The Psychologist Who Empathized with Rats: James Tiptree, Jr. as Alice B. Sheldon, PhD

Alan C. Elms

We all know by now that James Tiptree, Jr., the sf writer who could fire off a masculine metaphor with the best of the boys, was in reality Alice Bradley Sheldon. When Tiptree’s real name was revealed after a decade of disguise, the sf world was fascinated to hear of her far-ranging childhood travels with her explorer parents, her early career as a professional artist, her World War II and Cold War service in military intelligence and the CIA. It also became known that Sheldon had earned a PhD in Psychology in midlife. But as the Tiptree legend grew, the PhD was seldom treated as more than a filler between her CIA work and her sf writing debut. So little attention has been given to her psychology career that the Norton Book of Science Fiction, the most Tiptree-centric of canonical sf anthologies, erroneously identifies her degree as in clinical psychology (Le Guin and Attebery 860).1

To Alice Sheldon, however, her identity as an experimental psychologist was neither accidental nor incidental. She expressed a passion for psychological research that was far more intense than anything she said about her art or her CIA assignments. In various interviews and essays she repeated much the same words: [B]ecoming a genuine research psychologist—PhD, 1967—brought me the greatest genuine thrill of my life” (“Woman Writing” 56). Soon after she began to publish sf, she wrote an apologetic letter to a fellow psychologist, explaining how she had “totally dropped out” of professional research: “What the hell has been going on nearly two years here? Probably, just a shallow, over-stuffed, childish mind, a lazy slob-soul, bright enough to understand real excellence, too self-indulgent to take the hard and only route, and rushing through a miraculously-offered bypath to esteem” (Letter to Rudolf Arnheim, November 1969, emphasis in original; Jeff Smith Collection).2 Though Sheldon had given up her research and teaching by 1969, eight years before Tiptree’s cover was blown, she continued to think of herself as a member of the profession, as she indicated in a letter of 1984: “No, Tiptree is not the Secret Master of the CIA, she’s just an old lady rat psychologist living in the woods” (Letter to “Dearest B-,” February 4, 1984; Jeff Smith Collection). Furthermore, Sheldon described her original aim in moving from rat research to writing fiction as “showing sf readers that there are sciences other than physics, that bio-ethology or behavioral psychology, for instance, could be exploited to enrich the sf field” (Meet Me 345). As that statement suggests, we may be able to understand more about the sf of James Tiptree, Jr. by looking more closely at the psychological career of Dr. Alice B. Sheldon.

Undergraduate Studies. What sort of psychological training did she receive? Ordinarily, the answer to such a question would not include reference to a scientific researcher’s first course in psychology. Yet the Psychology 1A class that 20-year-old Alice Davey took at UC Berkeley in Fall 1935 (she had already married her first husband) was more than an ordinary introductory course. It was taught by Edward Chace Tolman, one of the world’s leading experimental psychologists. (Two years later he was elected president of the American Psychological Association. The psychology building on the Berkeley campus today is named Tolman Hall.) Tolman was a behaviorist who worked primarily with rats. But he gave rats and similar creatures a good deal more credit for perceptiveness and purposiveness than did either of his main theoretical competitors, B.F. Skinner and Clark Hull. Though Tolman continued to elaborate his ideas over the next quarter-century, his basic position on the cognitive complexity of rats was already well established by 1935.

Alice Davey’s notes for her class in Psychology (“Psychology 1A” folder; Jeff Smith Collection) were fairly standard sophomore work, ornamented by artistic doodles. But something of Professor Tolman’s approach stayed with her. In a paper she wrote as a returning 41-year-old undergraduate student, she contrasted the then-dominant stimulus-response behaviorists, including Hull and Skinner, with the intervening-variable behaviorists, led by Tolman; and her paper came down firmly in Tolman’s camp (“Report of Experiment I,” February 25, 1957; Jeff Smith Collection). Her doctoral dissertation also bore traces of Tolman’s perspective, as we shall see.

Alice Davey soon dropped out of UC Berkeley without finishing her degree. Let’s jump forward 20 years, to a time when Alice Sheldon found her clandestine CIA work ethically troubling and abruptly resigned “to pursue more personally congenial goals” (Meet Me 344). Those goals lay largely within the domain of psychology, especially in psychological aesthetics, an area that tapped her experiences both as an artist and as a photo-intelligence officer for the Army Air Force and the CIA. In her words, she was now “fired with the urge to understand everything that could be known about visual perception and value, and to devise some experimental benchmarks in the murk” (Meet Me 344).

Sheldon knew she needed a PhD to pursue such goals, but she first had to finish her undergraduate degree. She was geographically constrained by her second husband’s high-level position at CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, so she became a psychology major at American University in Washington, DC. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1959 at age 43, she moved on to the PhD program in experimental psychology at George Washington University.

Graduate Studies. During her years at American University, Alice Sheldon continued to think about psychological aesthetics and, more broadly, the psychology of perception. She set down her ideas in two elaborately illustrated notebooks, which she sent for evaluation to a friendly perceptual psychologist (Rudolf Arnheim), who passed them on to an equally distinguished colleague (Hans Wallach). But the latter failed to provide timely feedback or encouragement. When Sheldon got up courage to write an apologetic request for the notebooks’ return three years later, she described them as a “wretched,” “eccentric project,” written in “opaque, long-winded … pompous and wooly” prose, which at best included an idea “still worth study” and some drawings with an original glimmer” (Letters to Hans Wallach, November 4 and November 10,1960; Jeff Smith Collection). By the time she began the proposal for her doctoral dissertation, she had apparently decided that the psychology of human visual aesthetics was too complex to yield a testable research hypothesis. She turned instead to another area with whose research literature she was familiar, and to creatures she had first learned about in Edward Tolman’s Psychology 1A. She decided to study the reactions of laboratory rats to novel and familiar visual stimuli.

In summarizing previous views on the topic, Sheldon departed from the colorless APA-style language of her dissertation for virtually the only time: “Were a Martian to read our psychology texts, he might well picture the earth as covered by animals journeying in search of novelty, and human beings as eagerly embracing every innovation in social structure, religion, and scientific theory” (“Preference” 3). Nonetheless, she continued, in the real world people and other animals seek out novelty “only occasionally,” preferring the familiar: “Parents know that small children often retreat from strangers and show distress in strange places. Adult humans who appear different, behave in a novel manner, or propose new views have learned to expect aversive reactions from their fellow men” (4).

Sheldon needed an experimental design that would convincingly sort out the key factors that make novelty or familiarity more appealing. No previous researcher had developed such a design, and she soon discovered why. Even laboratory rats are complicated little beasts, and they seemed to find many other aspects of their simple laboratory environment more intriguing than the stimuli on which Sheldon wanted them to focus. One of her dissertation illustrations shows a few of the things her rats preferred to do instead of choosing between the specific stimuli she presented as familiar or novel (Figure 1; “Preference” 104; titles of Figures 1-4 are Sheldon’s). She tried a dozen different experimental designs before she found one that was simple, elegant, and replicable. As she later said, “I estimate I hauled a quarter of a ton of rats up and down H Street, winters and summers”—because she needed a new batch of rats for each of those thirteen experiments (Gearhart and Ross 447).

