The novel “Quest of the Three Worlds” by Cordwainer Smith was published for the first time in 1966. It’s the made up of four stories published in previous years.
Cashel O’Neill is looking for ways to overthrow the dictatorship on his planet, but the road to freedom is so long that it takes him to other planets. In fact, Instrumentality of Mankind didn’t act against the usurper Colonel Wedder but granted Casher O’Neill an all-world travel pass.
To achieve his goal, Caswell O’Neill needs resources and looks for them on various planets, but his travels lead him to situations that are different from what he imagined. In particular, his meetings with various underpeople and even with some unmodified animals make him find far more than he was looking for.
The fictional universe of the Instrumentality of Mankind is what made Cordwainer Smith famous. It’s a history that extends for many millennia in the future with various stories sometimes autonomous and sometimes linked to each other. The name refers to the civilization emerged with the reconstruction that took place after an atomic war and the expansion of humanity into space.
In 1963, Cordwainer Smith published the novelette “On the Gem Planet”, in which Casher O’Neill’s character made his debut and started searching for the means to overthrow the usurper who took the power on his planet. It became a sort of prologue of the protagonist’s adventures, which continued by the author in the following years.
Casher O’Neill’s adventures are told with Cordwainer Smith’s unique style. The protagonist travels on various planets with a specific goal but gets involved in local problems and typically also meets underpeople, animals genetically modified up to reach an intellectual level equal to humans’.
Often in Cordwainer Smith’s stories important characters are underpeople. The author had strong ties to China and his works were influenced by Chinese folklore elements, in the case of underpeople bringing supernatural creatures of Chinese traditional stories to science fiction.
It’s because of this influence that Casher O’Neill’s story is told as if it were a legend of the remote future of the Instrumentality of Mankind. It’s a quest where the protagonist’s experiences lead to his personal growth by meeting with other peoples and especially with some characters.
From this point of view, what happens in the second part of Casher O’Neill’s adventures, which was originally published as the novella “The On The Storm Planet”, is crucial. The protagonist is hired to kill T’ruth, a subperson who survived previous attempts.
For Casher O’Neill, understanding why no one succeeded in killing T’ruth means slowly discovering that character’s complexity. A subperson’s name derives from the first letter of their original species, in the specific case of a turtle, followed by the proper name, but T’ruth is also a word play on the word truth.
Casher O’Neill’s story has a resolution in the third part, “On the Sand Planet”, while the fourth and last part, “Three to a Given Star” is a kind of extra where the protagonists are other characters.
The result is that “Quest of the Three Worlds” is not a bit uneven as a novel and its final part is the weakest but in my opinion it’s overall fascinating as in general are Cordwainer Smith’s stories. There’s not much action but above all conversations among characters so someone may not like it but if you’re looking for something different than usual I recommend it.