Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith

Super-intelligent cats populated Paul Linebarger’s fictional worlds even before he acquired the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith. Other essential elements of his science fiction may be found as early as the first Cordwainer Smith story, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (1950): strange survivals from various eras of post-nuclear-holocaust civilization; humans physically altered to withstand the rigors of space travel; the time- and space-spanning government known as the Instrumentality of Mankind. But the underpeople did not begin to develop until his career as Cordwainer Smith was half over, and he completed every major underpeople story during a three-year period (1961-63). Why did the underpeople emerge at this time, and what was their significance for their creator?

Alan C. Elms

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger was an American political scientist who specialized in twentieth-century Chinese history and government. He wrote the first comprehensive military textbook on psychological warfare. He also wrote two controversial mainstream novels, plus a spy thriller whose protagonist single-handedly destroyed a Soviet nuclear bomb factory several years before James Bond saw the light of day. Yet it was not until the last decade of his life, after he had achieved distinction in these other areas, that Linebarger found his true métier: as an innovative and influential science fiction writer, under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith.

From 1950 to 1966, Linebarger as Smith produced some of the most complex and powerful works in the genre. Most of the Cordwainer Smith stories were set within the framework of an elaborate ‘future history’, more romantic and mythic than Robert Heinlein’s hard-edged future, more concerned with the moral development of humanity than Isaac Asimov’s Roman Empire-inspired ‘Foundation’ series. Central to Smith’s future history were the underpeople, creatures whose genetic origin was non-human but who had been artificially shaped to look and function like human beings. Twenty years before he produced any underpeople stories, Paul Linebarger wrote in his personal notebook:

Is it not likely, since so many generations of cats and dogs occupy but the lifetime of a single man, and since these beasts arc subjected by man to a selective breeding not likely to apply in his own case for a very long time, that domestic animals will begin to talk in the next twenty or thirty thousand years? What will the order of their minds be? At first, of course, they will speak of concrete things, but later —–
Imagine the awe and dismay of the first man to whom the question is put, ‘Why am I a cat?’1

Super-intelligent cats populated Paul Linebarger’s fictional worlds even before he acquired the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith.2 Other essential elements of his science fiction may be found as early as the first Cordwainer Smith story, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (1950): strange survivals from various eras of post-nuclear-holocaust civilization; humans physically altered to withstand the rigours of space travel; the time- and space-spanning government known as the Instrumentality of Mankind. But the underpeople did not begin to develop until his career as Cordwainer Smith was half over, and he completed every major underpeople story during a three-year period (1961-63). Why did the underpeople emerge at this time, and what was their significance for their creator?

In today’s world of recombinant gene products and of monkeys trained as ‘companion animals’ for the physically handicapped, the basic concept of the underpeople may appear almost commonplace. But Linebarger’s development of the concept gave it a depth and a resonance rare in science fiction. He used it to express the essence of his most deeply held political convictions, as well as to explore powerful psychological conflicts and difficult aspects of his complex life history. Thus an examination of the underpeople can tell us a good deal about the character of Linebarger himself, as well as about the development of his small but significant body of science-fictional work.


Linebarger distinguished clearly between underpeople (also called homunculi) and other creatures in his fiction. The Partners of ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’ (1955) are cats — especially chosen for their telepathic abilities, but otherwise ‘the same cute little animals that people had used as pets for thousands of years back on Earth’ (p. 76). The Beasts of several early post-atomic-war stories arc animals who have retained their animal form, but who in certain instances can communicate with humans and have acquired such human habits as wearing glasses.3 Hominids or ‘trumen’ are genetic human beings, whose external form may have been significantly modified for survival on other planets but who nonetheless remain legally human. In contrast to all these categories, the underpeople are neither animal in form nor human in origin, as Linebarger stressed in an early note to himself: ‘There is, however, a very sharp line drawn between trumen and underpeople. Underpeople are adapted earth animals who are confined very rigidly to earth save for one or two infested planets where they are left relatively much in peace.’4 The distinction is made even clearer in one of the first completed stories dealing with underpeople, ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ (1961):