Another of Sheldon’s drawings for the dissertation (Figure 2; “Preference” 24) shows the physical structure she built to present each rat with a familiar and a novel visual stimulus, and to give the rat the option of moving toward one or the other. Figure 3 (“Preference” 25) shows what Sheldon called the “rat’s eye view” of the experimental stimuli. The two stimuli displayed there (representative of a variety of items used in her experiments) were a locket shaped like a turtle and a salt-shaker caricature of a professor. Each rat had previously spent time with one of these items in its cage. That item was then placed in a small window as the familiar object, while the adjacent window presented an item that the rat had not seen before. The rat was left on the runway until it made a choice and entered one of the two windows. Each rat

[Figure 1 unfortunately does not translate well to the format of this website. Rat behaviors shown in Sheldon’s precise drawings are labeled as shadow-crouching, edge-peering, edge-tracking, crack-following, rim-teetering, point-sniffing, crevice-sniffing, gap-straddling (two examples), sill-perching, rear-end-anchored locomotion, and wall-clinging (two examples). For Sheldon’s drawings of these various spontaneous but repeated rat behaviors that “interfered with [her] measurement of novelty responses,” see Sheldon’s dissertation, Tiptree’s story, or the original journal publication of my paper.]

Figure 1. Some examples of thigmotaxic responses encountered in the experiments which interfered with the measurement of novelty responses.

Figure 2. The raised Y-runway used in Experiments 1 and 2

Figure 3. Rat’s eye view of the stimuli in Experiments 1 and 2

Figure 4. Choice of familiar stimulus

was placed in this situation once a day for two weeks. The familiar object remained constant for any given rat, while a new item was introduced each day as the other choice.

When the rat was placed on the runway on the experiment’s first day, the entire situation was highly novel. As the days passed, the general situation grew more and more familiar to the rat with each repetition; only the day’s new item differed. Sheldon predicted that the novelty or familiarity of a specific stimulus object would interact with the degree of familiarity of the overall situation. When the general situation was unfamiliar, the rat would more likely approach a familiar specific stimulus. As the general situation grew familiar, the rat would more likely choose a novel stimulus. The results were so clear and simple that Sheldon illustrated them in an easily solved cartoon puzzle, not included in her dissertation (Figure 4, Meet Me 362). Given each rat family’s familiarity with a certain style of art at home, which sort of painting would they choose to look at if they visited a museum? Sheldon provides no answer key, leaving the human viewer free to empathize with the rats.

The rats in Sheldon’s drawings may not look like standard albino lab rats, and indeed they were not. Sheldon chose to use a variant breed called hooded rats, so called because they have black markings on their upper bodies. Part of their genetic package is good eyesight, much superior to the poor pink eyes of white rats (Lawler 27). As Sheldon’s experiments required that the rats get a good look at familiar and novel stimuli before choosing one or the other, they needed good eyes.

Sheldon’s research did not win a Best Dissertation of the Year award, though it was so nominated by one of her advisers (Gearhart and Ross 447). Nor is it now regarded as a classic in the field. But according to the Science Citation Index,
which keeps track of such data, the journal article version published in 1969 (“Familiar Versus”) has been cited in the scientific literature more than 20 times, most recently twice in 2003—quite a respectable showing for a young scientist’s first research publication.

But Alice Sheldon was not a young scientist in 1969. She had been an eager one, putting much time and energy into her dissertation research, negotiating the many other hazards of graduate school, and developing her college teaching skills. She taught several courses at George Washington University and American University before and just after she completed the PhD requirements—mainly, a statistics course for psychology majors and an introductory psychology course for education students. These were the courses that senior faculty did not want to teach. Sheldon didn’t want to teach them, either; she said that the education students “could barely count their toes” (Platt 265). She never became a full-time faculty member at either institution. As she later observed, that would have required “the constitution of a healthy twenty-five-year-old Marine” (Gearhart and Ross 447). She would have had to teach a full load of courses, develop grant proposals, care for her rat colonies, and produce further publishable research. By now she was in her mid-fifties, not her mid-twenties. She had recently discovered or developed serious health problems, including a severe ulcer, heart difficulties, and internal damage from an early abortion. She also continued to experience episodes of deep depression, reactive in some degree to her current circumstances but attributable as well to genetic factors and to unresolved issues from her early upbringing.

For over a decade, Alice Sheldon was a committed and active experimental psychologist as a student, researcher, and teacher. She was fascinated with important theoretical issues. She engaged in lively correspondence with major psychologists and was delighted with the ultimate success of her own research. Even though that research focused entirely on rat behavior, she remained intrigued with those questions about human aesthetic perception that had brought her into the field. She made a valuable but unpublicized contribution to the psychology of the arts by closely copy-editing a now-classic book, Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking (1969). Even before Sheldon had resumed her undergraduate education, Arnheim became one of her earliest and most encouraging correspondents in academia.3 The preface of his book includes a remarkable acknowledgment of her help: “To a fellow psychologist, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon of George Washington University, I owe more thanks than anybody should owe to a friend and colleague. Dr. Sheldon has scrutinized every one of my many and often long sentences; she has checked on some of the facts, improved structure and logic, and sustained the author’s morale by her faith in the ultimate reasonableness of what transpired from his efforts. Wherever the reader stumbles, she is likely not to have had her way” (vii).

In 1969, the year both Arnheim’s book and Sheldon’s one major journal article appeared, she reluctantly closed out her career in psychology. Though she maintained her membership in the American Psychological Association for some time afterward, she never applied for another grant, never did another experiment, and never taught another class.

Science Fiction Writings. The first stories by James Tiptree, Jr. had by then been published. New Tiptree stories appeared often over the next decade—as well as, less often, during the decade following Tiptree’s exposure as Alice B. Sheldon, old lady rat psychologist. I won’t go into that publication history except to answer one question: What traces of Sheldon’s psychology career can we find in Tiptree’s fiction? I’ll conclude with several related questions and perhaps more answers.

Sheldon’s research background is most evident in “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats,” a story published in 1976, a year before Tiptree’s identity was disclosed. Though the story first appeared in New Dimensions, Robert Silverberg’s series of original sf anthologies, it is not science fiction, except insofar as it is fiction about a scientist. It can be read as fantasy, for in a pivotal scene, a monstrous creature resembling The Nutcracker’s Mouse King comes to life. But it can also be read as realistic fiction, with the Rat King scene attributable to the human protagonist’s heavy consumption of ale and absinthe.

