Love, Duty, Humanity, and Virtue

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Cordwainer Smith is an unusual name — an unusual pseudonym, actually — for an unusual man:

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!”

Although he wrote the book on psychological warfare, he’s better remembered for his science fiction classic, “Scanners Live in Vain,” about cyborgs who live with most of their senses and emotions cut off in order to survive the rigors of space, until new developments make their condition unnecessary — and thus make them unnecessary as well:

The magazine [Fantasy Book]’s “off-trail” circulation might have meant the end of Smith’s brief career but for the happy coincidence that Frederik Pohl — one of the deans of American science fiction — had a story in the same issue. Pohl found it difficult to believe that the author of “Scanners” was a newbie to the genre. He felt certain that Cordwainer Smith must have been the pen name of an already well-known writer: Heinlein, Sturgeon perhaps, or A. E. van Vogt. In his introduction to the Smith collection When the People Fell, Pohl observed, “There was too great a wealth of color and innovation and conceptually stimulating thought in Scanners for me to believe for one second that it was the creation of any but a top master in science fiction. It was not only good. It was expert. Even excellent writers are not usually that excellent the first time around.”

Pohl effectively jump-started Smith’s career by reprinting “Scanners” in one of the first mass-market sci-fi anthologies, Beyond the End of Time, in 1952. For years, the author’s true identity was a matter of smoky late-night debates among SF writers and fans not likely to ever come across a copy of Psychological Warfare, or to make the connection if they did. By the late 1950s, Cordwainer Smith stories appeared regularly in magazines like If and Galaxy. Sci-fi heavyweight Robert Silverberg, author of ingenious books like Dying Inside and The Majipoor Chronicles, also hailed Scanners as a subversive classic, including it in his influential 1970 anthology, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Leave a Reply