Except for Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve never been a reader of Science Fiction. Not for a lack of interest in the genre, but because nonfiction subjects have a much stronger pull on me.
For this reason, I wasn’t familiar with Cordwainer Smith. I was just introduced to him in Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith, an article by Steve Silberman that reveals what an extraordinary life Smith lived and how that influenced his writing.
He was born Paul Linebarger and wrote under many psuedonyms. The stories he wrote were more literary than pulp, and the story he lived seems so remarkable that you might imagine it was a work of fiction itself.
Take, for instance:
At 14, he enrolled at George Washington University, where he proved himself a promising scholar in multiple languages. But this trajectory was diverted when his family suddenly moved back to China. In Beijing, Paul junior was drafted by his father into the burgeoning family business: espionage and psychological warfare. The young Linebarger became immersed in what we now call PsyOps — the art and science of spin, disinformation, whispering campaigns, interrogation, and other forms of influence that don’t depend on brute force, but can bring down an empire.
Of his accomplishments in this arena, the one that made Linebarger most proud was engineering the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops during the Korean War. Because they considered throwing down their arms shameful even when they had no hope of survival, Linebarger drafted leaflets advising them to shout the Chinese words for love, duty, humanity, and virtue when they approached American lines — phonemes that sound conveniently like “I surrender!”
As a child, Linebarger had his right eye accidentally gouged out at the hands of a playmate by some tossed wire. This and the subsequent infection left him with a glass eye.
There’s little doubt that Linebarger’s glass eye and restlessly mobile upbringing contributed to his feeling of being an outsider in society — a feeling that would serve him well when he sat down to write Scanners in 1945. He recalled in his journal, “Whenever I went from one country to another, little colloquialisms and local slang eluded my understanding… I learned early that the surface meaning of words was not their real meaning. The thing to look for was the stance behind it: the emotional gesture, the moral posture.”
The unreliability of language became a major theme in Scanners, as the cyborgs — deprived of the capacity to modulate their own voices — communicate using a combination of lip-reading, a tablet and finger stylus known as the Talking Nail, and ritualized stances meant only for the eyes of fellow Scanners. (Elms, who has been working on a biography of the author for years, notes the ironic symmetry in the fact that while a wire cost Linebarger his eye, a wire can restore all of a Scanner’s sensory abilities except for sight.)
Knowing his story and that his writing weighs more on the philosophical side of the genre makes me deeply interested in reading his fiction. But, being drawn as I am to nonfiction, I’m even more intrigued by his Psychological Warfare, a book on propaganda and how “consensus views are shaped by hidden forces."
If you’re unfamiliar with Smith (as I was), be sure to read Silberman’s article.
- July 15th, 2013