Cordwainer Smith is a most unusual story writer whose execution and creativity in ideas usually outshone the way they were ended. One usually expects a good, decisive ending to a SF short story but such was the sheer strangeness of his ideas, his poetical prose style and varied range of narrative techniques that I didn't mind too much.
This collection contains about half the stories the author published pertaining to his vision of a future history of mankind. They are arranged in chronological order within this story arc with often thousands of years in between stories. In Smith's vision of our future, our civilization eventually collapses but from the ashes a new civilization emerges guided by the benign Instrumentality that strives to protect and nurture mankind towards it's ultimate state of being.
There are many thematic threads running through this collection. We see mankind's relationship with animals evolve as we see the "pinlighters" working with cats telepathically to protect interstellar ships from the ravages of all consuming menace that thrives in the darkness between stars. Later animals are moulded into human form are are used as slaves and their striving and gradual struggle for equality and freedom.
We also see perhaps Smith's own evolution of ideas about how you can maximise human happiness. Can it be by protecting people from uncertainty, pain, strife and suffering? Or does mankind only truly thrive in adversity?
This is not for those who want everything explained and rationalised. Much is left to the reader to speculate upon. But I was constantly surprised by the elegance and rhythm of the prose that, again, is not something one often expects with SF. In a way, this is more a fantastic retelling of myths and legends told in a far distant future.