The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith Scholarly Corner,
By Alan C. Elms

When Rosana asked me to start a "Scholarly Corner" for her website, she didn't specify what kinds of scholars I should discuss. Cordwainer Smith has been blessed with resourceful and energetic fannish scholars, ever since one of them figured out in 1965 that he was really a political scientist named Paul M. A. Linebarger. If you're familiar with the website, you may have seen two of the best works of fannish Smith scholarship, Tony Lewis's Concordance and Mike Bennett's bibliography.

Among strong earlier efforts was the chapbook titled Exploring Cordwainer Smith, published by Andrew Porter's Algol Press in 1975, but featuring articles written soon after Smith's death in 1966 by Australians Arthur Burns and John Foyster. Another Australian contribution well worth seeking out is a long and thoughtful article, "The Lever of Life: Winning and Losing in the Fiction of Cordwainer Smith," published in a 1982 Australian fanzine called Science Fiction. It's by Terry Dowling, who has since become one of Australia's best writers of science fiction and fantasy (some of which sounds a lot like Cordwainer Smith).

But I don't keep close track of the fannish literature on Cordwainer Smith, solid though much of it is. If you want to find more of it, take a look at Hal Hall's Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database, searchable at Hint: Don't enter the name "Cordwainer Smith" in the search engine; instead, use "Smith, Cordwainer".

I'll use this space to note contributions to the scholarly literature I'm most familiar with: what I'll call the scholarly Smith scholarship. I call it that not because it's more serious than the fannish scholarship (some of which is very serious), but because it's done by people who make their living (or a good part of their living) as scholars.

Most of this scholarly scholarship is actually easier to find than most of the fannish scholarship, if you live near a good college or university library, or a library that will get things for you through interlibrary loan. It's mostly published in scholarly journals or scholarly books, with occasional exceptions. Rather than just listing it as individual papers or chapters or books, I'll group it in terms of the scholars who did it, and I'll say a little about them. Most were originally fans themselves, before they got formal scholarly training. The ones I know are all nice people, so if you have further questions about Cordwainer Smith after you read their work, they'll probably answer your e-mails. (As some of you know from e-mailing me, however, they may be slow to answer at times; they tend to get distracted by whatever they're working on now.)

The first scholar I'll list immediately confuses the distinction between fannish scholarship and scholarly scholarship, because he started doing the former and moved on to the latter. John J. Pierce wrote the first substantial biographical study of Cordwainer Smith, aka Paul Linebarger, in 1973, just six years after Linebarger died. Pierce's article, "Mr. Forest of Incandescent Bliss: The Man Behind Cordwainer Smith," was published in a fanzine titled Speculation. The article is available on the Net at

Much of the article is based on Pierce's interviews with Paul Linebarger's widow Genevieve, whose memory was sometimes faulty. Pierce corrected some of her misinformation in his later publications; in any case, the article is invaluable for the things she told him about her late husband that we would never have known otherwise.

Pierce used the Speculation article as a basis for his considerably briefer introduction and editorial notes to the Ballantine/Del Rey collection, The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975). That's the same collection that has been reprinted twice in England under the title The Rediscovery of Man - which should not be confused with the much larger NESFA Press collection titled The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Pierce wrote another excellent introduction to the latter volume, including information not in his first introduction. He has written more about Cordwainer Smith in other places, including his massive four-volume history of science fiction published by Greenwood Press. (One of those four volumes has the best punning title of any book about science fiction: Odd Genre.) Pierce's introduction to The Best of Cordwainer Smith served as my introduction to Smith scholarship.

The next piece of Smith scholarship I encountered was in a scholarly journal, and it was written by a professor of literature: Gary K. Wolfe, who has worked as a faculty member and administrator at Roosevelt University for many years. Gary also manages, astonishingly, to review several books a month in fine and perceptive detail for Locus magazine. And he also happens to be a top-notch Cordwainer Smith scholar. That first paper I read by him was titled "Mythic Structures in Cordwainer Smith's 'Game of Rat and Dragon;'" it was published in the most seriously scholarly of the science fiction research journals, Science-Fiction Studies, in 1977. It's an impressive piece of work, but it's somewhat narrow in scope in comparison to Gary's other work.

I'd suggest that you start instead with a paper he wrote in collaboration with Carol T. Williams, titled "The Majesty of Kindness: The Dialectic of Cordwainer Smith." Published in a book edited by Tom Clareson, Voices for the Future, volume 3 (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1984), that paper analyzes the common themes of many Smith stories (and of Paul Linebarger's mainstream novels as well). Its final sentence is indicative of the empathy and the complexity of Wolfe and Williams' approach to Smith: "Smith's stories seem somehow more real because they are bizarre and romantic, and they seem more romantic, perhaps, because of the kernel of reality that lies at the heart of his work."

(Another excellent piece on Smith by Wolfe and Williams is a six-large-page entry in a reference work, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 8: Twentieth Century American Science-Fiction Writers, part 2, published by the Gale Research Company in 1981.)