There were few hominids around these days, men from the stars who (though of true human stock) had been changed to fit the conditions of a thousand worlds. The homunculi were morally repulsive [to the human narrator], though many of them looked like very handsome people; bred from animals into the shape of men, they took over the tedious chores of working with machines where no real man would wish to go. [p. 287]

The homunculi or underpeople are derived from cats, turtles, eagles, and other animal species, retaining not only the underlying genetic structure but the broad behavioural tendencies of their kind. They not only do the dirty work of a technological civilization, but function as ‘girlygirls’ (geisha-like hostesses), medical orderlies, and other kinds of menial workers. For several thousand years their legal rights have remained minimal; humans can severely punish or kill them for minor infractions. Then they begin to develop their own secret government, their own moral and religious aims, in direct though concealed competition with the largely amoral and areligious Instrumentality of Mankind. It is at this point that the underpeople become important to the Cordwainer Smith future history. Indeed, it is only then that they begin to be mentioned at all.


The literary sources of the underpeople are reasonably clear. Of the many writers in several languages whose fiction Paul Linebarger read as a youth, his favourite was H.G. Wells.5 Among Wells’s novels, The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) seems to have affected Linebarger especially strongly. As J. J. Pierce notes,6 the ritualized Code of the Scanners in ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (pp. 14-17) is based directly on the ‘Are we not men?’ chant of the Beast People in Moreau (ch. 12). Wells’s chanting Beast People ‘were not men, had never been men. They were animals — humanized animals — triumphs of vivisection.’7 Cordwainer Smith’s underpeople are, by and large, bred to look human rather than cut to look human,8 but like Wells’s Beast People, they are still animals beneath their human surface. Further, the one Beast Person to whom Wells gave a name, M’ling, apparently inspired Linebarger to name many of his underpeople with a capital initial followed by an apostrophe and a sequence of lower-case letters. (For the underpeople but not for M’ling, the initial letter denotes their animal origin: C for cat, D for dog, etc.) A final similarity is that Wells’s Beast People also revolt against their masters, though much more violently than Linebarger’s eventually spiritualized underpeople.

Other literary influences are likely, though less obvious. The Morlocks of Wells’s Time Machine (1895), though not beast-derived, resemble the underpeople in their social functions, their underground habitat, and their conflict with the surface-dwellers. (The underground workers of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis display similar qualities and may have been partly inspired by Wells. Linebarger saw the film in 1927, about six months after he read The Time Machine.) Linebarger was also familiar with the work of Karel Capek, whose War with the Newts (1936) depicted vaguely human-appearing lizards who were trained to do lowly work for humans, then revolted against them.

Olaf Stapledon was another writer of literary science fiction whose work Linebarger strongly admired. Stapledon’s novel about a highly intelligent talking dog, Sirius (1944), appeared only four years after Linebarger had speculated in his private notebook about the future development of talking animals.9 Linebarger also read pulp science fiction, so a 1946 story by Edmond Hamilton, ‘Day of Judgment,’ may have made its contribution to the underpeople as well.10 It depicts humanoid creatures developed from dogs, cats, and other animals after a nuclear war has destroyed nearly all life on earth. Upon discovering the last surviving humans, the animal-people first want to kill them but then work out a modus vivendi with them. The story is less sophisticated than Linebarger’s work, but its similarities to his underpeople stories and to Wells’s novel of the Beast People extend to the format of the principal cat-person’s name, S’San.


Although these literary antecedents probably helped to shape Paul Linebarger’s thinking, there is no evidence that they were immediately responsible for the birth of the underpeople. Linebarger read a great deal of science fiction (as well as other forms of literature) from an early age, and he could have chosen to develop further any number of established themes or literary constructs. The timing of his development of the underpeople, beginning on paper around 1958 and reaching its height in the early 1960s, remains to be explained, along with the strong moral and religious components of the theme, not notable in any of the obvious literary models.

