By Bud Webster
Forest of Incandescent Bliss
I'm convinced that it was not only necessary, but utterly inevitable, that sf would eventually produce writers who would transcend the genre, who would elevate it above its pulpish origins, who would stand up to the rest of Literature and say "You got nothing on me, yo." We know who they are, we've been reading them all our lives (if we've lived that long), but I'll mention some of their names here: Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys (before he was seduced by the Dark Side), Avram Davidson, William Kotzwinkle, Roger Zelazny, James Tiptree, Jr., Philip K. Dick (when he was On), Theodore Sturgeon (when he wasn't being Kilgore Trout), Ursula LeGuin. They tried to take Kurt Vonnegut from us, the bastards, and even convinced him he was Not Of This Earth, but those of us who read him in Galaxy and Wonder Stories — yes, I said Wonder Stories — know better, don't we?
And you know what? Most of these — check that, all of these — pale beside the finest writer the field has ever seen, the one against whom all others are never measured because it would be demonstrably unfair: Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, known to his illustrious godfather (I'll get to it, don't worry) as Lin Bah Loh, or Forest of Incandescent Bliss, AKA Cordwainer Smith.
If I wanted to be all clever and post-modern, I'd deconstruct that pseudonym and tell you that "cord" not only refers to a woven strand, but a fabric made up of woven strands; that a "wain" is a wagon; and that a "smith" is a maker of things. I'd get one of those totally smug and supercilious little smiles on my mug and stretch those already-thin definitions to say something like "Cordwainer Smith wrote a wagon-load of intricately plaited and elaborately plotted stories." I might even get a grant.
But you don't need to pick apart the man's pen-name to know that. All you have to do is read any of the Instrumentality of Mankind stories, or his lone sf novel, Norstrillia, or, well, just about anything he wrote, really. But — and I'm not but about 12% facetious here — you do have to read him. There'll be a quiz even if I have to track you all down and come to your house.
Linebarger was destined for some kind of greatness. Although he was born in Milwaukee, of all places (his father wanted to ensure his status as natural citizen so he'd have his chance at the Presidency), he was raised in Europe and Asia. His father was legal advisor to Sun Yat Sen (Google it — I'll wait) and helped finance the 1911 Revolution, which is how little Paul became Sun's godson. In 1930, Linebarger himself negotiated a loan for China on his father's behalf. He was seventeen at the time. Seventeen. I know what I was doing at seventeen, and if I was negotiating for anything it was a lower price on a dime-bag or a better shot at second base.
But it gets better, really. Six years later, at a time in life when I was trying to stay awake during my 8:00am class in History of the Theater, he already had his Ph.D. in Political Science from some backwater college called Johns Hopkins. Then he started writing books instead of just editing his dad's, not to mention speaking six languages — none of them Klingon or Elvish. And you kids today think you've accomplished something when you've finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It is, as they say, to laugh.
A little later, during WWII, he rose to the rank of colonel in Army Intelligence, but before that he did something that would have made Kimball Kinnison (Google it, kid) scratch his head and make Scooby-Doo noises: while working with the Operations and Planning Board, he...Ghod, I can't stand it...he created a profile for an intelligence operative in China that included a set of qualifications that could only be met by one man: Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger. Himself. AKA Cordwainer Smith. What balls.
Away he went to China as a lowly lieutenant; by the end of the war he'd be a major, and his experience led him to write the 1948 book, Psychological Warfare, still used as a text. He said in his introduction:
"This book is based on my five years of work, both as civilian expert and as Army officer, in American psychological warfare facilities - at every level from the Joint and Combined Chiefs of Staff planning phase down to the preparing of spot leaflets for the American forces in China. Consequently, I have...sought to incorporate those concepts and doctrines which found readiest acceptance among the men actually doing the job."
(Is it an accident that both Linebarger and Alice Sheldon, one of the few writers in or out of the field who even came close to his stylistic melisma, both worked in intelligence? I think the answer is far more complex than might be evident at first.)
That wasn't the first thing he published, even though he wouldn't "break into print" until 1950 in stfnal terms. Way back when he was fifteen years old, his first story, "War No. 81-Q" appeared in The Adjutant, the cadet corps publication of Central High School, Washington D. C., dated June 1928. It either appeared under the name "Karolman Junghar" or "Anthony Bearden," depending on whose scholarship you trust; my money's on Bearden, but I readily admit that I've never seen a copy of the original. As usual, I welcome correction (although I'll be grinding my teeth even as I thank you).
So what was this teen-age yarn about? I quote the description from Anthony R. Lewis's indispensable Concordance to Cordwainer Smith (3rd ed., NESFA Press 2000):
"The battle between America and Tibet for the Radiant Heat Monopoly. It was scheduled to take place from noon to 2p.m. on 5 January 2127 at Kerguelen. America won."