The protagonist is Tilly Lipsitz, a gentle experimental psychologist who works with rats, worries about obtaining research grants, and fears that he’ll soon be fired for lack of research productivity—all these characteristics, of course, applied to Alice Sheldon as well.4 Sheldon told Mark Siegel that the story described her situation at GWU “pretty much as it was” (Siegel 40). Further similarities to what we know of her situation are striking: Tilly Lipsitz occupies the same sort of basement laboratory, does research on “tolerance of perceptual novelty” (“Psychologist Who” 231), thrills as Sheldon did at being able to put “a real question to Life” and having Life answer yes or no (236), and laments that “Junior department members get the monster classes” (238). The rats he works with are “the hooded strain,” with “sleek black shoulders” (230). Tilly’s department head and grant supervisor, who demands that he produce more and better research or be dismissed, is named Professor R.D. Welch. Alice Sheldon’s department head and dissertation supervisor was Professor Richard D. Walk. (When I interviewed Walk in 1998 about Alice Sheldon, I asked if he’d read any Tiptree stories. “No,” he said, “I’m afraid I’d find myself as the villain.”)

Sheldon even inserted into the story a page of drawings from her doctoral dissertation, only slightly redrawn and relabeled (“Psychologist Who” 235; “Preference” 104, reproduced above as Figure 1). Tilly Lipsitz says the drawings are his, but they are labeled in the published story as “Drawings by Raccoona Sheldon,” another of Alice Sheldon’s pseudonyms. (If anyone familiar with her dissertation had seen this story when it first appeared, Tiptree’s true identity would have been obvious a year before it was publicly revealed.) Lipsitz’s observations and emotions regarding his colleagues and his research animals express those of Alice Sheldon, though they are perhaps exaggerated for dramatic effect. Throughout the story, Tilly’s fellow psychologists do a variety of awful things to their rats and other animals: starve them, slice them, blind them, drive electrodes into their skulls, “sacrifice” them, chop off their heads. In sharp contrast, Tilly empathizes with the animals, imagining how he would feel in their circumstances. He attributes human feelings to them and goes far out of his way to relieve their misery.

The differences between Lipsitz’s circumstances and Alice Sheldon’s lie mainly in the story’s concluding pages. Lipsitz, stressed out and continuing to relieve his anxiety with absinthe, experiences a vision or hallucination: a “tangled mass” of neglected and dying rats coalesce into a single great and charismatic organism, the Rat King, who leads the other pain-wracked creatures of the university’s animal labs to a fairyland of freedom. Whether Alice Sheldon ever had a glimmer of such absinthian visions, we do not know. What we do know is that she began to write science fiction under similar stresses. Tilly Lipsitz’s soul goes off with the Rat King’s entourage, so when his body recovers from its absinthe-induced blackout, he becomes just another cynical careerist professor, plotting to use his research skills to do awful things to racehorses. When Alice Sheldon recovered from the stresses of her final months as a psychologist, she continued on into her next career as a writer—often cynical about the human race, especially the masculine part of it, but retaining the values and virtues that Tilly Lipsitz lost along with his soul.

The first pages of “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” come closer than anything else in Sheldon’s fictional oeuvre to depicting her distinctive qualities as an experimental psychologist. But other stories published under the Tiptree and Raccoona Sheldon pseudonyms also display certain marks of her research career, though not as explicitly or insistently. Several stories focus on a character who does something like experimental psychology (though it’s not called that) and who greatly enjoys doing it. In the story “And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways,” an interstellar expedition’s novice “anthrosyke” (a sort of exopsychologist) insists on exploring a mysterious planetary phenomenon at first hand rather than relying on electronic instrumentation. In so doing he undergoes a literal peak experience, but abruptly dies without solving the mystery. In “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,” a medical researcher exults in an important discovery that he expects will earn him a Nobel Prize. From this height of joy, he plunges into despair when he learns that a researcher in India has published the same discovery first. In the novel Up the Walls of the World (1978), a parapsychologist uses standard ESP research procedures in hopes of detecting faint telepathic signals from his submarine-based human subjects. He is delighted to get long runs of correct responses, but his experiment collapses beneath an onslaught of messages from telepathic aliens. (Undaunted, the parapsychologist adapts the aliens’ powers to make millions in Las Vegas casinos—rather like Tilly Lipsitz becoming a horserace entrepreneur.) None of these eager researchers, including Tilly, is permitted to enjoy serious scientific success in the way that Alice Sheldon did with her dissertation research. But they all resemble her, in terms of beginning their research with great enthusiasm but finding themselves unable to sustain a career in science.

Much of Sheldon’s sf can be seen as expressing, sometimes centrally and sometimes more peripherally, her attitudes about the treatment of small or relatively weak animals (including certain humans). The immediate sources for such attitudes are not hard to identify. Not only did she spend several years caring for laboratory rats while seeing other psychologists badly mistreat their research animals; she also saw herself as relatively weak and mistreated in the professional world. At times she identified herself as one of those small animals: “If you squeeze a mouse, it squeaks. Just so, when life squeezes me, I squeak. That is, I write” (“Woman Writing” 43). Her other pseudonym, Raccoona Sheldon, expresses a similar identification. So does the most famous image in her most famous story, “The Women Men Don’t See”: “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine…. Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over?” (140).5 In another well-known story, “The Screwfly Solution,” women are said to be “like hypnotized rabbits. We’re a toothless race,” subject to death and dismemberment by rage-filled men (29). And in “Beaver Tears” (31), a mismatched lot of humans, ineptly abducted by aliens for a breeding program, is compared with a mixed bag of beavers captured for later release in a foolish ecological project.

In the story “We Who Stole the Dream” (374) and in the novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), it isn’t women but members of a fragile alien race who are exploited, their bodies sucked dry of a vital essence that is supremely intoxicating to humans. In “Press Until the Bleeding Stops,” described by Sheldon as “a sort of ecological fantasy” (Meet Me 85), Earth’s put-upon animals try to stop the advance of humanity’s bulldozers: “And the birds dived screaming and the baby quail and mice rushed into the treads to jam them and the butterflies and bees rained into the cabs, all calling on their mother the Earth” (82). In one of Tiptree’s earliest stories, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” a biological researcher expresses his love and sympathy for the suffering earth, perceived as a wounded woman, by spreading a virus that will wipe out the insufferable human race without killing all those innocent and persecuted animals.

One of Tiptree’s award-winning stories, “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death,” may not fall into this group quite so obviously. Moggadeet, the story’s first-person viewpoint alien, is not physically small or weak; he is instead a “hugely black and hopeful” creature, able to rend his rivals to pieces with powerful claws and jaws. Ultimately he proves to be a love-smitten innocent, who is eaten alive by his once-tiny mate (413). That sad fate is, however, not the only reason to group the story with the “empathy with rats” narratives discussed earlier. Alice Sheldon clearly worked hard to imagine how the world would look and feel to a creature such as Moggadeet, just as she had carefully imagined the rat’s-eye view seen by her experimental subjects.