As we continue more or less chronologically through Smith scholarship, the next body of work is by Alan C. Elms. I am a psychologist, a biographer, a psychobiographer, so what I've tried to do in writing about Cordwainer Smith is to establish the facts of his life as accurately as possible, to develop an understanding of his psychological growth and character, and to connect the facts and the psychology to his fiction. I'm a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis - actually a Professor Emeritus, since I've just "retired" in order to spend more time doing research and writing. My first major project after retirement is to complete the book-length biography of Paul Linebarger that I began working on twenty-some years ago. I haven't been working on it constantly, of course; there have been lots of distractions, professional and personal. I have, however, published quite a bit about Cordwainer Smith along the way.

You can find a complete list of my publications about Smith on my web page, at this address: (Elsewhere on that website, you can find an outline biography of Paul Linebarger, which is not completely filled in yet but which is accurate as far as it goes.)

Skipping over some of the briefer or more redundant items on that list, my most informative pieces on Smith/Linebarger are these:

  • "The Creation of Cordwainer Smith" (Science-Fiction Studies, 1984), which gives an overview of Linebarger's life and discusses the autobiographical bases for a few of his best-known stories.
  • "Between Mottile and Ambiloxi: Cordwainer Smith as a Southern Writer (Extrapolation, 2001), which looks more closely at Linebarger's early childhood in Mississippi and how it was translated into "The Game of Rat and Dragon" and "On the Storm Planet".
  • "Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith" (in a volume edited by Tom Shippey, Fictional Space: Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction, published jointly by Basil Blackwell and Humanities Press in 1991), which discusses Linebarger's great admiration and empathy for the common Chinese people, as expressed in his stories about the genetically modified creatures called Underpeople.
  • "From Canberra to Norstrilia: The Australian Adventures of Cordwainer Smith" (Foundation, 2000), which deals with Linebarger's two sabbaticals in Australia late in his life, leading to his fictional creation of "Old North Australia" in the novel Norstrilia. [NOTE: As I've pointed out elsewhere, the pronunciation Linebarger most likely intended for "Norstrilia" did not sound like "nostril" the way most people say it, but with a strong Australian accent: Nor-STRILE-ya.]
    There's more about Norstrilia and its origins in my "Introduction" to the authoritative NESFA Press edition of Norstrilia, edited by James Mann (1995).

In a couple of other papers, I've focused less on Paul Linebarger's biography and more on his psychology: "Painwise in Space: The Psychology of Isolation in Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, Jr." (in Gary Westfahl's edited volume, Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction, Greenwood Press, 2000), and "Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch: Cordwainer Smith & Kirk Allen" (in the New York Review of Science Fiction (May 2002).

The first of these compares and contrasts Paul Linebarger and Alice Sheldon, whose lives were in certain ways strikingly similar but whose personalities and fiction were strikingly different.

The second pursues the long-standing question of whether Paul Linebarger as a young man was the patient called "Kirk Allen" in the famous psychoanalytic case history, "The Jet-propelled Couch," in Robert Lindner's book The Fifty-Minute Hour. I don't have an absolute and complete answer to that question, but I think I've come pretty close.

One of my major sources of information has been the Cordwainer Smith Papers at the Spencer Research Library of the University of Kansas. (Another has been the Linebarger Papers at the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.) The Cordwainer Smith Papers have been closely studied by Karen Hellekson, who wrote her master's thesis on Cordwainer Smith under the supervision of James Gunn, himself a distinguished science fiction writer and scholar. Karen revised her thesis and it was published by McFarland in 2001 under the title The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. In 150 pages it explores many facets of Paul Linebarger's writing, with an emphasis on the unpublished material in the CS Papers. It contains some delightful and never-before-published quotations by Linebarger, including this one: "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." Karen has also published a short version of some of the material in this book as a paper titled "Never Never Underpeople: Cordwainer Smith's Humanity," in Extrapolation (1993). I hope she'll say more about Cordwainer Smith in the future.

Most recent among the scholarly works I've seen is a long but consistently stimulating paper by Carol McGuirk, "The Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith," in Science Fiction Studies, July 2001. Carol's academic specialty is Robert Burns, but she is also an editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies (which recently dropped the hyphen from its name), and is passionately enthusiastic about Cordwainer Smith. She hopes to stimulate greater interest in him among other science fiction scholars, many of whom have focused on the work of Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin to the exclusion of virtually all other recent SF writers. I think this paper should go a long way in that direction.

