Apr 01 2021

Chargés d’Affaires by Cordwainer Smith

When Cordwainer Smith first began publishing stories in the early 1950s, the genre was much further from the mainstream than it is today. Writing for magazines such as Galaxy or Worlds of If would have been considered extremely odd for one of America’s leading experts on psychological warfare and a Johns Hopkins professor of Asiatic Studies. And so he remained pseudonymous for most of his science fictional career, for that is exactly who Smith was in his day job: godson of Sun Yat-Sen, political science PhD at age 23, colonel in the army reserves, adviser to politicians and to secret services. Yet by the end of his life, cut short at age 53 in 1966, he was more open in his relations with the science fiction community. Chargés d’Affaires reflects this growing rapprochement.

His tales of the Instrumentality of Mankind had a wide range and sophistication about culture that displayed, or at least reflected, his extensive experience outside the United States. Smith drew on the myths and forms of Chinese storytelling, and he gave his stories a lyric solidity that implies a wholeness even for those that are the only one of vast periods of his future history, or the only one in which a particular planet appears.

It would not be quite right to call Chargés d’Affaires a novel; in total length it’s more like a novella, and its six parts are each fairly short, though their lyricism invites the reader to linger. It’s possible to read Chargés also as an oblique celebration of Smith’s own behind-the-scenes roles in his homeworld’s politics and history. In contrast to most of his other stories, the parts of this tale are not about the leaders or instigators of major events, they are about those who are in second in command. The title comes from the number two in an embassy, who is often the real power behind a figurehead ambassador or the person left in charge when the ambassador is recalled or incapacitated. Another hint that this work is more than usually autobiographical is in the third section, “Schuhmacher and the Cobbler.” Schuhmacher is not just a surname, of course, it’s German for “shoemaker,” which is exactly the modern term for the more archaic word “cordwainer.”

Unusually for a late Smith story, Chargés takes place in the first age of planoforming, a period when humanity settled thousands of worlds, but which is little explored in his published stories, which tend to cluster around the Rediscovery of Man some 7,000 years later. The six parts are linked by recurring themes, and a few common names that may or may not be the same characters appearing on different planets. Ambiguity is one of the joys of Smith’s work.

Each part is a full story, some thrilling, some tragic, all enchanting and unmistakably Smith. One final feature is the way that he structures the overall work. Although six different settings are involved, temporally they form a single earth year, with each part taking up themes and seasons at two-month intervals. True to his tendency to see the world as falling, he begins with the long, bright days of an extraterrestrial June. It’s possible also to read the Cobbler of the third part, which corresponds to October in the overall scheme, as a transposed Ray Bradbury; it’s equally possible that Smith is referring to a Chinese writer unknown to me; or indeed both. The fourth, “Calling Down the Rain” is funnier than most Smith tales, and no doubt draws on court comedies of the Ming era. So he continues through the planets and the months, ending Chargés with a sympathetic portrait of the key figure of April: a fool.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2021/04/01/charges-daffaires-by-cordwainer-smith/

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