Figure 5. “Schematic Sowbug” making medium discrimination (Reprinted by permission of the American Psychological Association)

Sheldon’s original inspiration for assuming Moggadeet’s insectoid perspective may have come from her admired psychology professor Edward Tolman. Tolman was known in part for his psychological model of an actively information-processing organism, a model that came to be known as the Schematic Sowbug, because he drew it as a distinctive oval shape resembling a schematized bug or wood-louse (Figure 5; Collected Papers 202).6 Sheldon was surely familiar with the Schematic Sowbug; the Y-runway and choice procedure in her dissertation appear to have been adapted from a rat experiment described early in Tolman’s key paper on the Sowbug model (Collected Papers 190-94). Though the six-legged, several-armed, multiple-eyed Moggadeet sounds more arachnoid than sowbuggish, both he and the Schematic Sowbug have thick black carapaces and “unstable equilibrium”; they are both “ready to erupt” (Collected Papers 199). And both creatures were imagined from the inside out by an empathic psychologist.7

Pre-Professional History. Alice Sheldon’s years as a student and practitioner of experimental psychology left distinctive marks on her subsequent fiction. I doubt that she would have disagreed with such a suggestion. Most directly and emphatically in the story “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats”—from its title to its final lines—she used her fiction to denounce certain standard practices and assumptions of experimental psychology that otherwise she challenged rather more diplomatically.

Sarah Lefanu, in a generally insightful chapter on Tiptree, proposes a much broader pattern of influence: “It seems to me that her work in experimental psychology serves as the basis of her concern to explore, in fictional form, the notions of nature and nurture, of free will and determinism, that recur in her stories. Her psychological work also underpins her obsession, described above, with sex and death” (118). But Lefanu does not attempt to trace such connections in detail. Similarly, Adam Frisch proposes that “it is the study of psychology that forms for [Tiptree] the link between science and fiction” (49). The “psychology” he has in mind, however, largely concerns rigid sex roles and psychological flexibility. It would be difficult to find any immediate origins of Sheldon’s concerns with these broad issues of human psychological functioning in her laboratory rat research.

Sheldon arrived at her midlife career in psychology with many questions and preferred answers that had already been shaped by her earlier life history. Even when more direct connections can be drawn between her psychological work and her fiction, as in the stories that have been cited here, we need to ask such further questions as: What in her earlier life might have led her to adopt such views in psychology, as rarely as those views were shared among her colleagues? What in her earlier history led her to become a psychologist who strongly empathized with her laboratory rats and subsequently a writer whose sf often depicted small or weak creatures who are distressingly abused by the big and powerful? And what in that personal history led her to seek the joy of scientific discovery but then to abort her career in psychology and repeatedly to write sf about scientists and others who reach the heights of joy but rapidly descend into personal disaster?

Several scholars and critics (notably Larbalestier 183-88) have already pointed to aspects of Sheldon’s childhood that made her especially sensitive and empathic toward the small, the weak, the abused and threatened. Indeed, Sheldon pointed out such connections herself (see, for instance, Platt 260). Her parents delighted in putting shy little Alice on public display during their world travels—this beautiful, doll-like child with blond ringlets, often surrounded by dark-skinned warriors and other curious adults. Little Alice enjoyed the attention up to a certain point, but her extraverted mother insisted on going well beyond that point. So little Alice hid in the bushes, and later found different and sometimes more damaging ways of escaping from herself and others. During much of her early life, she had no problem locating novelty, but much difficulty locating the familiar. No wonder she later worked as a researcher to elevate the familiar in the lives of rats. No wonder she empathized with creatures who preferred to hide in dark corners. No wonder that she hid as long as she could behind a pseudonym. As Julie Phillips has observed, the Tiptree persona “was a refuge for a woman whose girlhood had been uncomfortably exposed” (20).

Sheldon said about her parents, “I was their only chick. The love they squandered on me was in real fact meant for ten, but what we now know was an Rh-factor problem killed the other nine—for which I, of course, felt guilty” (Gearhart and Ross 446). This statement of survivor guilt sounds as though she identified and empathized with those nine dead little siblings, giving her another foundation for empathizing with the small and weak of many species.

Furthermore, Alice Sheldon remained quite aware of the second-class status of girls and women in the many worlds of her childhood and adulthood. Even though her mother was a rather liberated woman for her time, and though Sheldon moved insistently into usually masculine roles in the Army Air Force and among experimental psychologists, she continued to see herself treated as less than equal to, and as other than, the men around her. As she wrote toward the end of her life, “To grow up as a ‘girl’ is to be nearly fatally spoiled, deformed, confused and terrified; to be responded to by falsities, to be reacted to as nothing or as a thing—and nearly to become that thing” (Meet Me 385). One of the simplest reasons for becoming James Tiptree, Jr. was Sheldon’s perception that the women already publishing sf under their own names were never quite equal to male authors in the mostly male eyes of editors and readers. Though several Tiptree stories remain among the most powerful feminist statements yet written as sf, they gained added impact at the time of publication by the apparent fact of their authorship by a man. As Sheldon later wrote, “Part of the appeal of Tiptree was that he ranged himself on the side of good by choice” (Meet Me 383; italics in original). Her uneasy recognition of this paradoxical effect of her male disguise was a principal reason for her withdrawal of “The Women Men Don’t See” from contention for a Nebula Award (“Woman Writing” 53).

One final aspect of Sheldon’s early personal history may have influenced both the course of her career in psychology and the content of her sf. I’ve already written about her as displaying a psychological pattern first described by the personality theorist Silvan Tomkins, a pattern he called the nuclear script (Tomkins 1987; Elms 131-38). According to Tomkins, a nuclear script is a recurrent emotional and behavioral pattern in which an individual is strongly drawn to a situation that promises great joy, high emotional rewards. The individual invests much hope and effort in the situation; when it falls apart, he or she struggles to recreate its joys but fails, leaving things even worse than before. After several repetitions of such a sequence, the individual builds up an expectation (Edward Tolman might have called it a cognitive map) that joy is always followed by disaster, or at best by powerful disappointment. Such expectations may then become self-fulfilling prophecies. Though Alice Sheldon surely learned other psychological scripts as well, she went through several major repetitions of a nuclear script pattern, starting in childhood.

The pattern is even more evident in her fiction than in her life. Gardner Dozois recognized it before Tiptree’s identity was known: “His characters strive constantly for personal transcendence, and yet they are almost always destroyed by it once they have achieved it” (24). The pattern is especially prominent in such stories as “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” and, of course, “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats.” In one story, “On the Last Afternoon,” a man defines the human species to an alien in a brief sentence that epitomizes a nuclear script: “Man is an animal whose dreams come true and kill him” (196). Almost without exception, every time a serious scientist appears in a Tiptree story, he will sooner or later enact a nuclear script.

