Cordwainer Smith, 1965.

Cordwainer Smith, 1965.

Scanners Live in Vainwas 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.

 
Related posts:
Cordwainer Smith, Part 1

21 Comments

  1. Edd Vick says:

    Thank you for these reminiscences. I’ve been fascinated by Linebarger’s life and work ever since running across them in back issues of Galaxy when I was collecting them in the 70s. I do have his other work, excepting that poetry collection, and have read ATOMSK and PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE. The latter is every bit as gripping in its way as the Instrumentality stories, though I’d opt for many more of the latter.

    I always thought “Day Million” was a cordwainerian story.

  2. D. says:

    I apologize for the impertinence, but the Cleveland Worldcon was in 1955, and would have predated Mr. Linebarger’s death as well as Discon (which was my first Worldcon).

    You may have been thinking of MidAmeriCon (1976).

  3. Grego says:

    Fred,

    I hope you find your story and share it with us! I’d love to read your version of a Cordwainer classic. Thanks for all that you do.

  4. the blog team says:

    D.: Fred is referring to Tricon, held in Cleveland in 1966. Linebarger died Aug. 6, 1966.

  5. Robert Nowall says:

    I’ve long enjoyed and admired Cordwainer Smith’s work…but the history buff in me is curious about Paul M. A. Linebarger, the man behind the Cordwainer Smith name.

    There was a bitter argument in and around the State Department China experts in the 1950s, along the lines of “Who Lost China?” relating to the Communist takeover. A lot of hard feeling between those who were right and those who were wrong…a lot of lost jobs and prestige as well.

    From what little I know about Linebarger’s background, it looked like he was in position to be involved in it—but I don’t have a clue as to what, if anything, happened to him and with him and by him and involving him.

    Just one of those things that I have no way of getting an answer about, I guess…though a biography of Linebarger would probably be helpful…though maybe not. (You certainly know how grim some of these biographies of SF types can be…)

    *****

    If the Cordwainer-Smith-inspired-title story is “The Sweet, Sad Queen of the Grazing Isles,” it *was* published, in 1984, in the collection, “Pohlstars.” The story introduction more-or-less tells the same story…though it also says the events that inspired it took place at and after the WorldCon in Chicago in 1982.

  6. Michael Walsh says:

    SFWA had a suite at Discon I in 1963? Since SFWA was officially founded in 1965, could this had been a party of sorts hosted by damon knight others starting to organize as SFWA?

  7. TK Kenyon says:

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog, Fred. I read you every time you post. I just love your writing and your stories.

    TK Kenyon

  8. Karen Anderson says:

    I expect you already know all about the work of CONTACT conference veteran Alan Elms’s work, since he has this column on the official site –
    http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/scholarly.htm
    – what do you think of Al’s conclusion that Smith was the patient on Lindner’s “Jet-Propelled Couch”?

  9. Jerry says:

    I’d love to read that story, too. I hope you can rustle it up.

  10. Taint says:

    Yes, Fred, I think the story you wrote was called “The Sad, Sweet Queen of the Grazing Isles” and it was published about 15-20 years ago in one of your SS collections.

  11. Stefan Jones says:

    ‘I always thought “Day Million” was a cordwainerian story.’

    Damn. I’d never thought about that, but so it is.

    Also one of the first stories to suggest something like the Singularity, where asymptotic progress and social change has rendered the lives of future folk nearly incomprehensible to us.

    And maybe the first story to feature what today we’d call virtual reality sex. Between a cyborg and a prenatally transgendered otter woman, no less.

  12. Michael Walsh says:

    Taint: according to: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?POHLSTRS19XX – it seems to have been an original story first published in Pohlstars.

  13. David Dyer-Bennet says:

    On a short visit to the Street & Smith archives, then located at Syracuse University (my memory places this in the late 1970s), one thing I got to look at was a number of Cordwainer Smith manuscripts. I don’t now remember the stories (we were short of time, and it was just luck that a box or two of Smith was easily accessible), but I remember being quite struck by how much the penciled-in changes (which I believed at the time to be editorial changes) made the stories MORE like Cordwainer Smith stories. It was, in fact, fascinating, and I found it (as an SF reader with no real expertise in fiction) a bit surprising.

    Don’t know if that editor might have been you (I’m not remembering who owned which magazines when, or maybe I could figure it out); but whoever it was was clearly earning his pay.

