and noise. In Point Reyes today, every time the ocean strikes the cliffs it says, Take me in your arms, every time the wind whips the branches of the giant eucalyptus it says, Open your eyes and watch me while I touch you, every time a pelican dives into the roiling ocean it says, I surrender to you completely, I believe you will fill me up.

Pam Houston
What the Osprey Knows
Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, eds. Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney

disturbing plot elements

March 16, 2020

the main attraction of Cordwainer Smith is…the extravagant and often disturbing plot elements that make his stories stand out from the pack. When Smith submitted his first sci-fi story “Scanners Live in Vain” to John Campbell, Jr., the mastermind behind the influential Astounding magazine, the seasoned editor turned it down because it was, in his words, “too extreme.”

Campbell was no stranger to controversy. Around this same time he battled with FBI agents who wanted to pull an issue of Astounding magazine off the newsstands because it described how to make an atomic bomb. And a few years later he helped pave the way for the Church of Scientology by publishing L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the May, 1950 issues of Astounding (but feeling compelled to add the editorial note: “This article is not a hoax, joke….” etc. etc.). Even so, Smith’s creepy story of a quasi-priesthood of astronauts who need to become deaf in order to withstand the horrors of space was pushing the envelope too far for this intrepid periodical. The scanners tale is almost a surrealistic nightmare, with little in common with the kind of whiz-bang high-tech adventure that sci-fi readers craved in those days.

In his later stories, Smith continued to reach for bizarre and extreme effects. In his novel Norstrilia, a man gets surgically turned into a cat, and has a romance with a feline who has become genetically altered into a “girly girl.” In this same work, people achieve great wealth through the cultivation of diseased sheep. In the short story “A Planet Named Shayol,” a criminal is condemned to a prison planet where inhabitants undergo excruciating pain while miniscule creatures called dromozoans take over their bodily processes—sucking waste from intestines, putting nutrients into the bloodstream—and also add extra eyes, stomachs, arms, and other organs to their bodies that can be harvested for medical purposes. In Smith’s surreal novella “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” a dog-girl is assisted by a dead woman in achieving a martyrdom reminiscent of the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake. Even by the loose standards of sci-fi stories, these tales are strange and disturbing. The reader’s reaction is inevitably along the lines of “where did these crazy ideas come from?” or perhaps merely a vaguely disquieting sense that the author has intentionally tried to gross out his audience.

In short, people who don’t like science fiction will really hate these stories. In a genre that rarely shows restraint, Cordwainer Smith may have been the loosest cannon of them all. Think of his mental universe as a kind of Twilight Zone where even Rod Serling gets freaked out.

Ted Gioia
Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling
The Atlantic 26th March 2013

When I was a boy, I read all the pulp magazines, which were still around in those days. You’ve no doubt seen collector editions, but in those days you could buy a pulp for 10 or 15 cents. One of my favourites was Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which reprinted good stuff from the turn of the century. Once, they did Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau [1896] as an entire issue. And I read it, and I absolutely loved it, and when I had read the last page I went back to the first page, and I started again. And when I started my fourth reading I thought, “Well, I know everything that’s going to happen now and I’ll just put it aside for a while until I’ve kind of forgotten it, and then I’ll read it again.” And I never looked at it again until I was about 50. And when I was that age, somebody wrote to me and said he was putting together one of those books that honour the hundred best science fiction novels. It would have essays from writers like me, and this person wanted me to do The Island of Dr. Moreau. I thought, “Gee, I remember that fondly. I will take him up on that. But first, obviously, I have to get a copy of it and read it, since I haven’t read it since I was a kid.” And I did …

Wonderful cover on that book, by the way — wonderful! The man was bare-chested — not quite muscular enough to be a hero, but muscular and good-looking — and behind him is this enormous, shaggy monster. And the monster has one hand on the man’s shoulder. In a most buddy-looking sort of way, you know. [Chuckles merrily.] I thought that was a lovely cover; I still do …

Anyhow, I read the book and immediately saw there were things in there that had completely sailed over me that were now hitting me like a brick. The book starts when the narrator gets on a ship from some city in South America. On the third day out, they ram a derelict and their ship sinks. He spends three days in a lifeboat with two men, a fellow passenger and a sailor, and he mentions, just in passing, that he never learned the name of the sailor in the boat with him. And another thing: the sailor and the passenger fall overboard in a struggle, and the narrator is picked up by a boat carrying Dr. Moreau’s doctor, who gives him “a dose of some scarlet stuff, iced. It tasted like blood, and made me feel stronger.” That one, too, just whizzed by me. All this stuff, and I was too dumb to appreciate it as a boy!

Gene Wolfe
Interviewed by Jason Pontin
MIT Technology Review 25th July 2014