Previous commentators have identified the underpeople as a device for representing American racial conflict.11 The year 1958 occurred in the middle of a period that journalists have termed a ‘revolutionary decade’ in American race relations, beginning with the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in 1954 and culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.12 Paul Linebarger, a political moderate on many domestic issues though usually rather conservative in foreign policy, was surely aware of widespread discrimination against blacks in America and of the swelling civil rights struggle. His expression of deep friendship toward his black housemaid, in an emotional book dedication after her sudden death in 1964 (Space Lords (1965), p. 5), has led some readers to assume that he was strongly committed to the cause of racial equality and that his introduction of the underpeople into his fiction expressed this commitment.

Arthur Burns, an Australian political scientist with whom Linebarger became friends late in life, has put this sort of argument most bluntly: ‘In his stories about the Instrumentality … the underpeople keep on coming out — these animals which have been made over into human beings. Now this is a sort of social allegory for the American Negro.’13 Burns’s interviewer has expanded upon the same argument: ‘In “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, “The Ballad of Lost C’mell”, and “A Planet Named Shayol”, to choose only three stories … [Linebarger] writes strongly and with great feeling of the racial problems which surrounded him in his own land.’14

Other critics have responded similarly. ‘The parallels with contemporary and historical racialist attitudes are obvious,’ according to Terry Dowling.15 Gary K. Wolfe elaborates upon those parallels:

The growing sterility and excessive standardization of life during the Instrumentality’s decadent phase suggests the leisure society that began to develop in the United States after World War II, and the systematic oppression of the underpeople suggests the racism which permeated that society.16

A remark by Linebarger’s widow, in reference to their black maid Eleanor, seems to support the argument: ‘There was sort of a personal feeling in the Negro parallel [with the underpeople] … She [Eleanor] really was like one of the family. Paul would get involved in a social issue only if it were first a personal issue. It was not out of idealism — there had to be something to trigger it.’17 However, Genevieve Linebarger was neither consistently well-informed about her husband’s literary inspirations nor consistently accurate in her recollections. Her interviewer, J. J. Pierce, has expressed his own reservations about so simple a view of Linebarger’s concept of the underpeople:

Most critics tend to assume he intended it only as a metaphorical idea in connection with the American racial situation — and certainly the underpeople face problems similar to those of contemporary blacks. But similarity is not identity … the societies and cultures of true men and underpeople which clash in his future history bear hardly any resemblance to those of whites and blacks today, save for the existence of group prejudice (pp. 21-22).

Evidence exists that the American racial situation was not uppermost, nor even very high, in Linebarger’s thinking during that ‘revolutionary decade’ when the underpeople took form. Linebarger was indeed firmly supportive of racial equality. He wrote proudly of the record of his academic institution, the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC: ‘On race, the school has never been segregated on any grounds whatsoever. It was chartered as a non-segregated school and its dormitories and dining facilities have been open to persons without respect to race, religion, or previous condition of servitude.’18 However, at the height of the Southern black revolution and in the same year as the publication of the first underpeople stories, Linebarger also wrote:

the American people have behaved splendidly, the less educated often wiser than the educated in their acceptance of a harsh and changing world. All the races in the United States (white, Negro, Amerind, Nisei, or wahkiu) have contributed; only the minorities of the minorities have made trouble and even in the face of war, taxation, depression, and racial irritation the minorities of all races have kept their temper.19

This is certainly a generous statement with regard to ‘all races’, and as a semi-official statement on behalf of SAIS it may be more diplomatically phrased than Linebarger personally felt. But it is not the statement of a man passionately involved in contemporary American racial issues or drawing powerful fictional inspiration directly from them. I have been unable to find any contrasting evidence that would imply a stronger involvement by Linebarger in mid-twentieth-century American racial controversy than this statement suggests.20

Nonetheless the emergence of the underpeople in 1958, as well as Linebarger’s intensification of their struggle for equality simultaneously with the growing struggle of American blacks, probably involved more than coincidence. Rather than directly inspiring Linebarger’s fiction or newly arousing his interest in racial equality, the black American struggle seems to have heightened the salience of his longstanding concern with such issues in a different milieu. Paul Linebarger had been intensely involved with the cause of ethnic underdogs for many years, beginning much earlier than the American ‘revolutionary decade’ of 1954-64. Indeed he had literally grown up identifying deeply with the fate of a vast body of underpeople: the common people of China.

