The Space Opera Renaissance: Cordwainer Smith

Untitled 11.jpg Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, better known to most as Cordwainer Smith was a very powerful voice in science fiction in his day. Much of his credibility came from the fact that he was a very educated and respected professor at Duke University and later worked for the CIA as an expert on psychological warfare. He even wrote a book under his real name titled Psychological Warfare that is considered a classic text among experts in the intelligence community.


Cordwainer Smith gained most of his respect, though, through his truly brilliant prose and imaginative stories. The things he wrote, while bearing many of the same elements as Space Opera, were not considered such in his day. They were very literary and beautifully written.


In “The Game of Rat and Dragon” he imagines a universe populated by immensely powerful and faster-than-thought psychological monsters that destroy the minds of people who pass outside of the protective rays of a star. Certain people with psychic abilities are paired with a Partner (a specially bred housecat) that is loaded into a missile and sent to hunt these psychological monsters before they can sweep through starships, destroying everyone inside.


To the people – called pinlighters – these monsters look like dragons but to the Partners they look like giant rats. The Partners have the reflexes required to drive off the rats and the pinlighers have the intelligence to coordinate their attacks so that none of the dragons get through. The experience is so exhausting physically that there is two-month recovery time for both the pinlighters and the Partners after a successful trip.


To a person who likes cats this story might just explain a lot about how they think; if you’re curious. Otherwise, it’s a beautifully written, well-imagined story with unique ideas.

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