(Well, I should darned well hope so. Think of the ignominy if we'd lost. China would never let us hear the end of it.) Much later, the story would be significantly rewritten and published in NESFA's monumental The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, edited by James Mann in 1993, and still available.
The years after the war brought several more novels from Duell, Sloane & Pearce: Ria in 1947, Carola a year later, both under the pseudonym Felix Forest (a nod to his Chinese name); and a third, Atomsk, under the name Carmichael Smith, in 1949. This is in addition to a number of books he wrote on China before the war, titles and exact dates unknown to me (hey, do I have to do everything for you guys? Ask around).
With all this going on, and a career as military advisor during the Korean conflict and to the British during their foray into Malaysia, not to mention being one of the founders of the Office of War Information, you'd think his plate was pretty full. Well, apparently not, because however extraordinary Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger was, Cordwainer Smith passed him at a walk.
The January, 1950 issue of the little semi-prozine titled Fantasy Book and edited by William Crawford under the pseudonym of Garrett Ford was pretty un-(you should pardon the expression)Amazing; it was the sixth issue of an eight-issue run, ranging in size from bed-sheet (8.5x11.75") to several "digest" sizes, and the cover was in two colors only. As a fanzine, it was more than reasonable, but as a commercial venture, it was doomed.
The table of contents is about as impressive as the cover: trunk stories, mostly, including "The Little Man on the Subway" by Isaac Asimov and James MacCreigh (actually Fred Pohl), which had been gathering dust for a decade after being bounced by Campbell for Unknown. Oh, there were a couple of other names that were known at the time as well, such as Stanton Coblentz and Basil Wells (who had two stories in, the other as by Gene Ellerman), but the lead story by Asimov and "MacCreigh" paid only $10, so you can figure that Fantasy Book wasn't attracting A-list writers.
Nevertheless, amongst all that almost Gernsbackian dross was a definite gem: "Scanners Live in Vain" by the then-unknown Cordwainer Smith. Believe me, in 1950 there was nothing in the field like this story, nothing even remotely like it. Not even the nascent F&SF and Galaxy had published anything like it. In fact, it had more in kin with the New Worlds stories of a dozen years down the line than anything contemporary. Why Crawford, whose interests as publisher and editor tended towards pre-Campbell writers, chose this story is puzzling, but I'll hope to err on the Good side and assume it was because he recognized its merits.
If you haven't yet read this wonderful little pearl, you have ample opportunity to do so; here is a partial list of its anthology appearances:
Beyond the End of Time, ed. Frederik Pohl, Permabooks 1952
Science and Sorcery, ed. Garret Ford, FPCI 1953
You Will Never Be the Same, Evanston: Regency Books 1963
Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1, ed. Robert Silverberg, Doubleday 1970
Survival Printout, ed. Total Effect, Vintage 1973
The Best of Cordwainer Smith, Ballantine 1975
Decade the 1950s, ed. Brian W. Aldiss & Harry Harrison, Macmillan UK 1976
First Voyages, ed. Damon Knight, Martin H. Greenberg & Joseph D. Olander, Avon 1981
In fact, the only Smith story with more reprint credits is "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (October 1955 Galaxy). Why? Well, "Game..." is better story, but "Scanners..." is no lightweight:
"Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. The action was reflex and automatic. The inventory included his legs, abdomen, Chestbox of instruments, hands, arms, face and back with the Mirror. Only then did Martel go back to being angry....'I tell you I must cranch. I have to cranch.'"
I won't spoil it for you by going into any further details, but I do expect you to find a copy in one of the dozen or so places it's been reprinted over the years and read it for yourself. Remember, when you do, that while it appeared at the beginning of the Korean Conflict, it had been conceived and written at least five years earlier. Think about that.
(In re-reading that passage above, it occurs to me that Smith cast Martel and the other Scanners as lepers. Victims of Hanson's Disease must constantly check themselves for injuries lest they let something go long enough for gangrene to set in, and the social aspects of trying to live with the disease are a strong analogue as well. I suspect that in the years he spent in the East, Linebarger saw quite a bit of it.)
Smith wouldn't poke his head above the horizon again until five years later with the aforesaid "The Game of Rat and Dragon," and would never be a terribly prolific writer; 29 stories and a bare handful of novels in sixteen years (not counting posthumous works) doesn't stack up well against Asimov or even any of the other Smiths (Doc, Clark Ashton, George O. or George H.), but as Spencer Tracy says of Katherine Heyburn in Pat and Mike, "Not much meat on her, but what's there is cherce."
