The Future as Myth: Celebrating 100 Years of Cordwainer Smith

Many fans of science fiction literature will be noting that today (July 11th) marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, better known by his pen name Cordwainer Smith. I first discovered his work when, as a middle school student, I found a copy of The Best of Cordwainer Smith on a shelf at my local haunt, Annie’s Used Book Stop. Remembering that David Pringle’s Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction had given that book its highest rating, I spent a dollar or so to purchase the copy. It sat around for a couple years before I picked it up again, and I immediately found myself transported by Smith’s singular writing style, which was unlike anything I had ever read (or have read since). I spent the next several years on a quest to locate more of this author’s work, a difficult feat in the days before the Internet. At last, though, I located NESFA Press’s The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, as well as their edition of Norstrilia, his only science fiction novel. To this day, his tales “The Game of Rat and Dragon” and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” remain two of my ten favorite short stories.

Nor am I alone in this regard. Critic David Pringle, whose high rating drew me to Smith’s work in the first place, also names Norstrilia as one of his 100 best science fiction novels. Indeed, since his death in 1966, Cordwainer Smith has been the subject of extensive solid critical research.  Even today, most serious science fiction writers will have read or at least be familiar with his fiction. Smith’s innovative science fiction work from the 1940s to the 1960s is almost universally well-regarded by critics in the genre. He was also a Christian, one whose faith increasingly influenced his stories.

Paul M. A. Linebarger’s own life was as fascinating as most fictional stories. Though born in Milwaukee, he spent much of his childhood in post-revolutionary China, where he was the godson of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen. By the time he was twenty-three, he had earned a Ph.D. in Political Science form Johns Hopkins University. Academic though he was, Linebarger helped the army during World War II, organizing a division in psychological warfare for the military and later writing Psychological Warfare based on what he had learned. After the war, in 1947, he returned to Johns Hopkins, where he served as Professor of Asiatic Studies.

Few people knew at the time that this Army veteran and academic was moonlighting all the while as a science fiction author. Linebarger published under numerous pseudonyms, but his first story under the name Cordwainer Smith appeared in 1950. That story, “Scanners Live in Vain,” plunged readers into the Smith’s imagined future, a world that he returned to for most of his later speculative work. Through a couple dozen stories and one full novel, Smith envisioned a future ruled by the mysterious and powerful Instrumentality of Mankind as its calculating lords and ladies attempt to control the lives of citizens on Earth and its many interstellar colonies. Smith knew enough science to give some plausibility to his technology, but he was not fundamentally a writer of “hard” science fiction; it was humanity, not humanity’s devices or discoveries, that fascinated him, as he himself admitted:

In my stories I use exotic settings, but the settings are like the function of a Chinese stage. They are intended to lay bare the human mind, to throw torches over the underground lakes of the human soul, to show the chambers wherein the ageless dramas of self-respect, God, courage, sex, love, hope, envy, decency and power go on forever.

To explore these “ageless dramas,” Smith cultivated his signature narrative voice, a writing style that was unlike any of his science fiction contemporaries and still remains entirely distinctive. Derived as much from his beloved Chinese literature as from any English-language works, Smith’s tales are often narrated as though they were legends compiled by rather dubious scholars. They are far-future folklore told by farther-future folklorists. Yet these narrators still allow the poetry of legend to intrude on their narratives as well. Even in the rare occasions when he adopts the first-person perspective, Smith ensures that his narrators place themselves as iotas in a sweeping history that is far bigger than they are.

The whimsy and poetry of his Instrumentality future is evident not only in Smith’s language but his naming as well. Stories rejoice in idiosyncratic, lyrical titles like “The Lady Who Sailed The Soul,” “The Colonel Came Back from the Nothing-at-All,” or “Golden the Ship Was—Oh! Oh! Oh!” These stories are populated by characters with equally distinctive names, such as the ill-fated Go-Captain Magno Taliano, the equally ill-fated thief Benjacomin Bozart, or the revolutionary bird-man known as the E’Telekeli. Many of these names derived from Smith extensive linguistic background: Chinese, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, and many other etymologies are all thrown into the mix.

When Smith’s Christianity became a significant factor in his life remains uncertain; some claim religious allegory as far back as “Scanners Live in Vain.” But when he married his second wife, Genevieve, the two settled into a high-church Episcopalianism that seems to have been genuine and devout. By the 1960s, his Instrumentality stories began to cluster around an era late in his future chronology, when an event called the Rediscovery of Man helps bring about a renewed interest in the so-called God Nailed High of the Old Strong Religion. These stories were also intended to dovetail with the social issues of American life; the resistance of the slave race known as the Underpeople represents a clear analogue to the civil rights movement of that decade.

Cordwainer Smith was no Evangelical, and there is plenty in his corpus that could make the Christian reader uneasy. He uses the science fiction genre to skirt perilously near the edges of numerous social or moral taboos. His use of religious motifs may be narrative or philosophical, but it is seldom polemically orthodox. Indeed, his stories tended to become more bizarre even as his Christianity was becoming more devout; “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” and “Under Old Earth” are among his final stories, and among his weirdest. But despite these factors — perhaps, in some ways, because of them — he is a writer more Christians should be aware of.

Here at Christ and Pop Culture we’ve considered on other occasions the question of how compatible the science fiction genre is with the Christian faith. Cordwainer Smith is a helpful name in this discussion, because he is a writer who clearly inhabited both camps: a distinctively religious writer who science fiction critics must admit was also a literary master of the genre. He is a writer who reminds us that Christians have been and still can be innovators in the arts.

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About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.


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