Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling

The author, born 100 years ago, shocked science-fiction readers with his extreme depictions of other worlds—and his rumored belief that he sometimes lived in one.

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One hot June day, probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s, psychoanalyst Dr. Robert Lindner received a phone call from a physician who wanted to refer a troubling case to him for treatment: "The fellow I'm calling you about is a man in his 30s, a research physicist with us out here. As far as I can tell, he's perfectly normal in every way except for a lot of crazy ideas about living part of the time in another world—on another planet."

This famous case study, which Lindner shared in his 1955 book The Fifty-Minute Hour, is now believed by some to be a real-life account of Paul Linebarger (1913-1966)—better known to science-fiction fans under the name of Cordwainer Smith, a writer who still retains a strong cult following in this year of his centenary. The accumulated evidence suggests that Smith, who published more than two dozen short stories and a single sci-fi novel during the 1950s and 1960s, may have drawn on his personal experiences, broadly defined, in crafting his peculiar and visionary tales of intergalactic life. Brian Aldiss first reported the possible linkage between Smith and Kirk Allen—the name used by Lindner for his patient—in 1973, and subsequent research by Alan Elms and Lee Weinstein has tended to substantiate, although not definitely prove, the connection.

According to Lindner, his patient first began experiencing a strange feeling while reading fanciful adventure novels during his youth. "In some weird and inexplicable way I knew that what I was reading was my biography [emphasis Lindner's]. Nothing in these books was unfamiliar to me: I recognized everything... My everyday life began to recede at this point. In fact, it became fiction—and, as it did, the books became my reality." At the further stage of this "psychosis," the patient "filled in the spaces" between the written stories with "fantasy 'recollections.'"

If, in fact, the man described here is Paul Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith), this strange, distorted sense of reality did little to hinder his success in the more conventional world that you and I inhabit. He earned a Ph.D. in political science at Johns Hopkins, and in his early life he mastered six languages. He served on the faculty of Duke University, advised the military on psychological warfare (and wrote a seminal book on the subject), did work for the CIA, and advised President John F. Kennedy. And those are merely highlights of his terrestrial CV.

Smith's science-fiction work was obsessed with grand historical concepts and organizational philosophies, and describes in great detail command structures—in particular what he calls the Instrumentality of Mankind, a galactic governmental framework that recurs again and again in his work—and transformational epochs. A particular fixation of his was his projected future "Rediscovery of Man," in which a technologically superior race of human beings deliberately renounces its advantages and blandly perfected lives in order to reintroduce risk and uncertainty into the sphere of day-to-day events.

What an odd change from those all-too-familiar sci-fi books about the future, in which some authoritarian dystopian society is postulated. Here instead Cordwainer Smith envisions a future in which the powers-that-be prefer to embrace a messy, uncontrolled imperfection. In an unusual twist on the typical futurist saga, Smith describes a fierce backlash against the grand achievements of the social engineers—but only because they have succeeded so completely.

The rulers now decide that they need to return to the less predictable ways of the past. Only 42 people in the entire universe know how to read English, that archaic language of a dead society, and a Common Tongue now allows universal communication, but that is now to be replaced by the reintroduced old languages. A host of other advances—medical, sociological, psychological, economic—are similarly seen as obsolete.

"I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years," announces the narrator Paul in Smith's short story "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard." "I took Virginia to hear the first piano recital. We watched at the eye-machine when cholera was released in Tasmania, and we saw the Tasmanians dance in the streets, now that they did not have to be protected any more. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world. I myself went into a hospital and came out French..."

One could spend many pages considering these sociological and political themes, but the main attraction of Cordwainer Smith is not the theoretical implications, but the extravagant and often disturbing plot elements that make his stories stand out from the pack. When Smith submitted his first sci-fi story "Scanners Live in Vain" to John Campbell, Jr., the mastermind behind the influential Astounding magazine, the seasoned editor turned it down because it was, in his words, "too extreme."

Campbell was no stranger to controversy. Around this same time he battled with FBI agents who wanted to pull an issue of Astounding magazine off the newsstands because it described how to make an atomic bomb. And a few years later he helped pave the way for the Church of Scientology by publishing L. Ron Hubbard's "Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science" in the May, 1950 issues of Astounding (but feeling compelled to add the editorial note: "This article is not a hoax, joke...." etc. etc.). Even so, Smith's creepy story of a quasi-priesthood of astronauts who need to become deaf in order to withstand the horrors of space was pushing the envelope too far for this intrepid periodical. The scanners tale is almost a surrealistic nightmare, with little in common with the kind of whiz-bang high-tech adventure that sci-fi readers craved in those days.

In his later stories, Smith continued to reach for bizarre and extreme effects. In his novel Norstrilia, a man gets surgically turned into a cat, and has a romance with a feline who has become genetically altered into a "girly girl." In this same work, people achieve great wealth through the cultivation of diseased sheep. In the short story "A Planet Named Shayol," a criminal is condemned to a prison planet where inhabitants undergo excruciating pain while miniscule creatures called dromozoans take over their bodily processes—sucking waste from intestines, putting nutrients into the bloodstream—and also add extra eyes, stomachs, arms, and other organs to their bodies that can be harvested for medical purposes. In Smith's surreal novella "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," a dog-girl is assisted by a dead woman in achieving a martyrdom reminiscent of the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake. Even by the loose standards of sci-fi stories, these tales are strange and disturbing. The reader's reaction is inevitably along the lines of "where did these crazy ideas come from?" or perhaps merely a vaguely disquieting sense that the author has intentionally tried to gross out his audience.

In short, people who don't like science fiction will really hate these stories. In a genre that rarely shows restraint, Cordwainer Smith may have been the loosest cannon of them all. Think of his mental universe as a kind of Twilight Zone where even Rod Serling gets freaked out.

Even so, there is something endearing about an author who is so open and unembarrassed in sharing his weird fantasies. And, to be fair, Smith constantly reaches for mythic grandeur in his accounts. Like Tolkien, he moves his stories forward with songs and legends and a tone more suited for a medieval chronicle than a pulp-fiction magazine. The author deeply believes in these oddball tales, at such an intense level that it gives credence to the proposed linkages between Smith and Robert Lindner's patient who thought he was living in outer space.

I will leave it to other commentators to offer psychological "readings" of this body of work. In truth, Smith's sci-fi tales are almost begging for Freudian or Jungian interpretation. But the sense of the subliminal mind at work in these plots is something that even casual readers will pick up. And it is precisely those hidden undercurrents in the psyche rising to the forefront that give the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith such a lasting impact on readers, who find in his mixture of the delightful and disturbing a heady hybrid that no other author of his era can match.