That’s not to imply that Alice Sheldon’s life was a total loss. But she did grow to expect such losses as sequels to her happiest times and felt confirmed in her expectations when disaster indeed struck. Looking back on her life and work more than fifteen years after her death, we can see, perhaps more clearly than she did, that in many respects she was not a failure but an admirable figure. I cannot assess the quality of her serious paintings, and I don’t know how much her work for intelligence agencies contributed to national security. But her one full-fledged and original psychological experiment was ingenious, theoretically significant, and a testament to her scientific persistence. Although her sf was often pessimistic and sometimes overly doctrinaire, a dozen or more of those stories have attained the deserved status of classics in the field. Last and by no means least, Alice Sheldon gave the rest of us reason to recognize the value of observing behavior closely, empathically, in living detail, and in all of its complexity, whether in laboratory rats or in science fiction writers.


Portions of this paper were presented at the 2003 Science Fiction Research Association meeting in Guelph, Ontario. I am grateful to Jeffrey D. Smith, who maintains the James Tiptree Archive; to Julie Phillips, who is writing the authoritative biography of Alice Bradley Sheldon; and to Karen Joy Fowler, co-founder of the annual James Tiptree Award, for their encouragement and assistance during the preparation of this manuscript. They are of course not responsible for any factual errors or for the interpretations and conclusions I have drawn.

  1. Another sympathetic writer, Joanna Russ, described Sheldon as a “retired biologist” (44), though as Justine Larbalestier notes, “in fact, Sheldon was never a biologist” (182).
  2. Julie Phillips guided me to this letter, which she found in the Jeff Smith Collection. Smith, a devoted fan and friend of James Tiptree, Jr., became the literary trustee of Alice Sheldon’s estate upon her death. He generously showed me a number of relevant documents from his collection of her personal papers and has given me permission to quote from them. (Julie Phillips, personal communication, September 11, 2003.)
  3. The nickname “Tilly” (short for the unusual first name Tilman, itself a near-match with the last name of psychologist Edward Tolman) may be seen as a combination of Tiptree’s nickname, “Tip,” and Alice’s nickname, “Alli.”
  4. Sarah Lefanu borrowed Tiptree’s vivid phrase for the title of her book in its original British edition: In the Chinks of the World Machine (1988). The American edition merely used the British subtitle, Feminism and Science Fiction.
  5. Nine other vivid Sowbug illustrations appear in Collected Papers 196-205, along with explanations of the Sowbug’s components and psychological processes.
  6. In other ways as well, Tolman was an inspiring model for the empathic practice of experimental psychology. As another distinguished research psychologist, Jerome Kagan, put it: “One must be able to empathize with the organism under study in order to generate good guesses as to the forces activated when that organism is placed in an experimental context. It is said that Edward Tolman could do this for rats” (145). Tolman’s first book (published three years before Alice Davey took his Psychology 1A course) was dedicated “To M.N.A.”—who, as he explained in his preface, was Mus norvegicus albinus, the scientific name for his white rats (Purposive Behavior xii).


Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Dozois, Gardner. The Fiction of James Tiptree, Jr. New York: Algol, 1977. First published as introduction to a hardcover reprint of Tiptree, 10,000 Light Years from Home. New York: G.K. Hall, 1976.

Elms, Alan C. “Painwise in Space: The Psychology of Isolation in Cordwainer Smith and James Tiptree, Jr.” Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. Ed. Gary Westfahl. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. 131-40.

Frisch, Adam. “Toward New Sexual Identities: James Tiptree, Jr.” The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It. Ed. Tom Staicar. New York: Ungar, 1982. 48-59.

Gearhart, Nancy S. and Jean W. Ross. “Sheldon, Alice Hastings Bradley.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 1983. 443-50.

Kagan, Jerome. “A Psychologist’s Account at Mid-Career.” The Psychologists. Ed. T. S. Krawiec. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002.

Lawlor, Monica M. “Comfortable Quarters for Rats in Research Institutions.” Comfortable Quarters for Laboratory Animals. Ed. Viktor and Annie Reinhardt. 9th ed. Washington, DC: Animal Welfare Institute, 2002. 26-32.

Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women’s Press, 1988.

 Le Guin, Ursula K. and Brian Attebery, eds. The Norton Book of Science Fiction. New York: Norton, 1993.

Platt, Charles. “James Tiptree, Jr.” Dream Makers. Vol. 2. New York: Berkley, 1983. 257-72.

Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. London: The Women’s Press, 1983.

Sheldon, Alice B. “Beaver Tears.” As by Raccoona Sheldon. 1976. James Tiptree, Jr. Out of the Everywhere. New York: Ballantine, 1981. 28-33.

Sheldon, Alice B. . Brightness Falls from the Air. As by James Tiptree, Jr. New York: Tor, 1985.

Sheldon, Alice B. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1974. Her Smoke Rose Up Forever: The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr. Sauk City, WI: Arkham, 1990. 395-412. Hereafter cited as Smoke.

Sheldon, Alice B.. “And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1972. Smoke 97-117. 

.Sheldon, Alice B. “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1969. Smoke 3-10.

Sheldon, Alice B. “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1973. Smoke 413-29. 

Sheldon, Alice B.  Meet Me at Infinity. As by James Tiptree, Jr. New York: Tor, 2000.

Sheldon, Alice B. “On the Last Afternoon.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1972. Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 194-222.

Sheldon, Alice B.. “Preference for Familiar or Novel Stimulation as a Function of the Novelty of the Environment.” Diss. George Washington U, 1967.

Sheldon, Alice B. “Preference for Familiar Versus Novel Stimuli as a Function of the Familiarity of the Environment.” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 61A (1969): 516-21.

Sheldon, Alice B.. “Press Until the Bleeding Stops.” As by Raccoona Sheldon. 1975. James Tiptree, Jr. Meet Me at Infinity. New York: Tor, 2000. 72-85.

Sheldon, Alice B. “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats.” 1976. As by James Tiptree, Jr. Star Songs of an Old Primate. New York: Ballantine, 1978. 227-54.

Sheldon, Alice B.”The Screwfly Solution.” As by Raccoona Sheldon. 1977. Smoke 11-31.

Sheldon, Alice B. Up the Walls of the World. As by James Tiptree, Jr. New York: Berkley, 1978.

Sheldon, Alice B. “We Who Stole The Dream.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1978. Smoke 369-92.

Sheldon, Alice B. “A Woman Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Women of Vision. Ed. Denise Du Pont. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988. 43-58.

Sheldon, Alice B. “The Women Men Don’t See.” As by James Tiptree, Jr. 1973. Smoke 121-48.

Siegel, Mark. James Tiptree, Jr. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont, 1985.

Tolman, Edward Chace. Collected Papers in Psychology. Berkeley: U of California P, 1951.