  14. Stefan Jones says:

    @Karen: I think it was Kingsley Amis who also touted that connection.

    I don’t buy it myself: The “Kirk” of the psychoanalysis account was an engineer. Lots of kids grow up overseas. Lots of intelligent people “live” in two worlds . . . one imaginary and imaginative.* The intersection of those groups has got to be much larger than zero.

    I re-read Lindner’s account a few years back, and “Kirk’s” space empire seemed more Doc Smith than Instrumentality. It’s possible that the doctor changed the details of his patient’s subcreation in the name of confidentiality, but it may all just be coincidence. Linebarger strikes me as an immensely more capable and involved with the world person than “Kirk,” whom Lindler describes as brilliant but not living up to his potential.

    * I mean, heck, I write SF & F role playing game material; I have notebooks full of maps and descriptions. While I’m not under the delusion that any of it is real, I mentally “live” in those subcreations now and then to “try it out” on behalf of future players. Some of this stuff gets published and thousands of people temporarily “live” in those worlds.

  15. Russ Gray says:

    I had always heard that the notebooks were lost at a restaurant in Rhodes. I seem to remember that’s what it says in the Rediscovery of Man collection of short stories (but can’t find it right now to verify).

  16. gottacook says:

    Speaking of Kingsley Amis: In the “critics’ anthology” The Mirror of Infinity (R. Silverberg, ed., 1970), Amis’s introduction to Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” begins with a paragraph about how and why he might have chosen his pen name, the ending of which never fails to make me laugh (don’t know how to make italics here, substituting caps instead):

    “CORDWAINER Smith–nothing to do with cords or wains, by the way, but a corruption of something like ‘Cordovaner,’ one who works in leather from Cordova in Spain, hence a shoemaker. (The ancient guild of the trade, dating from medieval times, retains the term “cordwainer” in its title to this day.) But Shoemaker Smith would never have done. Nor would anything other than Cordwainer SMITH. Imagine the alternatives–Cordwainer Pohl, Cordwainer Sheckley, Cordwainer Blish . . . Not right at all.”

  17. John Boland says:

    Fred was definitely at Cleveland ’66. I interrupted him on the dance floor (still can’t believe I did that) to ask him to sign a copy of Drunkard’s Walk, which he graciously did, remarking that as it was a hardcover he should sign it twice. Twenty years later or thereabouts, I got into a conversation with a psychologist at a family gathering, and by one of those bizarre flukes, the talk arrived at Paul Linebarger, whom he acknowledged (long after Linebarger’s death) having treated. He said no more than that bare fact, which was probably indiscreet enough, and I didn’t press. As I live in Baltimore, the links may not have been that improbable: the Hopkins; Owen Latimore (sp?); Paul Linebarger. Last time I looked, and it’s been a while, somebody in Linebarger’s family had a pretty good web site up in remembrance,including information on his writing. There was poetry in his work. The only comparion that comes to mind is early Sam Delany (I’ve probably misspelled that, too, but it’s too late in the evening to care).

    This is a wonderful blog, Fred.

  18. Robert Nowall says:

    Re: the “Kirk Allyn” thing…I can’t say for sure who, but a Quote in one of the Theodore Sturgeon Collected Works books indicates Lindner helped Sturgeon find a psychiatrist and may have had sessions with him himself.

    (Actually, a commentary bringing up this Smith-Lindner connection led me to read the collection of Lindner’s work that included “The Jet-Propelled Couch”…and I found myself the richer for having done so.)

  19. Michael Walsh says:

    @ John Boland: You spelled Chip’s last name correctly! Not everyone does. The Cordwainer Smith site is still up at: http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/ – “The official website, run by his daughter” it sez right there! Daughter is Rosana Hart.

    As for the whole Kirk Allen thing, there’s this: http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/was-paul-linebarger-kirk-allen-.htm

  20. Stefan Jones says:

    Here is the official Cordwainer Smith website, maintained by his daughter:

    http://www.cordwainersmith.com/

    She addresses the possible “Kirk Alyn” link. She’s dubious, but can’t be sure.

    In any case, it’s a great website.

  21. Rosana Linebarger Hart says:

    I wish I had known how much interest there would be in the details of my father’s life… I would have remembered more! I really enjoyed reading these two posts, and just linked to them from my blog.

    Was already writing this when I glanced up and saw two links to my site from the commenters above. Thanks!

    BTW, every now and CS is republished still, usually in Europe.