Posts tagged ‘Cordwainer Smith’

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 —

Continue reading ‘Cordwainer Smith: The Ballad of Lost Linebarger, Part 2’ »

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

Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert

I met Frank Herbert and his wife Beverly at the home of Poul and Karen Anderson in the early 1960s, where we had all been invited for dinner. It was a great evening. There weren’t many people more fun to share a meal with than those four, especially when Karen was creating one of her original recipes (this time with Japanese black beans and I have no idea what else).

We became friendly quickly. I should mention that the Andersons’ home was in those unexpectedly precipitous hills across the Bay from San Francisco, because when it became going-home time the Herberts and I were driven back to the city by another diner, a local resident who knew every hill and curve and preferred to take them all at high speed while turned halfway around in the driver’s seat in order to have a friendly conversation with us. When we got out, the Herberts and I agreed that we had just been through a life-changing experience, and we would be lifelong buddies from then on.

Still, we managed to get together only rarely because of problems of geography, except for the occasional fortuitous occasion — for example, the day in the early ’80s, when I was in Seattle on a book tour. As I was crossing a street on my way to a TV interview, a car pulled up in front of me and a woman stuck her head out the window. “Hello, sailor,” she called. “Looking for a good time?” It was Bev, with Frank grinning over her shoulder from the steering-wheel side.

It wasn’t the best of opportunities for a lengthy chat, but I was glad to see them both looking well; Bev had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and, I knew, was facing surgery. Before the other drivers began honking, the Herberts mentioned that they were building a house in Hana on Maui, and I promised that the next time we were in Hawai’i we’d look them up.

Meanwhile Frank, working as a newspaperman, had started to research an article about the sand dunes of Oregon, and that changed his life. The dunes fascinated him. He never finished the article, but he began writing science-fiction stories for John Campbell’s Astounding, starting with a three-part serial about a dune planet and its inhabitants.

Herbert himself thought it might make a pretty good hardcover book but was disappointed by the responses when he tried offering it to publishers. No book publisher was interested in acquiring the hardcover rights to this rapidly expanding mass of manuscript, however, until an editor at the quite small publishing house of Chilton Books managed to stitch the several existing stories into a single huge novel. He called it Dune, and when he published the result, it became a runaway bestseller, said to be the most profitable sf book ever written.

Frank had written with real people and places in mind, though he gave them invented names for his stories, just as Cordwainer Smith had for his own stories of the imperfectly concealed Middle East. Arrakis was Frank Herbert code for Iraq, The Baron was Dick Cheney, Selusa Secundis was Afghanistan and so on. (I’m sorry to say that I don’t know all the identities for either author.)

To be continued. . . .

Related post:
Frank Herbert, the Dune Man, Part 2