Fantasy Book No. 6, 1950

Fantasy Book No. 6, 1950.

Sometime in the early 1950s, I was putting together Beyond the End of Time, an anthology for one of Doubleday’s subsidiary imprints. That was something I liked doing, so I did it fairly often.

It was an easy thousand dollars or so, because I had already read about a zillion stories that I liked well enough to be willing to package for some new readers and because all those old issues of Astounding, Amazing and Wonder had not yet been mined by so many other anthologists that every good story had already been reprinted by six or seven anthologists in six or seven books. I needed to include a bunch of those old superstars, because my editors felt that the names were what sold the books, but I also liked to include a couple of pieces that would be new to almost everyone. And I had one candidate in mind from the very beginning.

It was a story that had appeared in a semi-pro sf magazine from California called, if I remember aright, Fantasy Book. Its title was “Scanners Live in Vain.” It was about a bizarre kind of spaceflight, set in a bizarre future world, and it was signed as by someone named Cordwainer Smith. So I included it in my lineup, and then had the problem of finding out who could sign a permission for the use of the story and accept the payment for it. “Cordwainer Smith” smelled very much like a pseudonym to me. But for whom?

At first I thought it likely that it belonged to one of the existing pros because it just seemed to be too professional in quality to have been written by an amateur. However, stylistically it was very unusual, and not a bit like the style of any writer I could think of, So, as deadline time grew close and I had no signed permission I fell back on Plan B.

Plan B was Forrest J Ackerman. Forry knew just about everybody who was or ever had been connected with science fiction and had set up a literary agency of his own that capitalized on that fact. So I got my permission, the author got his money when Forry had tracked him down, and one day when I happened to be in the office, a man named Paul M.A. Linebarger showed up to thank me for publishing his story and to ask if I would be interested in some others he had written.

His timing was perfect. I had become editor of Galaxy when Horace Gold’s health made it impossible for him to go on with the job, and I was looking for strong new writers. Paul was just what the doctor ordered. Not only was he a welcome new voice in that every-issue cantata I tried to conduct, he had one trait I appreciated in particular. He liked to write. He did it in volume. And the stories were all good. Some I liked better than others, but I don’t think I ever turned down a single word he wrote. . . .

Well, except for titles. When Paul was on target, his titles were unlike anyone else’s, and better, but sometimes the muse seemed to have deserted him. I changed fairly many — not by any means a majority, but a significant fraction.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember most of them. If I could go through a complete file of the magazines, I could probably pick them out, but I don’t have one. The only instance I can remember for sure was “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” I don’t remember what Paul had called the story, but I thought it dreary … while what I do remember is that on the very next page of the ms., in another context, he had written the phrase “The Ballad of Lost C.Mell,” just begging to be made the title.

(If anyone is desperate to know which is which they probably could satisfy themselves by visiting Syracuse University’s library. After I left, I believe Bob Guinn, Galaxy’s publisher, donated all of the magazine’s papers to the university for a tax break, and the stories should all be there. If you come across a manuscript in which the original, typed title has been crossed out and a new one penciled in, that’s one.)

Writing science fiction was of course not Paul’s sole enterprise. He spent a lot of time on his main job, which was something weighty for the American State Department. I don’t know exactly what. He didn’t volunteer much, and I didn’t press him because I had learned, in the years when I was wandering the Earth to lecture on American science fiction as a sort of ice-breaker for the working diplomats, that there were things they didn’t want to talk about. You’d be chatting amiably with somebody in Washington — or in some embassy or consulate in Moscow or Leningrad or Stockholm or or Singapore or Auckland and at some point they would kick the conversation into a ninety-degree turn and, if you asked why, they’d just say, “Well, we’re not supposed to talk about that.”

Paul did say that the principal reason they considered him indispensable in Foggy Bottom was that they needed him to lecture to some groups of foreign diplomats. These were the people with not quite adequate command of English, and what they liked about Paul was that he could speak u-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-y S-L-O-W-l-y, so the foreigners had time to translate his remarks in their minds. But what those lectures were about he never said.

And then he would go home and write stories for me for relaxation.

If you would like to know everything that Paul was writing in those days, just look at my magazines. Up to a point, at least, it’s all there., just about every story Paul wrote in the mid-’60s, because he sent them all to me, and I couldn’t make myself reject any of them. . . .