And "cherce" it is, too. Smith was a mythmaker, a poet at heart. Even his titles arouse the imagination in ways few others had done before, or have done since: "No, No, Not Rogov!", "The Lady Who Sailed The Soul", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", "The Dead Lady Of Clown Town", "Golden The Ship Was - Oh! Oh! Oh!" Who else in the 1950s would use titles like that? Who else could even conceive of titles like that?
Not many people read "Scanners..." when it first came out, understandable considering the low circulation of the magazine it appeared in. But its reputation grew, and grew still more as it was anthologized, and it (along with Smith's subsequent wonderments) gradually but steadily began to influence a new generation of writers that included Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney, Roger Zelazny, Philip K. Dick, and a host of others. Indeed, his influence on what would be come known as the New Wave was substantial, which may have caused him some dismay considering his conservative politics.
So, who was this guy? I've told you a lot about him in earlier paragraphs, but at the time he was actively writing and publishing, Cordwainer Smith was the only name he was known by, and his real identity was a mystery. Robert Silverberg, in an article in Amazing as late as the mid-60s, mused:
I think that Cordwainer Smith is a visitor from some remote period of the future, living among us perhaps as an exile from his own era or perhaps just as a tourist, and amusing himself by casting some of his knowledge of historical events into the form of science fiction.
All well and good, you might say, but the above bit of whimsy notwithstanding, answer the damn question, will ya? Okay, then, here's the word from Dr. Arthur Burns, who knew Linebarger while they were both teaching in the Department of Modern History at the Australian National University in 1957:
[Linebarger] once said that Cordwainer Smith was a "pre-Cervantean" — the stories are like cycles of medieval legends, without the Aristotelian beginning-middle-and-end of classic tragedy....They are legendary cycles of the future, rather than future history, and were meant to be connected with and consistent with each other on the legendary and not the historiographic model.
Linebarger was also chronically ill; his stomach was bad enough that he had to drink dilute hydrochloric acid in order to digest food (and to those of you who're looking askance at this, I will add that my father did the same), and he spent much of his time confined to his bed. During these periods of inaction, he wrote sf, and the suffering he went through and the medical procedures he endured show through in most of them.
Composer Charles Ives and Dr. Linebarger had much in common. Both were experimentalists in their fields, both were willing to commit themselves fully to the project at hand, and neither of them was dependent on their art for their primary income. This last is vitally important in Cordwainer Smith's career, because had he felt the need to "tone down" his work in order to fit some editor's taste, stories like "Think Blue, Count Two" might never have been written, or, if they had, might have been significantly less than they are.
In a way, this is more than just fortunate for us; reading a Cordwainer Smith story isn't just the Grand Prize or the Gold Ring, it's winning the Pick Five with a single ticket bought on impulse. Smith's stories don't pay off the first time you read them, they declare new dividends each time you read them. I learned this myself as a kid reading "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" for the first time in Conklin's 12 Great Classics of Science Fiction. I finished the story, more than satisfied, but puzzled. Years later, I read it again and found that the story held more than I could ever have realized as an eleven year-old, and reading it again a week ago in preparing for this article showed me that it still had treasure to offer up.
There have been many attempts on the part of sf writers to create a massive framework in which their stories can fit. Some, like Gordon R. Dickson, begin with that in mind and write accordingly. Others come to the idea of a "future history" later in the game and then have to retro-fit, not always well (like Asimov). There's no shortage of broad canvases and vast reaches, either, if only in the work of Edmond Hamilton and Doc Smith.
But the Instrumentality of Mankind...! With all the wide-ranging breadth of China's history as his palette, he paints with broad but nuanced strokes. His mythology spans our present time (still the near future when written) to the year 16,000. It includes wars, expansions, the settlement of thousands of worlds, human life-spans of 400 years, men adapting themselves to hostile planets instead of vice versa, the rise of the Underpeople and the fall of the Lords; it may not have the crashing suns and giant vacuum tubes of the Interstellar Patrol or the Lensmen, but it has a brilliance and magnificence that marks it as unique:
She was a girlygirl and they were true men, the lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won. It had never happened before, and it is sure never to happen again, but she did win. She was not even of human extraction. She was cat-derived....she won her tricks against the lawful and assembled Lords of the Instrumentality. [from "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell"]
In looking through Lewis's Concordance, I'm struck by the number of puns and neologisms Smith used to build his future: D'joan, the dog-derived character from "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" who was burned at the stake is based on Joan of Arc — Joan Dog/Jeanne D'Arc; C'Mell was named for one of the Linebarger's pets, Cat Melanie; the term "cranch" was taken from the name of an abandoned store in Linebarger's neighborhood. Smith's body of work is crowded with such.
Brian Ash, in Who's Who in Science Fiction (Taplinger 1976) says:
Many of his stories verge on full-blown fantasy, steeped in legends of humanity originating ten millennia hence. They can be lyrical, bitter-sweet, elusive, surrealistic, violent. Unlikely to appeal to the more technically-minded enthusiast, their haunting quality has nevertheless secured them a substantial following....
