“Scanners Live in Vain” was the first published work by the pseudonymous Cordwainer Smith, but not of the real person behind the pseudonym, Paul Linebarger. Linebarger had published numerous nonfiction works and three novels before writing “Scanners.”
Two of these, Ria and Carola, both published under the pen-name of Felix C. Forrest, were parts of a single extended story, told from the point of view of a central character who has the good fortune to just happen to be on the scene when and where all of the significant events of the mid-20th century are happening. This is a device several authors have employed when they wished to write a commentary on that period, and had elected to write in the form of fiction in the hope that doing so would get some intellectually lazier citizens to read it. (I don’t know how well the stratagem worked. Certainly I, as an omnivorous reader, had never heard of either book until Paul told me about them.) While not as attention-grabbing as the Cordwainer Smith stories, both of these were reasonably good, if not compelling, reads. (Paul had also published at least two other early books, a cloak-and-daggerish near-future story called Atomsk and a collection of poems, the title of which he may well have told me but I don’t remember, under yet a third and fourth pseudonym. But I haven’t read either of these. )
Since my own addiction to the use of pen-names was total for the first fifteen or so years of my professional writing career, I probably shouldn’t speculate about why other writers choose to hide under a nom d’escrit. But it happens I do know something in Paul’s psychic makeup which bears on that question.
Paul rarely came to New York, but my ramblings did occasionally take me to Washington, where he and his wife lived, in a nice house with a huge, red and gold congratulations-on-your-birth banner from no less than Sun Yat Sen himself on the wall. (Paul’s parents, along with infant Paul himself, had spent years in China, in the course of which they had come to know that founder of the modern Chinese republic.) The house was in the exclusive district that I think is called Rock Creek, and if you had to live in Washington that’s the part of the city where you would like best to live.
One of those expeditions came about in 1963 because the peripatetic annual Worldcon was being held in Washington that year. As soon as I got there for that weekend, I paid a call on Paul at his home. His stories in Galaxy, I told him, had been attracting a lot of attention and scores or hundreds of his most devoted readers would be at this con, barely a few miles away. Why not drop by and let a few of them get a look at you?
It was a simple enough suggestion, but it seemed to fill him with alarm. No, he said, no, no, that wouldn’t be possible. But I could make sure it was painless. I promised. I would get the con to give us a room somewhere with a service elevator nearby for easy escape after his appearance. Indeed, I could keep him away from possibly unruly fans, by escorting him directly to the SFWA suite, where as a past president I could arrange a closed-door session with his science-fiction writing colleagues —
But no. That couldn’t be either. There was no plan that would get him to that hotel, because to do it would mean end of the writing career of Cordwainer Smith. And he knew this for a fact, he said, because it had happened to him once before. As Felix C. Forrest, he had been writing happily along until some well-meaning associate had talked him out of the closet for some kind of personal appearance … and then Felix C. Forrest had never been able to write another word.
But, he said, he didn’t need to be a total recluse. If I would like to invite perhaps three or four other writers to come over for a cup of tea or a drink he would welcome them.
So I did. I chose A J Budrys because he had a lot of experience with diplomats (although in his case mostly Lithuanian ones) and Judy Merril because she was writing enthusiastically about his stories for her public-library collection and a couple of others, I forget who, because, I forget why. And we all had a nice talk that Sunday, while the Washington Worldcon was passing into history, and Cordwainer Smith kept right on writing.
Well, sort of.
There was a problem. After a few more fine stories about the associates of Lord Jestecost and C’Mell the cat lady and all, I got a saddening letter from him. He wouldn’t be writing any more stories about the Instrumentality, he said, because he had totally run out of additional story ideas. He hadn’t thought that would happen, he told me, because for years he’d kept this little pocket notebook with him, filling it with ideas as they occurred to him, including a number for additional stories in the series. But, alas. he’d been in a small boat somewhere — maybe it was on some Italian lake or Mediterranean bay — and he had leaned incautiously over the side … and the notebook had fallen out of his breast pocket into the water … and he been able to watch it dropping through the crystal-clear water until at last it was out of sight, and was gone. Along with all those never-to-be-written stories.
But, he said, there was one bright spot. For some time he been meditating starting a different series of stories — science-fiction stories, yes, but all sort of parables of mid-Eastern political happeningss, with all the major characters, disguised, of course, but all the same based on King Farouk of Egypt, and the founders of Israel, and all the other leaders of that tempestuous part of the world; and he would send me the first story in that series, entitled “On the Storm Planet,” if I remember right, in a couple of weeks.
And so he did.
I have to say that I never thrilled to these new stories in the way I had to the ones that had made his name. Neither did the readers. But they were glad to have them as second-bests, and so was I, and then, without warning — or at least without any warning that he shared with me — Paul died, and there weren’t going to be any more new stories at all.
Well, not exactly, anyway.
Not long after Paul’s death, the Cleveland Worldcon came along, and I was, of course, drafted onto a panel on the general subject of “Cordwainer Smith, His Life and Works.” I don’t remember much of what was said, but there was a sort of general agreement that his was a unique and irreplaceable talent, and there would never be another like him. And I was nodding agreement with all this, and then something occurred to me. I stopped listening to the others.
Wait a minute, Fred, I said to myself — not out loud and not even moving my lips. What are you agreeing to here? You edited all those stories. You cut a little here and added a bit there, and you put new titles on some of them, and nobody ever noticed. Oh, maybe Paul did, but he never spoke a single word of disagreement or complaint. Who’s to say you couldn’t actually write stories of that kind? At least we know you could definitely write a Cordwainer Smith title, because you already have.
And that seemed like an interesting challenge, so I pulled over one of the pads of hotel stationery they gave us to make notes on, which hardly any of us ever did, and I wrote a title on it.
I don’t now remember exactly what that title was, but it was something like “The Sorrowful Tale of the Sad-Eyed Queen of the Hundred Wandering Isles.” And then, I know — not just then but maybe that evening, or some time fairly soon thereafter, anyway — I actually wrote the story.
I don’t know if the story was any good — we’re talking about things thirty or forty years in the past, remember. It may not have been, because I don’t know if I ever published it. But I’ll try to check it out, because now that I’ve started to think about it, I’d like to see it again. If I find it, and if it’s any good, maybe you’ll get a chance to see it too.
Cordwainer Smith, Part 1