Monday, August 1, 2011

Helen America

I'm just back from a week on the beach in Michigan, where I finished a book of Cordwainer Smith stories--The Instrumentality of Mankind, edited by Frederik Pohl--and started another--The Best of Cordwainer Smith, edited by J. J. Pierce.

These two paperbacks were tucked into the wonderful box of Philip K. Dick books sent by college friend Doug Robillard! I read two of the Dick books earlier this summer with a vague feeling of having read them before, and the same thing happened with Cordwainer Smith, along with the feeling that I understood and appreciated these stories much more the second time around.

For one thing, I read the introductions, which told me that Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym of Paul Linebarger, a multilingual scholar and expert on Asiatic politics, foreign affairs, and psychological warfare, and a consultant on numerous small wars, but not Vietnam, as he thought it was a mistake for the USA to be involved in that one. So this time around, I read not just for plot and character, as I must have done as an adolescent, but for his human insights and worldview.

I was wowed.

And moved all over again by "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul," the story of Helen America, "girl" sailor. You can read it online here, if you want.

The "wow" factor went warp speed a few minutes ago when I logged onto Facebook and saw one of those status updates inviting me to turn to page 56 of the book nearest at hand and put the 5th sentence up as part of my own status update. Also, the "whoa!" factor. Page 56 is what I wanted to quote from today, the 6th & 7th sentences! And then the 8th.

Helen America had a tough life, but as she is getting ready to sail The Soul into space, she is advised to avoid drama. "Tragedy is not the hard part. The hard part is when you don't quite succeed and you have to keep on fighting." That struck me as deeply true. And then this:  "When you must keep going on and on and on in the face of really hopeless odds, of real temptations to despair."

How many humans, in all kinds of lives, past, present, and future, can identify with that?!

There's a specific science fiction space travel context for this advice to Helen, and particular kinds of physical and psychological pain she will encounter, but this lives very well outside that context, too. And that even parallels a plot aspect, one kind of travel--sailing--being superseded by another, easier, safer kind of space travel--planoforming.

This particular story was a collaboration with the author's wife, Genevieve Linebarger, who also completed some of his stories after his death. Which also somehow ties right in.


Collagemama said...

I always wonder how authors choose their pseudonyms. "Cordwainer" was an interesting surprise:

Kathleen said...

Isn't that neat?!

Kathleen said...

(Maybe he could make you some fancy new Spanish leather sandals!)

Collagemama said...

They don't have to be fancy. It's all about comfort.