Tolman, Edward Chace. Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men. New York: Century, 1932.

Tomkins, Silvan S. “Script Theory.” The Emergence of Personality. Ed. Joel Aronoff,A.I. Rabin, and R.A. Zucker. New York: Springer, 1987. 147-216.


[First published in Science Fiction Studies, 2004, 31, 81-96.]

Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia: An Introduction

Alan C. Elms

In the spring of 1957, Paul Linebarger began to imagine the broad outlines of his first (and, as matters would turn out, his only) science fiction novel. Linebarger’s earlier published fiction had come to him quickly: two mainstream novels had each been written in a few weeks, and a suspense novel had taken months at most. He had also written several shorter pieces of science fiction, published under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith. Though their gestation time is unknown, each had taken Linebarger only a few hours or days to set down on paper.

But his science fiction novel was different. Like the giant sick sheep that it would describe in its early pages, it swelled in size and developed in peculiar directions. Linebarger worked on it in fits and starts, interrupted for long periods by other work, by psychological crises, and by serious physical illness. Several times he began the manuscript again from the beginning. As he changed psychologically, the book changed too. By the time the novel was essentially done, six years after it was begun, Linebarger confessed to his agent that he was going through “one of those morbidly oversensitive periods in which an author does not know whether he has a pile of blah or a minor classic on his hands” (letter to Harry Altshuler, 11 March 1963; Linebarger Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas).

By now, Norstrilia has achieved the status of at least “minor classic” and maybe more. But Paul Linebarger did not live to see it happen. He tried as best he could to get the entire novel into print, but as he acknowledged at one point, it was regarded as “over-length” by potential publishers—about 25% longer than the 60,000 words considered marketable for a science fiction novel at the time. Most of the manuscript’s first half appeared in Galaxy in early 1964, but Galaxy readers were referred to the magazine’s sister publication, Worlds of If Science Fiction, to find the rest of the story—actually, only pieces of the rest. Pyramid Books bought the whole manuscript for paperback publication, but insisted on publishing it as two apparently self-contained “novels.” The first half appeared as The Planet Buyer in October 1964, with a two-page “Epilogue and Coda” added by Linebarger to give readers a sense of closure. After writing and rewriting a new introductory section to make the novel’s second half stand more or less on its own, Linebarger died in 1966, at age 53. That second half, titled The Underpeople, did not appear in book form until 1968; even then, it did not include substantial segments of the remaining manuscript, and it made no direct mention that it was a sequel to The Planet Buyer. In 1975, nearly a decade after Linebarger’s death, a Ballantine Books paperback reunited the two halves of the manuscript and restored most of the earlier deletions. After another twenty years, this NESFA Press edition finally gives Norstrilia its first hardcover American publication.

Even in the butchered format of the magazine and Pyramid Books versions, even with the numerous typographical errors of the Ballantine edition, Norstrilia has made its mark. In a perceptive early review of The Planet Buyer, Theodore Sturgeon proclaimed, “The Next Great Name Is Smith,” and suggested that “If literary historians of the future make of Cordwainer Smith another Tolkien, it will not be too surprising” (National Review, June 1, 1965; Sturgeon sent a copy of his review to Linebarger with a note apologizing for its understatement). By 1985, the novel was so cherished by some readers that when a scholar/fan wrote about “touchstone” passages in science fiction, she began with the scene in Norstrilia where Rod McBan gets his first sight and smell of the planet Earth (Carol McGuirk, Fantasy Review, December 1985. McGuirk also asked rhetorically, “Smith, like every major s-f writer, has his own cadre of admirers—but has his centrality in the genre been argued?”). Two years later, a poll asking knowledgeable readers to choose the “All-Time Best Science Fiction Novel” placed Norstrilia at number 35, just below Orwell’s 1984 and several notches above major works by two of Linebarger’s favorite writers, H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon (Locus, August 1987). When one of the field’s most active scholars recently listed a dozen basic works of science fiction that he would assign to an undergraduate class, Norstrilia was included along with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Gibson’s Neuromancer, and other obvious choices (Gary Westfahl, Science Fiction Eye, Spring 1994).

Paul Linebarger had not seen his mission in life as writing the Great American Science Fiction Novel. He held a full-time position as Professor of Asiatic Politics at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, and he took his work there seriously. He carried out frequent assignments on the side (or under cover), doing intelligence work around the world for U. S. Army Intelligence and occasionally for the CIA. At times he engaged in speechwriting, ghostwriting, and other tasks for prominent political figures, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. Though writing science fiction was much more than a hobby for him (he saw it as essential to his psychological health), the brief periods of time Linebarger was able to find for his fiction lent themselves better to writing short stories than novels. But in 1957 he spent a one-semester sabbatical leave at the Australian National University in Canberra. Amid his teaching and scholarly writing in Australia (plus more off-the-record intelligence work in nearby countries), he had the time and the emotional freedom to think about writing a science fiction novel.

Important aspects of the novel were influenced by his experiences in Australia. Linebarger had been a world traveler from age five. He spent much of his childhood in China and Europe, and he revisited those areas often throughout his life, along with trips to many other countries on every major continent. But Australia felt special to him. It combined aspects of the exotic and of frontier America. Its English-origin settlers displayed a tough but honest code of ethics and a friendly independence that he admired. He told his Australian friends that when he retired he wanted to settle there for the rest of his life. He never got old enough to retire (his university wouldn’t consider it until he was at least 55), but he did get back to Australia for one more sabbatical leave a year before he died. In the meantime he returned often to an imagined Australia, in the novel that through most of its gestation was titled Old North Australia, then finally Norstrilia for short. (In case you’re wondering, Norstrilia should probably be pronounced Nor-STRILE-ya with an Australian accent—but Linebarger left no instructions, and who knows what that accent will be 15,000 years from now?)

Norstrilia could have been a fairly simple novel about the settlers of another planet who struggle to reproduce and maintain the culture of twentieth-century North Australia. Fairly good science fiction novels have often been written that way: transpose elements of the Roman Empire or Elizabethan England to another planet or a future Earth, then let the history books and the biographies guide your plot and your characters. Linebarger pretends, in Norstrilia’s first five pages, that he is indeed telling just such a simple story. But before we’ve finished reading page 1, we know the story won’t be all that simple. As we finish page 2, we know the central protagonist is a very unpredictable fellow. By page 3, the planet Norstrilia begins to sound distinctly unlike old North Australia ever was on Earth—indeed, unlike any part of Earth has ever been.