At first he heard about these underpeople from his father. Seven years before Paul M. A. Linebarger’s birth, Judge Paul M. W. Linebarger had decided to commit his life totally to helping Sun Yat-sen free the Chinese people from the tyrannical rule of the Manchu Dynasty.21 The Manchus had entered China nearly three centuries earlier as alien invaders of a different racial stock. They had then deliberately introduced racial discrimination into Chinese government; as the ruling class, they exercised discriminatory powers ranging from mild to despotic over the native Chinese.22
Judge Linebarger’s conversion to Sun Yat-sen’s cause was inspired by the testimony of a former servant who had been mutilated and tortured nearly to death by the
Manchus. The younger Paul visited China for the first time at the age of six; over the next decade he spent most of his intermittent Chinese stays in the protected foreign enclaves of Shanghai. But his father and other revolutionaries told him a great deal about the suffering populace and their brutal masters. The Judge was as harsh in his judgements of the British and other white powers in China as he was of the Manchu despots.

With its foundations laid by his childhood indoctrination, the younger Paul Linebarger’s personal awakening to the plight of the Chinese masses came when his family returned to China in 1930, after three comfortable years in the United States. Instead of settling again in Shanghai, the family went to Nanking, where the sixteen-year-old Paul observed

many disquieting things. I beheld vast masses of men in the bondage of pain. I experienced wild hatreds and sympathies that destroyed my detachment and egotism and set my brain on fire. I was nauseated in making my first acquaintance with violent death. I had but to look out of my window to see people beyond the walls of the mansion starving to death in mud huts. Everywhere I went I encountered misery… Though later the unpleasantness passed, though I grew more accustomedly callous to the human suffering about me, none the less the memory of the moods rather than the thoughts haunted me.23

Paul Linebarger’s description of this experience is remarkably similar to young leftist activists’ reports of the experiences that awakened them to the racial inequalities of America in the 1960s.24 In Linebarger’s case, the experience stimulated him to write a lengthy set of philosophical statements, to plan a grand (if not grandiose) cycle of fictional works dealing with Chinese history and his own life, and perhaps to sympathize temporarily with the Communist rather than the Nationalist side of Chinese politics. (Linebarger’s widow told J. J. Pierce that he had developed ‘radical leanings’ at about this time, and that his father responded by giving him an eighteenth-birthday trip to Russia, which ‘sufficed to cure the son of his sympathies for Communism’.25) Linebarger’s later support for the Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek, based as much on family tradition as on his personal relationships with Chiang and other government officials, was tempered by his knowledge of official corruption and incompetence. But Linebarger’s sympathies for the Chinese people, whether they lived on the mainland, on Taiwan, or in various overseas locations, never wavered. It is these sympathies, more than any other, that appear to be expressed in the sufferings and aspirations of the underpeople.

Paul Linebarger remained politically a divided man, as his father had been before him. Judge Linebarger had built up a solid reputation as a lawyer, politician, and judge, only to abandon much of his political respectability when he joined Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary forces. He did, however, attempt to maintain some surface respectability, better to aid the revolutionary cause, but also perhaps to satisfy certain of his own psychological needs. The Judge’s son Paul felt himself very much a part of the revolutionary movement as a child — as early as five asking the Judge, ‘How do you play the game of the re-vo-lu-tion-aree?’26 By the time the younger Linebarger embarked upon his own career as a political scientist, supporting the Nationalist Chinese Government was thoroughly respectable in the US and in time even became a conservative position. Paul Linebarger enjoyed his establishment connections in America and China. He talked the language of realpolitik with ease. As a member of Army Intelligence, he developed views about psychological warfare and political assassination that would hardly have disturbed his counterparts in the CIA. But like his father, Linebarger retained a deeply empathic feeling for the plight of the politically oppressed. Late in life he was unable fully to express those feelings within the context of his political connections, his academic reputation, and his family ties to what was by now an ageing and superseded revolution. Instead his love and hope for the Chinese masses came to be embodied in his vision of the underpeople.

