The job of a science fiction author is mighty tough! To write a great science fiction story requires showing the reader something they’ve never seen before, and that ain’t easy. Age of the genre and reader are big factors here. When science fiction was young, “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells dazzled the Victorian world with its hallucinatory imagination. On the other hand, you’d need to be Amish to be dazzled by the idea of time travel anytime after turning five-years-old in our SF jaded world. But then I was in my forties and charmed by Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” and I was in my fifties and dazzled by Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. In other words, even with an old genre and an old reader, it’s still possible to for a science fiction writer to succeed with creating a breathtaking vision.
Today I decided to try another Wonder Audiobooks title, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith from 1955. I’m glad I did. I read this story years ago, but listening to the excellent reading by Matthew Wayne Selznick I was able to “see” it with fresh sense of wonder. Audio productions are like getting a high definition television and wanting to see all your favorite shows again. Like I explained in “How Audible.com Changed My Life,” reading with my ears lets me appreciate fiction so much better than when I read with my eyes, and this old Cordwainer Smith tale was a good example.
Cordwainer Smith broke on the scene with a distinctive voice, working in a field known for being tone deaf. Now he wasn’t a great writer by literary standards, but the old concept of a one-eyed man living among the blind applies here. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” take cliché space opera and adds new dimensions making the story vivid, thus I think creating something new in the field. This story really does lay the foundation for stylistic explorers like Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny in the 1960s.
If you ever get a chance read some science fiction from the 1920s, like from early Amazing Stories. Then read Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, for the flavor of 1930s pulp writing. After that read Adventures in Time and Space to get the feeling of how J. W. Campbell shaped the 1940s. Science fiction genre is always evolving. The 1950s brought its own breakthrough in style, and writers like Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, and Alfred Bester made their impact.
Listening to “The Game of Rat and Dragon” let me feel that difference in a magnified way. Cordwainer is at the beginning of his career, but all his elemental seeds of his later story worlds are planted here. This story, which is poorly written by MFA standards, with its heavy handed setup common for stories of the time, still takes off and shines when it comes to creating a vision of something new.
It evokes awe and emotion in this old jaded reader, although I wonder how it will work with younger readers of today. It is primitive compared to today’s writing, so young readers may feel like they are hearing something from old time radio. If you look at ISBDF, you’ll see its still being anthologized as late as 2006, so I do have hope it’s a story with lasting impact, and I’m very appreciative that Wonder Audiobooks published the audio edition.
I don’t want to give away any of the ideas and spoil this story, especially since it’s short and somewhat expensive, so I won’t go into what it’s about. Don’t read the links until after you have heard the story. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” is $4.88 for Audible.com members and for anyone it’s $7.95 at iTunes. I wished Wonder Audiobooks had given us two Cordwainer Smith stories for the same price to entice more readers to try Smith because I’m not sure about the market for single short stories. Let’s hope they succeed. WA could have created a nice mini Ace Double type collection with “Scanners Live in Vain.”
Another odd idea would have been to make a complete audio edition of the October, 1955 Galaxy magazine, in which “The Game of Rat and Dragon” first appeared. I don’t know how involved it would be to get copyright permissions, but that sure would make a fun blast-from-the-past time capsule.