Paul Linebarger wanted to build the character and values of his Australian friends into a science fiction novel, and to some extent he did. But he had other agendas as well. Among them, these are prominent in Norstrilia:

Literary Adaptation

Like other writers before him (e.g., Jack Williamson) and after (e.g., Robert Silverberg), Paul Linebarger often looked to works of great literature for science-fictional ideas. In his short stories he adapted works as diverse as the French romance Paul et Virginie, Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Le bateau ivre, and the traditional Chinese narrative Quest of the Three Kingdoms. Linebarger had been reading classic Chinese literature since childhood, in translation and in the original. As his ideas for Norstrilia were developing, another Chinese classic came to mind: the hundred-chapter epic The Journey to the West. (The most accurate translation now available is Anthony C. Yu’s four-volume University of Chicago Press edition. Arthur Waley’s partial translation, Monkey, is the best-known English version. Another recent adaptation in contemporary terms is Mark Salzman’s The Laughing Sutra.)

The Journey to the West tells the story of a real seventh-century Buddhist monk and his altogether fantastic monkey bodyguard, who travel to India to look for Buddhist scriptures. Before they attain their goal they must endure, as Anthony Yu summarizes, “a long series of captures and releases of the pilgrims by monsters, demons, animal spirits, and gods in disguise.” In Norstrilia, Rod McBan begins his journey to Earth in an ironically similar quest—not for scriptures but for ancient postage stamps. He is accompanied by a monkey-protector, and he encounters various monsters or demons (giant spiders and mutated humans), animal spirits (the underpeople), and gods in disguise (the E’telekeli). One of the underpeople, the cat-woman C’mell, may be partly inspired by Kuan-yin, a female Buddha in The Journey to the West who organizes assistance for the traveling monk. The monk not only hopes to obtain Buddhist scriptures to take back to China, but also seeks self-enlightenment and, as Anthony Yu says, an answer to “the question of whether all men, or only part of humanity, could attain Buddhahood.” Rod McBan does not seek self-enlightenment but he gets it anyway, at the hands of Earth’s last clinical psychologist; and, with the encouragement of C’mell, he lends his assistance to an underground (literally!) movement that will ultimately unite people and underpeople, at least at a spiritual level. There may be even more connections between Norstrilia and The Journey to the West, in both deep structure and detail. But Paul Linebarger was never one to let strict literary parallels spoil a good story, and much of Norstrilia wanders far from The Journey.

Political Values

Paul Linebarger was an academic political scientist by training and by professional identification, but he was a political activist as well, in several arenas. He has been inaccurately characterized (e.g., in the Clute/Nicholls Science Fiction Encyclopedia) as a right-winger, and he did enjoy baiting his more liberal friends with outrageous pronouncements. But in the American context, he usually occupied the ground between moderate Republican and moderate Democrat, with a heavy dose of realpolitik on certain matters of state. In the Chinese context, Linebarger had grown up with a strong belief in the greatness of Sun Yat-sen and with a sustained preference for the rule of Chiang Kai-shek over Mao Tse-tung. Linebarger and his family enjoyed close personal ties with Sun, with Chiang, and with many prominent members of the Kuomintang. But according to his colleagues and former students, he was not blind to the corruptions of the Nationalist Chinese Government of Taiwan. His real emotional commitment was not to that government but to the welfare of the Chinese people. In Norstrilia, Linebarger delights in devising examples of interplanetary realpolitik and displaying his expertise in psychological warfare. But his strongest emotional investment there is in the cause of the underpeople—which for Linebarger did not primarily represent the American civil rights movement, as some have suggested, but the long struggle of the Chinese masses toward political and personal freedom. (Again, Linebarger was not trying to construct an exact parallel to the Chinese struggle in his depiction of the underpeople. He mixes elements of Chinese history with borrowings from Joan of Arc and other inspired leaders and martyrs, and emerges with a mythic struggle far broader and more archetypal than any given political movement on Earth.)

Personal Myth

The name “Rod” may have been chosen as a joking reference to the magical golden rod wielded by Monkey in The Journey to the West. The name “McBan” probably came from Anthony, one of Linebarger’s middle names. Rod McBan’s full name, Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan the hundred and fifty-first, reflects Linebarger’s ambivalence about his own distended name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, and that of his father, Paul Myron Wentworth Linebarger. That’s only the beginning of. the autobiographical elements built into Norstrilia.

Starting in his peripatetic childhood, Paul Linebarger had suffered for decades from a profound psychological isolation. Rod’s inability to “spiek” and “hier” telepathically like others on his planet reflects Linebarger’s strong sense of missing out on the shared feelings of his peers as he passed often from one country and linguistic context to another. Rod’s eventual confrontation with the psychotherapist Catmaster was mirrored in Linebarger’s own life by encounters with several psychotherapists. Some gave him temporary relief from his isolation; others left him grateful to be able to live with himself. C’mell may be endowed with characteristics of several desired but somehow forbidden women in his life; we know that she was based in part on the qualities of his favorite cat Melanie, and on his yearnings to be as emotionally close to a human woman as he sometimes felt toward Melanie and his other cats. And Rod’s self-effacing cousin Lavinia resembles in certain ways Linebarger’s second wife Genevieve, with whom he was satisfied to live out the final years of his life.

Spiritual Stirrings

In those final years, Linebarger’s previously unfocused religious feelings intensified. He had grown up nominally Methodist, but had felt little interest in the more spiritual aspects of religion until Genevieve’s mother underwent a painful terminal illness. As Linebarger and his wife began to embrace Episcopalianism (a compromise between his Protestant and her Catholic upbringing), the evolving worlds of Norstrilia acquired distinct religious undertones and overtones as well. But although Linebarger welcomed the ceremonial and communal aspects of Episcopalianism, his personal beliefs about salvation and the afterlife remained ambiguously unorthodox—as does the religion of the E’telekeli and his underperson disciples.

Science Fiction Tropes

Paul Linebarger enjoyed orchestrating all these elements in Norstrilia, but he remained quite aware that he needed to tell an entertaining and reader-involving story. He had been a voracious reader of science fiction since the early days of Amazing Stories, building up a major collection of science fiction books in several languages. (He collected stamps, guns, typewriters, and science fiction.) Though he easily pulled elements of world literature into his own work, he was steeped in the science fiction tradition and happily elaborated on it. The accidentally entrepreneurial “Boy Who Bought Old Earth” of Norstrilia is at one level making friendly fun of Heinlein’s “Man Who Sold the Moon.” The underpeople incorporate elements of Dr. Moreau’s beast-people and the Time Traveler’s Morlocks. But those Wellsian elements barely anticipated Linebarger’s far more elaborate development of underpeople society, as well as the society of “true men” on Earth’s surface and beyond.

Packing all these tropes, icons, themes, borrowings, and personal myths into one novel was a tall order. Linebarger didn’t completely pull it off. At several points the novel is missing transitions or clearly developed motivations; at other points there are minor or major inconsistencies. (For the reader unfamiliar with the rest of Linebarger’s science fiction, even more may seem to be missing. See The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, published by NESFA Press in 1993, for explanations in story form of many otherwise obscure references in Norstrilia.) The novel is distinctly episodic—partly as a result of following The Journey to the West as a model, partly because of Linebarger’s own episodic life, which kept getting in the way of producing a totally unified novel.