Well, that’s true with one exception. At that time, Paul’s agent was Harry Altshuler, and one day Harry got in the mail an envelope from Paul that contained not one but two new stories. The bad part of that was that for reasons I can only guess — psychosis? Alcoholic delirium? — Harry had long ago imposed on himself a truly loopy rule prohibiting ever sending to an editor more than one story by a single author at a time. So he sent one story to me — which, whatever it was, I bought and published — and the other, a piece called “On Alpha-Ralpha Boulevard,” which, obediently to his maniacal Rule No. 1, he shipped off to Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Which, of course, not being incompetent, they bought and also published.

When I found out about it, I had words with Harry. This led him to suspend that rule for the duration of his life. But it was too late to prevent the loss of a story I really wanted. The damage was done.

To be continued.

Related posts:
Cordwainer Smith, Part 2


  1. Michael Walsh says:

    Oh my, Cordwainer Smith … one of my all time favorite authors. So glad you published him! In the Dept of Small Worlds: the name of my small press is Old Earth Books. And my day job is here at the Johns Hopkins University, working at the JHU Press.

  2. Russ Gray says:

    I quite enjoy Cordwainer Smith stories. I’ve got the big omnibus collection plus the novel Norstrilia.

    It’s all very weird, but very fun stuff. I’ve never see anyone write stories like his, and he gets away with things that I don’t think anyone else could have. Stylistically, lyrically, the voice in the stories is unique and challenging. But, fun.

  3. deadprogrammer says:

    When I became addicted to science fiction in the Soviet Union there were two ways to read a brilliant novella: either in an anthology featuring multiple authors or in collected works volume. The way we always figured, if there was a story in an anthology that was really first rate, there should have been a collected works volume somewhere. When I emigrated and finally learned English well enough, I fully expected that my favorite authors would be easily accessible in collected works volumes. Instead I found that I had to literally track them down story by story, sometimes having to purchase a particular pulp that featured a story that I wanted.

    Discovering Cordwainer Smith was a shock – I did not think that an author of such talent could be so obscure. I now realize that an Army Colonel, and a specialist in psychological warfare to boot (his textbook on the subject is great, actually) would not be very happy to be published in the USSR, but still. I’ve read nearly everything that he wrote, and even purchased and partially listened to a CD of him reading a manuscript draft, and yes, he can speak amazingly clearly and slowly. Like you, I never much liked non-instrumentality books of his. I’ve read about his lost notebook, although I think the story was that he simply misplaced it. That would be an amazing thing to find.

  4. Murasaki_1966 says:

    Thank you for publishing Cordwainer Smith. I came to his writing via Ursula Le Guin, and on the principle that if one of my favourite authors loved this bloke’s work, it must be worth checking out, I did. One of the best things I ever done. I wish his work was more widely known.

  5. glinda says:

    Another thank you for publishing his stories. I was, oh, ten or eleven when I first read one of his stories, the one where Rod McBan ends up with the stamp (avoiding other spoilers here); he’s been one of my two favorite SF writers ever since (the other is Zenna Henderson).

  6. b l miller says:

    Loved his stories more than I can say, read some to my Lady before she died. Let’s just say she loved cats, and could see further through a millstone than most. I have had to leave a lot of stuff behind in my penurious progress, never anything written by him. This stuff insinuates and grips, becomes a colouration of the internal life. There is not enough of it, and should I ever get out of the present difficulty, I’ll be looking for what I do not yet have.

  7. jean altshuler says:

    Perhaps you did not mean to imply that my father Harry Altshuler was psychotic or alcoholic. I saw no sign of either condition in the many years I knew him until his death in 1990.

  8. Frederik Pohl says:

    Dear Jean Altshuler:

    I knew your father over a period of years, and he was of course neither an alcoholic nor a lunatic. Harry was in fact an intelligent and skillful member of the publishing community. Nevertheless that “rule” was ill advised, enough so for me to describe it as I did, and one which caused trouble for me.

    But I am truly sorry if my flippancy caused you pain. I had no such intention.

    frederik pohl

  9. steven says:

    How are you ? Can you contact me. I have a question about your father.