I'll mention more quickly other scholars who have so far each published a single item on Cordwainer Smith, but an item worth reading:

  • Sandra Miesel wrote one of the earliest papers on Cordwainer Smith's religious themes, "I Am Joan & I Love You," published in the ALGOL Press chapbook mentioned above, Exploring Cordwainer Smith.
  • Johan Heje, a Danish scholar, has (like Karen Hellekson) done intensive work in the Cordwainer Smith Papers at the University of Kansas; his paper, "On the Genesis of Norstrilia" (Extrapolation, 1989), complements Karen's and my studies of that novel.
  • Darko Suvin, a distinguished literary scholar, included several pages on Cordwainer Smith (especially on the story "The Lady Who Sailed the 'Soul'") in his book, Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (Kent State University Press. 1988, pp. 205-213). I don't agree with everything Suvin has to say, but it's nice to see Cordwainer Smith compared with Dante, Kipling, and the writers of the New Testament.
  • Lee Weinstein, a professional librarian in Philadelphia, has used his research skills to pursue the question of whether Paul Linebarger was Robert Lindner's patient in the "Jet-propelled Couch" case. His article, "In Search of Kirk Allen" (New York Review of Science Fiction, April 2001) reaches tentative conclusions similar to mine, but brings in somewhat different kinds of evidence along the way.

There are also some scholarly items that I haven't read yet, either because I've only just learned about them in the course of writing this Scholarly Corner report, or because I don't read Spanish. Hal Hall's SF and F Research Database lists a paper by Alice K. Turner, "The Crimes and the Glories of Cordwainer Smith," in a 2001 edited volume on science fiction published in Australia. (Many years earlier, Alice Turner wrote a chronology of the Cordwainer Smith future history, which can be found in the ALGOL Press chapbook.)

Hal Hall also lists a master's thesis done by John D. Rose at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, in 2000: "The Underpeople: Irony and Racial Alienation in the Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith." I know three SF scholars at that university, so I'll ask them for a copy. And last but far from least, the first book ever published about Cordwainer Smith appeared in Argentina in 1984: El SeƱor de la Tarde: Conjeturas en torno de Cordwainer Smith (Lord of the Afternoon: Conjectures on C.S.) by Pablo Capanna. I have read only a bit of it, with the help of a friend and a Spanish dictionary, but it is clearly a substantial and scholarly work.  Pablo has told me he is working on a revision of the book and has some hope of having it translated into English.

I plan to update this Scholars' Corner occasionally, so I'd appreciate having new publications (or old ones that I've missed) pointed out to me. Copies of such publications will be especially appreciated. My e-mail address is; please replace AT with @. My mailing address is Department of Psychology, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616-8686.

Note from Rosana: Alan wrote this several years ago, around the time this website first went up. He will be revising it when he has a chance.


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 The Blog
 His Books
 The Rediscovery of Man, by Cordwainer Smith
 Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
 Atomsk, by Carmichael Smith
 Ria, by Felix C. Forrest
 Carola, by Felix C. Forrest
 Psychological Warfare, by Paul M. A. Linebarger
 Letters from Paul, by Paul M. A. Linebarger
 Letters from Paul: One Letter
 Books about His Science Fiction
 Concordance to Cordwainer Smith, by Anthony Lewis
 The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, by Karen Hellekson
 Exploring Cordwainer Smith, Booklet by Andrew Porter
 Where You Can Get Books
 Cordwainer Smith at Amazon
 Cordwainer Smith at Alibris
 Cordwainer Smith at AbeBooks
 Cordwainer Smith on eBay
 Cordwainer Smith, the Author
 A Cordwainer Smith Panel Discussion
 Scholarly Corner, by Alan C. Elms
 What Other Science Fiction Authors Say
 What Readers Say
 Paul M. A. Linebarger, the Man
 Family Photos
 A Daughter's Memories
 Was Paul Linebarger Kirk Allen?
 His Arlington National Cemetery Bio and My Comments
 Rosana's Ramblings
 Rambling 1: Shakespeare Had It Wrong
 Rambling 2: The Return of C'mell, Sort Of
 Art Inspired by Cordwainer Smith
 Virgil Finlay
 Pierre Lacombe
 Craig Moore
 Corby Waste
 Annual Rediscovery Award
 2012 Fredric Brown
 2011 Katherine MacLean
 2010 Mark Clifton
 2009 A. Merritt
 2008 Stanley G. Weinbaum
 2007 Daniel F Galouye
 2006 William Hope Hodgson
 2005 Leigh Brackett
 Leigh Brackett: Her Biography
 2004 Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore
 2003 Edgar Pangborn
 2002 R. A. Lafferty
 2001 Olaf Stapledon
 Cordwainer Smith Foundation
 Cordwainer Smith T-Shirts
 Cordwainer Smith: Other Online Resources
 Contact Us
 Illustrated Bibliography, by Mike Bennett
 Introduction to the Illustrated Bibliography
 All the Stories and All the Books
 Chronological Book List
 Magazine Covers
 Book Covers
 Book Covers: Best of Cordwainer Smith
 Book Covers: Instrumentality of Mankind
 Book Covers: Norstrilia
 Book Covers: Planet Buyer
 Book Covers: Rediscovery of Man
 Book Covers: Quest of the Three Worlds
 Book Covers: Space Lords
 Book Covers: Stardreamer
 Book Covers: Under Old Earth
 Book Covers: Underpeople
 Book Covers: You Will Never Be the Same
 Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger - Chronology
 Press Releases
 2008 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award Goes to Stanley G. Weinbaum
 2002: About the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award
 2001: First Rediscovery Award Ceremony
 2001: Creation of Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award