Star-Craving Mad

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

9 Responses to “Star-Craving Mad”

  1. Your almost off-hand “or maybe he was never ill” is, I think, a brilliant observation.Linebarger was canny enough to know that “Please help me get out of this crazy dream world” would get a better response than “Crazy? HA! There’s NOTHING wrong with me!”

    I think Kirk Allen is surely Linebarger– “Scanners Live in Vain” is published in 1950, then nothing. “Jet Propelled Couch” appears in Harpers in 1954, in two parts, creating a minor sensation, and “Game of Rat & Dragon” appears in 1955, as though the publication of JPC jump-started Lindbarger’s dormant career. (Fred Pohl, then-editor of Galaxy, has written at some length about tracking down Linebarger in the hope there might be more stories the caliber of “Scanners.” So the timeline could be a coincidence. And yet.)

  2. You can read the original case history at Harper’s magazine: in fact, according to Lindner, one difficulty he had was that Linebarger was convinced of his sanity, did not feel in any way ill, believed his excursions to be real.

    But today I learned that Lee Weinstein, researching this topic, managed to identify another Lindner patient, and pronounced that Lindner had fictionalised his biography “more than you would think.” Which makes everything tougher.

    “Kiko” is a good candidate, and most of his key life events have equivalents in the Kirk Allen biography.

    But, for instance, Lindner says that Allen was sexually abused by a governess called “Miss Lillian”, an “almost incestuous relationship” — and Linebarger’s mother was known as “Miss Lillian.”

  3. And hmmm, maybe Anyone Can Whistle partially evolved from Sondheim’s thoughts on analysis and The Jet-Propelled Couch?

  4. I’d never read the Elms piece till now. The Miss Lillian thing is really strange. If it’s NOT Linebarger, it means Lindner kept the name but preserved patient confidentiality by changing the relationship from incestuous to ALMOST incestuous. I don’t know what to make of that.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    The “Alan Smithee” name employed by Harlan Ellison, i.e. the authorship name for projects that have gone south, was “Cordwainer Bird.” Your penultimate line reminded me, alternately, of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” and that refrain in Brecht & Weill’s opera MAHAGONNY wherein they sing “Let’s go to Benares, to Benares where the sun is shining!” The latter speaks of a yearning for an impossible place where Everything Works Out.

    Of course, being myself a member of the U.S. version of the C of E, I could respond that Linebarger was an Anglican, and everyone knows that Anglican’s are all crazy.

  6. Ellison explained that his pseudonym meant “one who makes shoes for birds.” A cordwainer is a specialist in leather goods. So Cordwainer Smith = shoemaker horseshoemaker.

    Which reminds me of Philip K. Dick and his fictional iteration Horselover Fat.

  7. Ellison said that Cordwainer was chosen in honor of Smith and Bird was representative for the gesture known as flipping the bird or giving someone the finger. A few years before his death, Ellison made the claim the Linebarger’s stories were actually written by his wife.

  8. Hmm. Well, she’s the credited co-author of one or two, and she revised an early one for Dangerous Visions II or III. But, since she outlived him by many years, it begs the question why we didn’t hear more from her. Also, I think her input does make a discernible difference on the stories she contributed to.

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