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Smith, Cordwainer

Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Author.

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The most famous pseudonym of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966), US author, political scientist, academic, military adviser in Korea and Malaya (though not Vietnam). A polyglot, he spent much of his early life before 1931 in Europe, Japan and China, his father, Paul Myron Wentworth Linebarger (1871-1939), being a peripatetic sinologist, author, and propagandist for Sun Yat-sen. His interest in China was profound – he had studied there, and edited his father's The Gospel of Chung Shan According to Paul Linebarger (1932) and The Ocean Men: An Allegory of the Sun Yat-Sen Revolutions (1937 chap), the latter being an allegorical play in a quasi-Chinese manner; the style of some of his later stories reflects his attempts to translate a Chinese narrative and structural style into his sf writing, not perhaps with complete success, as the fabulist's voice he assumed (see Fabulation) could verge upon the garrulous when opened out into English prose.

In America from about 1931, Smith studied at George Washington University, where he served as editor of the Literary Review, a supplement to The Hatchet, the college paper, and in this role published his fellow undergraduate L Ron Hubbard's first story (not sf), "Tah" (9 February 1932 The Hatchet: Literary Review Supplement). He remained interested in Hubbard for many years, composing a never-published book-length study, «Ethical Dianetics», around 1950, which did not espouse (he claimed) "a closed cult" like Hubbard's own Dianetics. Smith was a devout High Anglican, deeply interested in psychoanalysis and expert in "brainwashing" techniques, on which he wrote an early text, Psychological Warfare (1948; rev 1954). Right-wing in politics, he played an active role in propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime in China (one of his father's causes) before the communist takeover, writing frequently on Chinese politics, his second book in his own right being Government in Republican China (1938).

Smith began to publish sf with "War No. 81-Q" as by Karolman Junghar for The Adjutant – the yearbook of the Washington, District of Columbia, Cadet Corps – in 1928; some other early pseudonyms have not been identified. The tale, plus other unpublished early work, bore some relationship to the Instrumentality of Mankind Universe or Future History into which almost all his mature work fitted. Before beginning to write that mature work, however, Smith served with the US Army Intelligence Corps in India and China during World War Two and published three non-sf novels: Ria (1947) and Carola (1948), both as by Felix C Forrest, and Atomsk: A Novel of Suspense (1949) as by Carmichael Smith. After that date he published fiction only as Cordwainer Smith, his first story under this name, "Scanners Live in Vain" (January 1950 Fantasy Book #6), being one of his finest works. The story appeared obscurely, five years after it had begun a round of rejections from more prestigious sf journals (although John W Campbell Jr had penned an encouraging rejection note from Astounding), perhaps because its foreboding intensity made the editors of the time uneasy, perhaps because it plunges in medias res into the Instrumentality Universe, generating a sense that much remains untold beyond the dark edges of the tale. Scanners are space pilots; the rigours of their job in "the pain of space" entail the functional loss of the sensory region of their brains, with an effect on their behaviour that resembles severe autism. The story deals with their tortured lives and with the end of the form of space travel necessitating the contortions: it is clear that much has happened in the Universe before the tale begins, and that much will ensue.

The Instrumentality dominated the rest of Smith's creative life, which lasted from 1955, with the publication of "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (March 1955 Galaxy), until his death, with individual stories making up the bulk of several collections – including You Will Never Be the Same (coll 1963), Space Lords (coll 1965), Under Old Earth and Other Explorations (coll 1970) and Stardreamer (coll 1971) – before being re-sorted into two volumes, The Best of Cordwainer Smith (coll 1975; vt The Rediscovery of Man 1988) edited by John J Pierce and The Instrumentality of Mankind (coll 1979); the more recent sorting of his work – whose title, confusingly, is the same as the vt of the previous volume – seems definitive, and The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith (coll 1993) also usefully includes the four Casher O'Neill stories assembled in Quest of the Three Worlds (coll of linked stories 1966), which was deceptively presented as a novel. A similar complexity obscured the publication of his only genuine sf novel, Norstrilia (1975), which first appeared as two separate tales, each in fact an extract from the original single manuscript: The Planet Buyer (April 1964 Galaxy as "The Boy who Bought Old Earth"; rev 1964); and The Underpeople (May 1964 If as "The Store of Heart's Desire"; rev 1968). In the end, all of Smith's sf was assembled in two volumes: the 1993 Rediscovery of Man, and Norstrilia. A later rendering of this material in two volumes – We, The Underpeople (omni 2006) and When the People Fell (omni 2007) – presents a different resort.