Specific aspects of Linebarger’s career as a political scientist may have encouraged that shift into fiction. In the mid-1950s he devoted a great deal of effort and travel to a study of the overseas Chinese — those living elsewhere than mainland China or Taiwan — and their attitudes toward the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek. Linebarger found the overseas Chinese, through adaptation to local circumstances, to have become unexpectedly diverse in their views. Some were even more conservative politically than those remaining on Taiwan; others were again becoming revolutionary in their aspirations. Linebarger discussed his findings in a scholarly book manuscript that he hoped would restore his academic reputation as a China expert — a reputation that had somewhat faded during his military work on psychological warfare. Several university presses rejected the manuscript, mainly (in Linebarger’s opinion) for political reasons. He rewrote the manuscript, but after two years of negotiations with his own university’s press, he received a final rejection on 12 February 1958.27 Only three months passed before Cordwainer Smith’s fictional drafts recorded the birth of the underpeople. As they grew, the underpeople displayed more than a few traces of the overseas Chinese and their politically oppressed kinspeople on the mainland.


Literature, politics, and personal experience were always so closely intertwined for Paul Linebarger as to be inseparable. However, several factors in the development of the underpeople may be described as more personal than literary or political. Among them, Linebarger’s concerns about religion, about death, and about intimate emotional relationships appear to have been especially significant in determining the forms taken by the underpeople and the dates of their emergence.

Paul Linebarger is often assumed to have been a committed Christian all his life, and to have expressed that commitment consistently throughout his science fiction. Several critical and biographical sources refer to his having had a ‘High-Church Episcopalian’ upbringing,28 or to his being a ‘High-Church Anglican,’29 as if he had always been one. In fact the family tradition was decidedly Low-Church Methodist. Paul’s paternal grandfather was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher; Judge Linebarger initially trained for the Methodist ministry; and Paul listed himself as a Methodist as late as the 1954-95 edition of Who’s Who in America. However, the Judge largely abandoned formal Christianity in his youth, adopted Sun-Yat-senism as a substitute religion in middle age, and in later life proclaimed his devotion to the Confucian tradition of ancestor worship. Paul Linebarger’s mainstream novels, written and published in the 1940s, display no commitment to an orthodox religious faith. (The protagonist of Ria undergoes a vague mystical experience in the novel’s closing pages, but she decides it has nothing to do with God.)

According to Linebarger’s wife Genevieve, ‘When we were married [in 1950] he knew I was religious, but he told me very honestly he was agnostic.’ She said that Paul ‘became particularly interested in religion after my mother’s death [in 1955]. He was crazy about my mother. I think her death affected him as much or more than mine would have … She died so bravely … I know that was what persuaded him’ (interview, 26 September 1979). Linebarger and his wife then chose to join the Episcopal Church, as a compromise between her Catholicism and his Protestant background. (His brother Wentworth recalls that Linebarger received some Episcopalian religious training at the Cathedral School in Shanghai when he was 7—9 years old. ‘Paul liked it; he liked the structure of Episcopalianism’ [interview, 26 March 1983].)

As J. J. Pierce has noted, Linebarger’s early drafts on the underpeople do not show ‘any religious element at all’.30 Even in the published version of the most famous underpeople story, ‘The Ballad of Lost C’mell’ (written in 1960—61 but perhaps plotted earlier), their leader (an eagle-person named the E’telekeli) was depicted principally as a brilliant political conspirator rather than as a religious figure. But as Linebarger’s own religious interests deepened and as he became more active in the church, the religious components of the underpeople’s political movement also intensified, until the E’telekeli stood revealed (in Norstrilia [1975], p. 247) as the almost god-like leader of a ‘Holy Insurgency’. This melding of political and religious leadership had its appeal for a man whose father regarded Sun Yat-sen as the greatest human being who ever lived, and who had himself when fifteen written, ‘Sun Yat-sen is above the gods, for the gods are silly things that we tumble or raise with every change in the course of our imagination while Sun — Oh! he is [so] firm and real and great and lasting that it is beyond my power to tell you!’31 The mature Paul Linebarger, though he worked in the presidential campaigns of Robert Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon, never found an American political figure in whom he could fully invest his faith. Instead he invented the E’telekeli.

