The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith by Karen L. Hellekson

Jefferson, North Carolina; McFarland, 2001, $32, 158pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 190, June 2004

In 1950 the pseudonymous author of three not very successful mainstream novels (and three others what even his publisher wouldn’t take) had a short story published in an obscure science fiction magazine. One or two people noticed the story, but it didn’t cause much of a stir, and it would be another five years before a second science fiction story appeared from the same author. Nevertheless, in July 1951, presumably on the strength of that solitary and unpromising sale, he abruptly and rather brusquely severed his relationship with the agent who had thus far handled his mainstream fiction.

Today that author, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger or Cordwainer Smith, is recognised as one of the most distinctive and important voices in the science fiction of the last half century, but looking back his sudden move into science fiction seems extraordinary. Particularly as Karen Hellekson, whose book is based on meticulous truffling through Smith’s archive at the University of Kansas, finds only a couple of attempts at science fiction stories in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs written (but not completed) some 20 years before ‘Scanners Live In Vain’. What’s more, Linebarger’s profusion of pseudonyms — his earlier novels were published under the names Felix C. Forrest and Carmichael Smith, and he had toyed with a number of other variations — seems to have been the result, largely, of embarrassment that those who knew him professionally, as a highly respected academic at Johns Hopkins University, might discover he also wrote fiction. In the 1950s writing science fiction would, surely, have been far more embarrassing for Professor Linebarger than writing tedious psychological novels.

What it seems appropriate to call the myth of origin of Cordwainer Smith therefore has a tremendous mystery at its core. But you will find no light shed on that mystery in Hellekson’s book. Though it is the first book-length study of Smith to come from a single author (the only previous book was a collection of essays edited by John Bangsund which came out nearly 30 years ago in 1975 and has long since been unobtainable), it leaves all such questions unanswered. Why did Smith turn so surprisingly and totally to the despised genre of science fiction? Was his future history already plotted at the time he wrote ‘Scanners Live In Vain’, or was it an accidental accumulation as he wrote other stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind? Come to that, despite elaborate chronologies worked out by people like J.J. Pierce, was his future history really as coherent as we are led to believe? His stories are filled with references to (and borrowings from) a world of literature, from Chinese legends to the poetry of Rimbaud, but how much did he know of science fiction? We may never know. These are not the sorts of questions that are necessarily answered by sorting through an archive, and so they are not the questions that Hellekson has asked.

The book, though apparently based upon Hellekson’s masters thesis, reads like a conflation of essays each linked to its neighbours only by the accident of its subject, rather than a coherent argument developed over the book’s sparse 104 pages of text (the rest consists of a glossary, bibliographies and index). Thus we get a brief biographical sketch that rehearses all the familiar points of Smith’s life, but adds little new to the mix. As ever, much is made of his experiences in China (where Madame Sun Yat Sen taught him French), but beyond a passing mention of ‘the Oriental storytelling techniques he uses’ (p5), there is little analysis of the impact this had upon his fiction. When, late in the book, Hellekson quotes Smith saying of his peripatetic childhood: ‘I learned early that the surface meaning of words was not their real meaning’ (cited p89), she uses this to make a point about his alienation, not his use of language, though it suggests that language and alienation were intimately linkied. (Incidentally, Hellekson has been poorly served by her publisher, among a number of infelicities some copy editor should surely have noticed that the second paragraph begins: ‘”Cordwainer Smith” was really Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins University’ (p3) while paragraph six, just over the page, begins: ‘Cordwainer Smith was Paul Linebarger (1913-1966), a professor of Asiatic Politics at Johns Hopkins’ (p5).)

We follow the biography with a chapter on his early non-sf novels, published and unpublished. In many ways this is the most interesting part of the book because it deals with an area little known to the majority of us, though I have to say it left me with not the slightest interest in seeking out or, heaven forefend, reading those books. Hellekson doesn’t say so in so many words, but they sound dire.

So far, so chronological, but just when the story reaches the point where Smith emerges, apparently fully-formed, as a science fiction writer, we jump to a chapter devoted to a detailed analysis of his relatively late story ‘Drunkboat’ (1963) and of another story, ‘The Colonel came back from the Nothing-at-All’ which was rejected in 1955, revised but unpublished in 1958 and finally appeared in 1979, and which was an early version of ‘Drunkboat’. As a line-by-line analysis of the evolution of a story, this is fascinating, there’s some particularly interesting stuff on how much Smith lifted wholesale from Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau Ivre’, but as part of a broad survey of a writer’s work it seems out of place, particularly here where we want to hear about ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ and its immediate successors. Two chapters later, Hellekson pulls much the same trick with a study of Smith’s one science fiction novel, Norstrilia, and of the various early drafts (under the rather gauche title ‘Star Craving Mad’) found in his archive. Taken together with the portion of Chapter Two devoted to his unpublished novels, it can seem as if more of this book is devoted to what did not see print than to what did.

