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May/June 2019
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Atomsk, by Cordwainer Smith (1949)

Unlike Phil Dick, Cordwainer Smith (1913-1966) did not have to wait till after death for his mainstream novels to get published. Three mimetic novels actually preceded his famous Instrumentality tales: Ria (1947), Carola (1948), and Atomsk (1949). His daughter, Rosana Hart (who runs a content-rich website for her dad's work), deems the last-named his best, and it features the most sfnal elements.

Biracial U.S.A. super-spy Michael Dugan is tasked with going undercover to penetrate the ultra-secret Soviet research city Atomsk. (Love-interest Captain Sarah Lomax, a believably smart tough cookie herself, is understandably fearful.) With postmodern irony, authorities do not even want to know what's happening there—they merely want the Soviets to know that they know the place exists! Thus Dugan is prepped for possible self-betrayal as the only way to accomplish his mission. Rife with tension, taut as a tightrope, offering no guaranteed outcome, the plot captivates entirely. Cordwainerian touches abound. Recall "Think blue, count two..."? Try "Gauze nets of Silly Beast, suction 2 or 4."

Farsighted ("America will get sick and weak if it hates."), filled with tactile savvy about Russia and the Far East, this prophetic book (Russia exploded its first atomic bomb the very year Atomsk appeared) calls to mind Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) with its louche, chaotic postwar ambiance, and resonates also with the later Cold War vibes of Budrys's Who? (1958) and the monkey-wrenching philosophy of Eric Frank Russell's Wasp (1957).

If Milton Caniff were still alive, Atomsk would make the best damn Steve Canyon episode ever.

Paul Di Filippo

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