Archive for Cordwainer Smith

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

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.)

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.