The significance of religion in Linebarger’s personal life as well as in his stories appears to have become much stronger after his repeated brushes with death in 1960. He referred to 1960 as a ‘year of disasters for me personally’;32 the disasters were mainly life-threatening physical illnesses. The most bizarre underpeople story of all, ‘A Planet Named Shayol’ (1961), drew heavily upon his subjective experiences as a patient undergoing one operation after another, heavily drugged or anaesthetized in
various ways. (The story’s working title was ‘People Never Live Forever’, a phrase repeated often and optimistically by one of the suffering characters.) During the remaining six years of Linebarger’s life, as he looked for signs of long-term physical recovery but instead encountered further signs of mortality, his stories became increasingly religious, though not increasingly orthodox. Ultimately the stories went even beyond the underpeople’s politico-religious quest for full equality with humans, to the strange visions of personal sacrifice and quasi-salvation in his last finished works.33

Linebarger’s basic vision of the underpeople, while less eccentric in its religious content than those final stories, is hardly something one would assign as devotional reading to the average Sunday-school class. The dominant figure in the underpeople stories is not their religious leader, the E’telekeli, but one of his disciples, the stunningly beautiful and professionally seductive cat-woman C’mell. In three major works (‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’, ‘The Ballad of Lost C’mell,’ Norstrilia), a series of male human protagonists feel dangerously attracted to C’mell. In each case she somehow reciprocates the protagonist’s interest, though she emphasizes that as an underperson she is forbidden love or marriage with a true human. Linebarger’s classic early story, ‘The Game of Rat and Dragon’, had already wrestled with the lures and limits of psychological intimacy between man and cat, without finding a satisfactory solution. The invention of C’mell carried that intimacy further in Linebarger’s imagination, though even then, with a cat-woman fully human in form, his imagination observed certain limits. (Publicly, at least. An early draft of Norstrilia depicts C’mell’s first meeting with the human male protagonist: ‘She realized, looking into his innocent and singularly wise eyes, that she was seeing a man for the first time, and that a man was looking at her for the very first time as a woman … By morning, they were not only lovers but friends.’34)

Paul Linebarger had many women friends in his lifetime, and his relationships with them were often passionate. In several significant instances, the relationships were with women clearly regarded by others as ‘not of his own kind’ — different in race, ethnic background, nationality. One woman was a Jew; at least one was Chinese; a particularly important one was a White Russian émigrée in Peking, of questionable reputation and nearly twice as old as he. These relationships usually ended sadly if not tragically. Even when he did meet and marry a woman with similar interests and a ‘respectable’ background, the two of them could not fully bridge the emotional gulf he had long experienced between himself and others. Well before the marriage ended, he seems to have become emotionally closer to the family cats than to his wife. (Similarly, his short story ‘Nancy’ [1959] depicts a man trying to maintain his sanity during a long-distance spaceship flight after his co-pilot has died; he has only two hamsters for company. ‘The hamsters were his one hope. He thrust his face close to their cage and talked to them. He attributed moods to them. He tried to live their lives with them, all as if they were people.’ When that doesn’t work he fantasizes the perfect woman as his shipmate.)

Paul Linebarger clearly recognized that he could never get from a cat all he wanted from a human woman. But cats did give him psychological rewards that for a long time he was unable to obtain on a steady basis from women. He imagined C’mell as the best of cat and of woman. The under-people may in turn be seen at one level as an elaborate rationale for his continued fantasizing of the cat-woman C’mell. Only in his last years could Linebarger imagine relationships with real human women as satisfying as the psychological relationships he had experienced with his cats — especially with the cat of cats, Melanie, who gave part of her name to C’mell and whom his second wife Genevieve described as ‘Paul’s little love’ (interview, 26 September 1979).


