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A Psychologist Investigates Cordwainer Smith

Alan C. Elms

[Author's 2002 note: Well over a decade ago, a Japanese correspondent requested my permission to translate my paper, "The Creation of Cordwainer Smith," for publication in a Japanese fan magazine devoted to the work of Cordwainer Smith and titled (in English) Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. He sent me several sample copies of the magazine, which were quite impressive in their professional printing, their illustrations, and (as far as I could tell without being able to read Japanese) their serious treatment of Cordwainer Smith. I readily gave my permission for the translation. Subsequently the translator, Mahito Nomura (who uses the pseudonym Rei Sakaki for his translations) invited me and several other American scholars of Cordwainer Smith to contribute brief papers to the Tenth Anniversary issue of Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, published in August 1995. The magazine printed both the English original as below, and a Japanese translation by Rei Sakaki.]

From age 12 to age 18 (starting in 1951), I read all the science fiction I could find. I don't recall whether I read the first Cordwainer Smith story, "Scanners Live in Vain," but I'm sure I didn't read anything else by him during that time. I do remember reading "The Jet-Propelled Couch," a psychoanalytic case history by Robert Lindner, which was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1956. "The Jet-Propelled Couch" was an important influence on my decision to major in psychology when I entered college later that year. Soon after I began college, l stopped reading science fiction. I felt I had too much else to read: college course assignments, "serious" literature, books on psychological topics and other nonfiction. I continued to major in psychology for the next 8 years, receiving my B. A. from the Pennsylvania State University in 1960 and my Ph. D. from Yale University in 1965. During that time, I occasionally looked through a science fiction magazine or anthology, but I didn't encounter anything that really interested me.

In the early 1970s, I decided to see what had been happening in science fiction during the 15 years since I had stopped reading it. I read two anthologies, and found one story in each anthology that really impressed me: Thomas Disch's "The Asian Shore" (which was really a psychological fantasy, not science fiction) and Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon." I began to read science fiction again on a more regular basis, looking especially for works by these authors. I was delighted when The Best of Cordwainer Smith appeared in a Ballantine paperback edition, with a biographical sketch by J. J. Pierce. Then I came across Brian Aldiss's history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, which included a footnote identifying Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) as the patient in "The Jet-Propelled Couch," that psychoanalytic case history which had so intrigued me in 1956. ("The Jet-Propelled Couch" has been reprinted in various anthologies, and is also available as a chapter in Lindner's famous book, The Fifty-Minute Hour.) I decided to do a thorough follow-up to the case history, to show how the psychological problems faced by Robert Lindner's patient had eventually been expressed in Cordwainer Smith's science fiction.

At first I thought it would not be difficult to show the connections between the case history and the science fiction. There certainly seemed to be aspects of Cordwainer Smith's stories that sounded like the hallucinations experienced by Lindner's patient, who imagined that he had lived on other planets in the distant future. But as I did more and more research both on Lindner's patient and on the life of Cordwainer Smith, l found that there was no hard evidence linking the two people. I have now been doing research on Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger and on "The Jet-Propelled Couch" for over 15 years, and I am still not certain that Linebarger was Lindner's patient. I think he probably was, but any documentary evidence that he was has apparently been destroyed, either by Lindner's widow or by Linebarger himself. Within the next year, I plan to publish a detailed paper in which I describe my efforts to establish whether Linebarger was the patient in "The Jet-Propelled Couch." Perhaps by the time the paper is finished, I will know definitely whether he was the patient or not. (For many years, a rumor has circulated among science fiction fans that Lindner's patient was instead a man named John Carter. I can say quite definitely that this rumor is not true.) [Author's 2002 note: This paper has now been published in the New York Review of Science Fiction,May 2002.]

During the course of my early research on Paul Linebarger, which focused on establishing whether he was the patient in "The Jet-Propelled Couch," I came to realize that Linebarger would be a fascinating biographical subject even if he had not been that patient. As I am sure my readers in Japan know, Paul Linebarger was not only a brilliant and influential writer of science fiction, but was also an author of several excellent non-SF novels, an expert on psychological warfare, and a serious scholar of 20th-century Chinese history and government. He had very strong-willed and somewhat peculiar parents; he lived and worked in several countries, especially the US, China and Australia; he knew a variety of important individuals, including Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek; he had severe psychological problems, which led him to undergo treatment by a series of psychotherapists during much of his adult life. Therefore I decided some time ago to do a booklength biography of Paul M. A. Linebarger, which would pay special attention to his career as a science fiction writer but which would also cover the rest of his life and his several other careers. I am continuing to work on this biography, which will probably be published in two or three years. [Author's 2002 note: That estimate, written in 1995, was a little optimistic. I'm now aiming to complete the book in 2003.]

Meanwhile, I have written several shorter pieces on Linebarger, including "The Creation of Cordwainer Smith," "Origins of the Underpeople," and the introduction to the authoritative NESFA edition of Norstrilia. In each of these works, I discuss the personal background of Linebarger's science fiction stories. The Cordwainer Smith stories appear to be highly imaginative and even fantastic, but nearly all of them are strongly autobiographical in important ways. I also included a brief discussion of Paul Linebarger's life and his work as Cordwainer Smith in one chapter of my book, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology, published by Oxford University Press. In addition to my paper on "The Jet-Propelled Couch," I have written a draft of another paper, "The Roads to Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," which deals with the sources of "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," one of the best Cordwainer Smith stories and one of the most autobiographical ones. I hope that paper will be published within the next year or so. [Author's 2002 note: Maybe it will appear in 2003.]

I am delighted to find that Cordwainer Smith is so popular among some people in Japan that a well-produced and long-running fan magazine is devoted to him. Although Paul Linebarger never lived in Japan for an extended period, he often visited your country, admired various aspects of Japanese culture, and had several Japanese friends. I hope to visit Japan in the near future, and I will be very pleased to meet his Japanese fans, either in Japan or when you visit California.

[Author's final 2002 note: Several years after I wrote this little essay at the invitation of Mahito Nomura, he did indeed visit me at my California home, and we had several delightful conversations about Cordwainer Smith. I have not yet been able to visit Japan, but I have already signed up as a supporting member for NIPPON 2007, the World Science Fiction Convention that may take place in Yokohama five years hence.]


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