Over at Tor.com, Walter Jon Williams has an excellent article about Cordwainer Smith, who he memorably describes as one of the “Great Peculiars” of science fiction.
By this he means distinctive writers who are impossible to imitate. Start reading a story by Cordwainer Smith and you know immediately who the author is. There is something that leaps out of the work of these Great Peculiars, something in the way they use prose, something in the way they construct story. The thing is, they do it time and time again, as if it is just instinctive in the way they write. But nobody else can write that way. For instance, H.P. Lovecraft had a very distinctive way of writing, but it has been copied by so many others that it is now little more than a parody. But it seems that nobody else has the trick of writing like Cordwainer Smith, or any of the other Great Peculiars, and any attempt to imitate them just falls flat. Which tends to suggest that whatever it is that these authors do shouldn’t work, but in their hands it does work.
One of the things about them all is that they tend to work best at short story length. Oh they do occasionally write novels, but their most memorable and most characteristic work tends to be in short stories. As if the magic that makes their peculiarities so powerful and effective might not work so well over the extended length of a novel.
So who are these Great Peculiars? We’ve identified four that really stand out. If you’ve not read any of these writers, go away and do so now and see what we mean about their work being distinctive an inimitable.
Cordwainer Smith is, of course, the obvious person to start with. Smith had difficulty breaking into science fiction. He had a few things published with little impact under other pseudonyms before he finally got his first sf story, “Scanners Live in Vain”, accepted by a small and short-lived magazine. This came after five years of rejections for the story; peculiar writers often have difficulty finding an editor able to appreciate their idiosyncratic approach. And after that, in a career that lasted barely a decade and a half before his death in 1966, he produced only one novel, Norstrilia, (originally published in two parts) and enough stories to fill one sizeable collection, The Rediscovery of Man (although several partial collections have been published). All of his work fits within a complex future history, though it is those stories that fit within the middle part of the history, stories like “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell”, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, “Mother Hitten’s Little Kittens”, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” that are the best and most typical. The future is both beautiful and disturbing, a setting of glorious soaring architecture and a dictatorship known as the Instrumentality of Mankind. Cats and dogs feature prominently in his work, often augmented to fill a role not dissimilar to slavery (C’Mell, for instance). And while he often employed doggerel verse, the prose itself is often poetic, with phrases like “the up-and-out” representing space.
The rhythm of Cordwainer Smith’s language often caught an echo of Chinese, a language in which he was fluent; the language of Raphael Aloysius Lafferty’s short stories, on the other hand, often had a whiff of the Irish tall tale about them. They were stories in which the same eccentric characters – Willy McGilly, Audifax O’Hanlon, Diogenes Pontifex, and so forth – reappear time and again, often playing very different roles. And the stories are full of repetitions of phrases and of situations, the same way that oral storytelling often works. For instance, in one of the best of his short stories, “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne”, a bunch of his typical eccentric characters convene with one of his curious computers in order to change the past. They succeed, but because they are in the history they don’t recognize the fact, and so a slightly different bunch of eccentrics convene with a slightly different computer in order to change the past. They succeed again, without recognizing it, and so a smaller bunch of eccentrics now in a debased tribal setting convene with a magical device in order to change the past. And so it goes on. In story after story, “Narrow Valley”, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers”, “All Pieces of a River Shore”, “Continued on Next Rock” and his Hugo winning “Eurema’s Dam” very clever characters tend to be trapped in a world whose mystery they never fully understand. Unlike Smith, Lafferty wrote a number of novels, the best of which are probably Past Master, Fourth Mansions and Arrive at Easterwine, but it is his short fiction that best displays the oddity of his perceptions and the wit of his writing. To date there are four volumes of his Collected Short Fiction, The Man Who Made Models, The Man With the Aura, The Man Underneath and The Man With the Speckled Eyes.
It took some time for both Smith and Lafferty to build up the recognition from both editors and readers that their work deserved. Much of Lafferty’s best work, for example, appeared in Galaxy Magazine and Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies, neither renowned for being part of the mainstream of science fiction at the time. In contrast, Kelly Link has quickly established a reputation as one of the finest of contemporary short story writers, winning multiple awards along the way, including being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Yet her work remains eccentric and impossible to categorize, shifting restlessly between science fiction, fantasy, horror and the mainstream, often within the same story. Thus her Nebula Award winning novella, “Magic for Beginners”, features a troubled young man in contemporary America, and also the cult television show that he and his friends watch religiously even though it is broadcast to no apparent schedule, and features ever more outrageous adventures in a place known as the Library. But as the story goes on the two worlds, the television show and reality, merge in a way that seems impossible to quite identify. Her other award winning stories include “Travels with the Snow Queen” (Tiptree Award), “Louise’s Ghost” (Nebula Award), “The Faery Handbag” (Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards), “Pretty Monsters” (Locus Award), and “The Game of Smash and Recovery” (Sturgeon Award). Her stories are collected in four volumes, Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters and Get In Trouble.
What makes Smith and Lafferty peculiar is often the language they use, with Link it is often the structure of the story which leads you in to the world of the story without allowing a way out. With Howard Waldrop it tends to be the cavalier way he incorporates unlikely historical figures and arcane bits of knowledge into his stories. If you were to lay out the elements and the plot of a typical Waldrop story, the chances are that it wouldn’t make sense; yet when he weaves it all together, the result works perfectly. Thus “Fin de Cycle” is a story about the Dreyfus case, but it is told from the point of view of a bicycle club; while “Night of the Cooters” is a version of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, but in this case it features a typical cowboy sheriff in a small Texas town; and “Ike at the Mike” is set in a version of the 1950s in which Eisenhower became a jazz musician. He has written a couple of novels, The Texas-Israeli War, 1999 was a collaboration with Jake Saunders, while Them Bones is an episodic account of how time travellers confuse the American archaeological record. But it is in short stories that his peculiar way with alternate histories and unexpected perspectives really shine. Much of his best short fiction is collected in the two volumes of A Howard Waldrop Reader: Things Will Never Be the Same and Other Worlds, Better Lives.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.