"Their haunting quality..." When I first read "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" back in my youth, it did, in fact, haunt me. I remembered her name, I remembered that silly song, I remembered her unrequited love for Lord Jestecost and the fact that, together, they waged successful revolution against the Instrumentality.
More than that, though, I was haunted by the language. I was haunted by the imagery, and the scope, and the sheer mythic wonder of it all. This was a story that sang to me then, even after the covers of the book were closed, and sings to me as much even now as AARP-fodder.
Paul Linebarger died on August 5th, 1966, leaving behind his loving wife, Genevieve, devoted fans, and a body of work that seems to have come from far above the plane of the ecliptic. There has never been a writer like him, in this or any other genre, and it is unlikely that we'll see his like again.
(I would like to thank Bruce Gillespie for his help in passing along to me material published in The Australian Review of SF.)
What follows is as complete a bibliography of first appearances as I can put together; the NESFA Concordance has a more complete one, and there are also on-line resources available, some listed below. I have omitted unpublished works, as I just don't know enough about them to feel justified in listing them, but they are mentioned in the Concordance.
Official Smith webpage, set up by Linebarger's daughter — http://www.cordwainer-smith.com/
Mike Bennett's Illustrated Bibliography of Cordwainer Smith — www.cordwainer-smith.com/bibliography.htm
Wikipedia entry — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cordwainer_Smith
"War No. 81-Q" — June 1928 The Adjutant
"Scanners Live In Vain" — January 1950 Fantasy Book (#6)
"The Game Of Rat And Dragon" — October 1955 Galaxy
"Mark Elf" — May 1957 Saturn (as "Mark XI")
"The Burning Of The Brain" — October 1958 If — Worlds of Science Fiction
"Western Science Is So Wonderful" — December 1958 If — Worlds of Science Fiction
"No, No, Not Rogov!" — February 1959 If — Worlds of Science Fiction
"Nancy" — March 1959 Satellite Science Fiction (as "The Nancy Routine")
"When The People Fell" — April 1959 Galaxy
"Golden The Ship Was — Oh! Oh! Oh!" — April 1959 Amazing Science Fiction (with Genevieve Linebarger)
"Angerhelm" — June 1959 Star Science Fiction No. 6 (ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine)
"The Fife Of Bodhidharma" — June 1959 Fantastic
"The Lady Who Sailed The Soul" — April 1960 Galaxy (with Genevieve Linebarger)
"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" — June 1961 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" — June 1961 Galaxy
"A Planet Named Shayol" — October 1961 Galaxy
"From Gustible's Planet" — July 1962 Worlds of If Science Fiction
"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" — October 1962 Galaxy
"Think Blue, Count Two" — February 1963 Galaxy
"On The Gem Planet" — October 1963 Galaxy
"Drunkboat" — October 1963 Amazing Stories Fact and Science Fiction
"The Good Friends" — October 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow
"The Boy Who Bought Old Earth" — April 1964 Galaxy
"The Store Of Heart's Desire" — May 1964 Worlds of If Science Fiction
"The Crime And The Glory Of Commander Suzdal" — May 1964 Amazing Stories Fact and Science Fiction
"The Dead Lady Of Clown Town" — August 1964 Galaxy
"On The Storm Planet" — February 1965 Galaxy
"Three To A Given Star" — October 1965 Galaxy
"On The Sand Planet" — December 1965 Amazing Stories
"Under Old Earth" — February 1966 Galaxy
"Down To A Sunless Sea" — October 1975 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (with Genevieve Linebarger, a posthumous collaboration)
"The Queen Of The Afternoon" — April 1978 Galaxy (with Genevieve Linebarger, a posthumous collaboration)
"The Colonel Came Back From Nothing—At—All" — The Instrumentality Of Mankind, Ballantine May 1979
"Himself In Anachron" — The Rediscovery Of Man, NESFA, 1993 (originally published in French in Les Seigneurs de L'Instrumentalite, ed. Jacques Goimbard, Presses Pocket, 1987
You Will Never Be The Same — Regency,1963
The Planet Buyer — Pyramid, October 1964
Space Lords — Pyramid, May 1965
Quest Of The Three Worlds — Ace, 1966
The Underpeople — Pyramid November, 1968
Under Old Earth and Other Explorations — Panther, 1970 (UK)
Stardreamer — Beagle Boxer, August 1971
Norstrilia — Ballantine, February 1975
The Best Of Cordwainer Smith — Ballantine, July 1975
The Instrumentality Of Mankind — Ballantine, May 1979
The Rediscovery Of Man — NESFA, 1993
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