The Instrumentality of Mankind covers several millennia of humanity's uncertain progress into a Far-Future plenitude. Before the period of "Scanners Live in Vain" a shattered Earth is dubiously revitalized by the family of a Nazi scientist who awake from Suspended Animation to found the Instrumentality, a hereditary caste of rulers, under whose hegemony space is explored by scanners, then by ships which sail by photonic winds, then via planoforming, which is more or less instantaneous. Genetically engineered (see Genetic Engineering) animals are Uplifted to human-like form and bred as slaves known as Underpeople (see Slavery). On the Australian colony planet of Norstrilia, an Immortality (or at least longevity) Drug called stroon is discovered, making the planet very rich indeed and granting the oligarchy on Earth eternal dominance, with no one but Norstrilians and members of the Instrumentality being permitted to live beyond 400 years. (Norstrilia deals with a young heir to much of the planet's wealth who travels to Earth, which he has purchased, discovering en passant a great deal about the animal-descended Underpeople, whose Telepathic guru grants him a curious "happy ever after" ending via Virtual Reality and Time Distortion – after which his story resumes.) Human life becomes baroque, aesthetical, decadent. But a fruitful concourse of Underpeople (some with ESP talents) and aristocrats generates the Rediscovery of Man – as witnessed in tales like "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" (August 1964 Galaxy), "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" (June 1961 F&SF) and "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (October 1962 Galaxy), which embodies a sympathetic response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s – through which disease, ethnicity and strife are deliberately reintroduced into the painless world. Much later an adventurer makes a Quest through Three Worlds in a Universe seemingly benign.

The Instrumentality of Mankind remains, all the same, a fragment – as, therefore, does Smith's work as a whole – for the long conflict between Underpeople and Instrumentality, the details of which are recounted by Smith with what might be called oceanic sentiment, is never resolved; and Smith's habitual teasing of the reader with implications of a fuller yet never-told tale only strengthens the sense of an almost coy incompletion. This sense is also reinforced by the Chinese ancestry of some of Smith's devices, which inspired in him a narrative voice that, in ruminating upon a tale of long ago, seemed to confer, both with the reader and with general tradition, about the tale's meaning (though they are transparently being told to auditors, none of them fits into a literal Club Story frame). Alfred Döblin has also been suggested as a significant influence, both for his early expressionist work set in China, like Die drei Sprünge des Wang-Lun ["The Three Leaps of Wang-Lun"] (1915), and for his surreal metamorphic sf novels – none translated – like Wadzeks Kampf mit der Dampfmaschine ["Wadzek's Struggle with the Steam-Machine"] (1918) and Berge Meere und Giganten ["Mountains, Seas and Giants"] (1924; cut vt Giganten ["Giants"] 1932). Smith's best later stories glow with an air of complexity and antiquity that, on analysis, their plots do not always sustain. Much of the structuring of the series is lyrical and incantatory (down to the literal use of rather bad poetry, some of it apparently by his second wife Genevieve Linebarger, and much internal rhyming) but, beyond stroon, and Norstrilia, and Old Earth and the absorbingly described Spaceships, much of the Instrumentality Universe remains only glimpsed. Whether such a Universe, recounted in such a voice, could ever be fully seen was a question which, of course, would not be answered.

Since 2001 the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award has been presented in his memory. [JC]

see also: Androids; Cats; Colonization of Other Worlds; Crime and Punishment; Cyborgs; Dogs; Faster Than Light; Galactic Empires; Galaxy Science Fiction; Icons; Jobs in SF; Medicine; Messiahs; Mythology; Psi Powers; Robots; Ruins and Futurity; SF Music; Seiun Award; Solar Wind.

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger

born Baltimore, Maryland: 11 July 1913

died Baltimore, Maryland: 6 August 1966



Instrumentality of Mankind

  • The Planet Buyer (New York: Pyramid Books, 1964) [early version first appeared April 1964 Galaxy as "The Boy who Bought Old Earth": Instrumentality of Mankind: pb/John Schoenherr]
  • The Underpeople (New York: Pyramid Books, 1968) [early version first appeared May 1964 If as "The Store of Heart's Desire": Instrumentality of Mankind: pb/Jack Gaughan]
    • Norstrilia (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975) [omni of the above two: the original full novel from which the above two were extracted: Instrumentality of Mankind: pb/Gray Morrow]
      • Norstrilia (Framingham, Massachusetts: NESFA Press: Ballantine Books, 1995) [rev of the above: the full novel plus the extra linking sections written when novel was split in half: Instrumentality of Mankind: pb/John Berkey]
      • We, The Underpeople (New York: Baen Books, 2006) [omni: exp of the above with five additional stories: Instrumentality of Mankind: hb/Bob Eggleton]

collections and stories

individual titles

  • Ria (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1947) as by Felix C Forrest [hb/uncredited]
  • Carola (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1948) as by Felix C Forrest [hb/uncredited]
  • Atomsk: A Novel of Suspense (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949) as by Carmichael Smith [hb/uncredited]

nonfiction (selected)

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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