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From: "Alice K. Turner" 
Subject: Re: (urth) Does Gene Wolfe read Cordwainer Smith?
Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 21:47:27 -0400

Rostrum rote:

> Wolfe is more of a hard science fiction writer, with an interest in
> technological details -- much of it may actually be magic (or miracle),
> but he plays the game of trying to convince you that there is real science
> in there; Smith seems to take much more of a handwaving approach to
> technology, with more of an interest in the wild things the technology can
> do than in producing any illusion that you have a sense of how it works.

Hmm. Considering when he wrote (he died in 1966), I've always thought that
Smith had a far better grasp of computers than any of his contemporaries.
Rod McBan's Norstrillian antique still seems plausible: what has changed is
that in a story written today everyone would have a computer--that wouldn't
have flown in the 50s--and Rod today would have to have a custom program
like no other. The little computer powered by a mouse-brain in "Think Blue,
Count Two" still seems like a niftily possible biotech gadget, and so does
the dead Lady Panc-Ash in "Clown Town." The computer hack that Lord
Jestacost and C'mell run is pretty sophisticated too. I remember reading a
60s magazine story by Pohl, I think, certainly a tech-minded writer, that
bleated on and on about computer technology--completely outdated by the 80s,
of course. But Smith's stories aren't. Even the "Alpha-Ralpha"
fortune-telling machine is not out of date if you think of it as primarilly
an entertainment device, and the same would be true of the items at the
Musuem of Heart's Desire. And there are computerized devices run by Mother
Hitton and T'ruth and somethingorother on the Sand Planet, and other places
that I don't remember.

Furthermore, no other writer but Stapledon actually charted developments in
space travel. Yes, they're handwaving, but they are also thought out--again,
remember when he was writing. Space travel began with the scanners
(cranching), moved on to the oyster ships and pinlighting, then to sail
ships with their oblivious passengers, then to planoforming, then space3.
(I've probably got some of this wrong--I'm not going to go back to read it
all again just to make a point.) Smith's future was dynamic, evolving as he
learned more or imagined new techniques. And though you can chart this in
Wolfe too (LS is full of his delight in his new knowlege of computer
uploading and downloading), Smith was way ahead of him.

He also seemed (and seems) to me to be more sophisticated about drugs,
medical techniques and their future applications than most of his peers;
this turns up more than once, but I am thinking of "Shayol." And there's
stroon, of course, which is a debatable long-life potion, but surely an sf
allowable, especially as it is treated politically and economically.

I also think that he is quite sophisticated politically, given that he is
using the old pulp device of a galactic empire, or Instrumentality as he
calls it. His model is 19th century China (I know this because, like him, I
grew up partly in China and have done some reading) with its huge
bureaucracy, mostly conservative, but sometimes surprisingly open. Wolfe's
bureaucracies, in all three series, are simplistic by comparison.

> But for me, the main difference is that I love Wolfe but don't care much
> for Smith.

Now there I cannot argue. What you probably don't like is the tone, which is
consciously romantic and fabulous, and which undercuts the tech
sophistication. I like it myself--but then I'm not a techie. And I was the
right age when I got to him.



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