The story of the underpeople ranges through thousands of years in the Cordwainer Smith future history. It involves religious martyrdom, telepathic espionage, enigmatic mysticism, and hardball politics. It depicts arrogant human brutality towards underpeople who are valued far less than human slaves, and intense but unconsummated love affairs between people and underpeople that become legendary across the populated universe. Like any other memorable literary creation, the story is not reducible to a single meaning or to a single source in its creator’s experience.

As those who knew him casually or well have often emphasized, Paul Linebarger was not a simple man. His widow told me, ‘He was the only true genius I’ve ever met.’ His brother said more modestly, ‘Paul was pretty complex.’ His older daughter quoted his frequent self-assessment, ‘a near-genius’, and added that he was ‘extremely complex’.35 A final aspect of the underpeople’s appeal to Linebarger himself seems to have been the sheer complexity of their relationships with each other, with the hominids from far-flung planets, and with the trumen of Earth. Their search for full freedom and equality remained unresolved, even across the vast expanses of time and space within which Linebarger set their story. Some critics have suggested that if he had lived longer than his fifty-three years, Linebarger would have reached an ultimate political, philosophical, and/or religious resolution to their search. More likely, given his appreciation for the value of creative ambiguity and his hard-earned sense of life’s lack of neat endings, he would have confronted the underpeople and their fellow inhabitants of the universe with new challenges, new complexities.


Many individuals have assisted me in exploring the life and work of Paul Linebarger. Among those whose help was particularly useful in the preparation of this essay were: Genevieve Linebarger, W. Wentworth Linebarger, Rosana (Linebarger) Hart, Marcia Linebarger, J. J. Pierce, Patricia Woelk, John K. Fairbank, the staff of the Hoover Institution Archives (Stanford University), and the staff of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library (University of Kansas). I would also like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Faculty Research Committee of the University of California, Davis, for funds that enabled me to travel to the research collections containing Paul Linebargcr’s papers. Quotations from previously unpublished works of Paul Linebarger arc used by permission of Rosana Hart and Marcia Linebarger.