It is, in fact, only in the last chapter that she returns to the beginning of Smith’s science fiction career with ‘Scanners Live In Vain’. There is some background information. She quotes J.J. Pierce: ‘Evidence is strong that the entire background of “Scanners” was worked out in the six months from January to July 1945’ (cited p86), though we don’t learn what this evidence might be. This is tantalising, herein might be the moment of Smith’s Pauline conversion, but Hellekson seems to assume that because Smith did turn to science fiction it was always inevitable that he would, and so does not go down that route. We know that the story was completed in the summer of 1945 and rejected by every major sf market over the next three years before it was bought by the obscure Fantasy Book in 1948, who held on to it for two further years before publishing it. Given that Smith’s second sf story, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’, was sold in 1955, there appears to be a ten year gap between these first two stories. Yet we pass over this curious decade in silence.

What we do get is a critical examination of certain recurring themes in Smith’s work, usually based on just one or two examples. Smith was not the most prolific of writers, in a science fiction career that lasted just over ten years he produced one novel and fewer than 30 stories (including a couple that have been published posthumously), but only half a dozen of those works warrant more than a passing mention in this study. This can lead to a slightly wayward impression. In an otherwise excellent analysis of the social and spiritual role of the Underpeople in his work (based largely on ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’ and ‘The Dead Lady of Clown Town’), she points out that these genetically modified creatures were originally slaves, but fails to mention the ‘habermans’ in ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ whose existence suggests that slavery was endemic in Smith’s view of the future. She asserts, interestingly, that the closer to human appearance a person is, the more human they are in his view. Thus the two races of human stock, the truemen who have achieved an artificial physical perfection and the hominids who have been changed to suit different physical conditions, are less human than the animal-based underpeople who have been changed to appear like people. But she doesn’t pursue the notion, perhaps because it might sit uneasily with our vigorously defended image of Smith as a liberal on racial and social issues.

Hellekson is very protective of Smith; while not exactly a hagiography, this book is not exactly a critique either. In a study of Smith’s use of the idea of the Pain of Space — which again seems like a fruitful critical approach to his work — she goes through curious contortions to assert that, in ‘Scanners Live In Vain’, ‘Martel’s alienation from humanity and from the other scanners provides him with empathy’ (p93). It is as if an alienated hero is too cold an avatar of the author for her, but as many of her quotations from Smith’s letters and her descriptions of his behaviour inadvertently show, alienation seems a significant key to both the man and his work. These are not necessarily humane stories. Though he makes a big thing of the importance of love, and there is an overt religious aspect to so many of his stories, it is also evident that Smith’s stories are full of techniques that distance him (and us) from people. These range from his typical story structure — although set in the distant future, they are still legends of an ancient past in which characters are mostly fulfilling some legendary role — to the self-evident fact that his stories are littered with animals being preferred over humans. The role of people, meanwhile, both in his mainstream novels and in his science fiction, appears to be to suffer pain, psychic and physical. For all his eminence, Linebarger seems to have been an isolated and discontented man.

How valid an approach to Cordwainer Smith’s work this might be, I cannot say. Certainly there are hints scattered through Hellekson’s book to suggest this as a possible angle, but if so it is not an approach that Hellekson takes. What she does do, particularly in the last four chapters of this book, is consider four fruitful aspects of Smith’s work that repay critical examination: his range of literary influences, the role of the underpeople, the bildungsroman of Norstrilia and the psychological importance of pain. In each case they feel like starting points rather than the last word, and I hope that other critics might explore further and more widely along the avenues she has pointed out. Nevertheless, that must not take away from the value and the quality of what she has done in these four semi-independent essays. Unfortunately, the first two chapters set up expectations for a broader and more systematic examination of Cordwainer Smith’s life and work, and this is something that Hellekson simply does not provide, though if her book had been expanded to a reasonable length, perhaps twice the size of the one we have in front of us now, then she might have had room to do just the job that is so clearly needed.