  1. ‘Humanity Overtaken’, unpublished manuscript, 20 January 1940; Hoover Institution Archives.
  2. See Ria (1947), p. 32, and Carola (1948), pp. 214-22, both published under the pseudonym of Felix C. Forrest.
  3. See ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (1950), and ‘Mark Elf’, first published in 1957, reprinted in Cordwainer Smith, The Instrumentality of Mankind (1979), hereafter cited as Instrumentality. The anachronistic mixture of Beasts, ‘Unauthorized Men,’ ‘modified animals,’ and other creatures in ‘Queen of the Afternoon’ (first published in 1978, reprinted in Instrumentality) resulted from Genevieve Linebargcr’s heavy rewriting of a 1955 fragment by her late husband. 
  4. Unpublished draft of Star-Craving Mad, ‘What Went Before’, 15 May 1958, p. 2; Spencer Research Library.
  5. On 1 January 1929, aged 15, Linebarger wrote in his diary, ‘May Science progress and a great author appear! At present there is only H. G. Wells!’ (Hoover Institution Archives).
  6. In his introduction to J. J. Pierce (ed), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975).
  7. H. G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau (1895), ch. 14.
  8. A bull-man in ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ has had to have his horns cut off to make him look more human; but the narrator notes that as an unusual instance.
  9. Stapledon raised but did not fully deal with issues, such as sexual feelings between human and animal, that Linebarger later carried considerably further in the underpeople stories. Leslie Fiedler has suggested that Stapledon’s Sirius may in turn have been inspired by The Island of Dr Moreau (in Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided [Oxford, 1983], p. 186).
  10. First published in the magazine Weird Tales, the story was reprinted in Leigh Brackett (ed.), The Best of Edmond Hamilton (1977).
  11. One exception is Johan Heje, who discusses the undcrpeoplc’s development in terms of Lincbargcr’s literary revisions of a philosophically inadequate and thus artistically frustrating first-draft conceptualization (‘On the Genesis of Norstrilia’, Extrapolation, 30 (1989), pp. 146-55).
  12. Anthony Lewis and the New York Times, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution (New York, 1965).
  13. ‘John Foyster Talks with Arthur Burns’, in Andrew Porter (ed.), Exploring Cordwainer Smith (New York, 1975), p. 19.
  14. John Foyster, ‘Cordwainer Smith’, in Porter, Exploring Cordwainer Smith, p. 10.
  15. Terry Dowling, ‘The Lever of Life: Winning and Losing in the Fiction of Cordwainer Smith’, Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature, 4, 1 (1982), p. 15.
  16. Gary K. Wolfe, ‘The Best of Cordwainer Smith’, in F. N. Magill (ed.), Survey of Science Fiction Literature (New York, 1979), p. 188.
  17. Quoted by J. J. Pierce in ‘Mr Forest of Incandescent Bliss: The Man behind Cordwainer Smith’, Speculation, 33 (1971), p. 15.
  18. ‘Twenty SAIS Years, an Informal Memoir’, SAIS Review, 8, 1 (1963), pp. 37-8.
  19. ‘Education and Diplomacy: Thirteen Years’, SAIS Review, 5, 3 (1961), p. 8.
  20. A black man in Linebarger’s unpublished mainstream novel ‘Journey in Search of a Destination’ (1946 manuscript, Spencer Research Library), is described in terms applicable to an underperson: ‘His face was sad; his eyes were like the eyes of a thoughtful dog’ (p. 59); ‘a humble man stood confusing his dreams of hopeless beauty with his aching hopes for the regeneration of his people’ (p. 136). But the novel’s viewpoint characters regard this man with pity rather than with empathy.
  21. For a brief account of the senior Linebarger’s life and his influence on his son, sec Alan C. Elms, ‘The Creation of Cordwainer Smith’, Science-Fiction Studies, 11 (1984), pp. 265-7, 270-1. Paul M. W. Linebarger was a US Federal District Judge in the Philippines at the time of his political conversion, and retained the honorific title ‘Judge’ throughout his life.
  22. Paul M. A. Linebarger, Djang Chu, and Ardath W. Burks, Far Eastern Governments and Politics, 2nd edn (Princeton, 1956), p. 47. Linebarger was mainly responsible for writing this section of the book.
  23. ‘Introduction to and outlines of “The Philosophy of Chaos”‘, unpublished manuscript, 25 October 1931, pp. 1-2; Hoover Institution Archives.
  24. Kenneth Keniston, Young Radicals (New York, 1968).
  25. Pierce, ‘Mr Forest of Incandescent Bliss’, p. 6.
  26. Paul M. W. Linebarger, unpublished memoirs, p. 343; Hoover Institution Archives.
  27. Manuscript versions of ‘Overseas China and Kuomintang Vitality’, plus editorial correspondence, are located in the Hoover Institution Archives.
  28. Pierce, introduction to Best of, p. xiv; Dowling, ‘The Lever of Life’, p. 10.
  29. Arthur Burns, ‘Paul Linebarger’, in Porter, Exploring Cordwainer Smith, p. 9.
  30. ‘The Treasure of the Secret Cordwainer’, Science Fiction Review, 48 (Fall 1983), p. 11.
  31. Diary, 14 January 1929; Hoover Institution Archives.
  32. Letter to Professor Tao, 18 April 1962; Hoover Institution Archives.
  33. ‘Three to a Given Star’ and ‘On the Sand Planet’, both originally published in 1965, reprinted in Quest of the Three Worlds (1966); ‘Under Old Earth’, first published in 1966, reprinted in Best of.
  34. Star-Craving Mad, ch. 5, p. 11; Spencer Research Library.
  35. Interviews with Genevieve Linebarger, 26 September 1979; W. Wentworth Linebarger, 26 March 1983; Rosana Hart, 7 November 1979.

[Originally published in: Essays and Studies 1990, Fictional Space: Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction, ed. Tom Shippey. Basil Blackwell, Oxford/Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1991.]

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