But few science fiction novels—indeed, few novels in any genre—display the exuberance of imaginative invention that persists from beginning to end of Norstrilia. Sometimes the novel seems to be, as a few critics have complained, “just one damned thing after another.” But that’s part of its charm as well: the charm of encountering the unexpected, and then the even more unexpected, followed shortly by the wildly improbable and the utterly fantastic—all anchored by the struggling hero Rod and his constantly fascinating companion C’mell. And throughout the novel there is the language of Cordwainer Smith, which Theodore Sturgeon (himself a master of language) described as at times “exalted,” at other times “anguished,” at still other times “deadly humorous.” Before and after Paul Linebarger’s early death, many science fiction writers— from Ursula Le Guin to Harlan Ellison to Frederik Pohl, from Algis Budrys to Robert Silverberg to Australia’s own Terry Dowling—have tried to write like Cordwainer Smith. But there was only one real Cordwainer Smith. In Norstrilia his distinctive voice spieks clearly, and it is a joy for the reader’s mind to hier.

[First published in Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia, corrected edition (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1994, pp. vii-xii.)]

Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith

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.]

From Canberra to Norstrilia: The Australian Adventures of Cordwainer Smith

Alan C. Elms

In America and around the world, the best-known depiction of future Australians is the Mad Max film trilogy. Among science fiction readers in America if not elsewhere, the best-known print depiction of future Australians is probably Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia. You pays your money and you takes your choice, and of course most people have chosen Mad Max. If I were Australian, I’d hope more people would choose Norstrilia.1

Norstrilia takes place fifteen thousand years from now, on a distant planet named Old North Australia because that’s where its settlers originated. Over the centuries the planet’s name has elided into “Norstrilia”, but otherwise the Norstrilians have attempted to live much like their Australian ancestors. Their task hasn’t been easy—at first because of Norstrilia’s dry harsh environment, then because the Norstrilians have by sheer accident become fabulously wealthy. Most Norstrilians are sheep farmers, but they no longer deal in wool and mutton. Their sheep have become giant, misshapen, virus-infected beasts, worthless except for their production of a viral essence called stroon.2 Stroon in tiny amounts can extend a human life by several hundred years, perhaps indefinitely. Humans all over the inhabited galaxy barter huge amounts of their own resources for stroon, or expend those resources in trying to steal it. The Norstrilians face a dilemma: how do they maintain their traditional subsistence-farmer Australian way of life, after they have become the richest and most envied populace in the known universe?

George Miller is Australian and his first Mad Max films were locally made on minimal budgets, so it’s not surprising that their post-apocalyptic world is recognisably Australian. But the author of Norstrilia was an American, whose second home for much of his life had been China. Where did Cordwainer Smith ever get the idea to create a planet full of hereditary Australians, and why did he find them so much more admirable than most of the far-flung human race? What did he see as the essence of Australianness that might survive for fifteen thousand years, and that might be worth keeping? Did his vision of those future Australians remain constant, or did it evolve as his experience of Australia broadened and deepened? Those are some of the questions addressed in this paper. Other sf scholars may choose to ask other questions, about Norstrilia specifically or about Cordwainer Smith’s thematic choices more broadly—perhaps from a postmodern or a post-colonial theoretical perspective. I’d like to hear their answers. But I’m a psychologist and a biographer, so my questions usually concern how a writer’s life history and psychological development shape his or her fiction. Such questions are especially salient for Cordwainer Smith, whose fiction is to an unusual degree a kind of mythicised autobiography. Smith deliberately and consciously transformed various aspects of his personal history into sf, for several reasons. Sometimes he did it playfully; sometimes he did it to reward his friends and punish his enemies, much as Dante did in consigning individuals to particular circles of Hell or Paradise. Sometimes Cordwainer Smith mythicised elements of his life to help him work through personal issues that he also confronted directly in psychotherapy. And sometimes, I think, he reworked his life into mythic fiction because he knew his life included the stuff of myth: his own passionate participation in events of worldwide significance, and his close acquaintance with an array of world leaders and behind-the-scenes movers and shakers.

From China to Canberra

As many science fiction readers now know, Cordwainer Smith’s real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger. His father had devoted his life to Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese revolution, so young Paul Linebarger headed in the same direction— partly out of conviction, partly because supporting Chinese Nationalism was already established as a family tradition. Paul spent years of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood living in China or doing research and writing about China. By the time he was 30, he was established as an expert on modern Chinese history and politics. Much of the science fiction he later wrote bears the imprint, in one way or another, of this deep immersion in things Chinese.

Linebarger had been a world traveler from an early age, living not only in China but in France, Germany, and England, and making more than casual visits to countries ranging from Russia to Japan to India. When he was assigned to the China-Burma-India Theatre as a US Army officer in World War Two, he went via Australia, stopping at Melbourne and Perth just long enough to get the impression that Australia was “so much like California that it was hard to believe that we had gone thousands of miles”.3 He was stationed mainly in Chungking, the wartime capital of Nationalist China, where he worked as a liaison between US Army Intelligence, Chinese Nationalist Intelligence, and Chinese Communist Intelligence. At the time, all these forces were working to defeat the Japanese, who occupied a large part of China. Linebarger had known Chiang Kai-shek for many years, and in Chungking he met often with Chou En-lai as well.

Toward the end of 1944, Linebarger was invited to visit Chinese Communist headquarters in Yenan, a rather primitive area of northern China well behind Japanese lines. He spent several weeks in Yenan, meeting Mao Tse-tung and other Communist leaders. He also met an Englishman named Michael Lindsay, who had been working with the Chinese Communist forces for six years. Lindsay was chiefly responsible for constructing and maintaining the Red Army’s radio equipment; he also smuggled essential medical supplies through the Japanese lines. Though Linebarger was publicly a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and Lindsay overtly supported Mao Tse-tung’s Communist revolutionaries, the two men soon discovered that their private views about the Chinese situation were surprisingly similar. Linebarger saw the Nationalist government as badly weakened by corruption, while Lindsay was already concerned with the Communist leadership’s increasing emphasis on Marxist ideological purity. Both Linebarger and Lindsay were worried that these developments would weaken the Chinese struggle against Japanese domination, and would have long-term pernicious effects on the Chinese people even if Japan lost the war. So a friendship developed in Yenan between these two unlikely comrades.

After the war’s end, Linebarger became the US Army’s top expert on psychological warfare, then resumed his academic career as a Professor of Asiatic Politics at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. During the same period, Michael Lindsay developed an academic career of his own, writing several scholarly books on China and becoming the acting head of the International Relations Department at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 1955, Lindsay wrote to Linebarger, inviting him to spend a sabbatical half-year in Canberra. Lindsay felt that Linebarger would be a stimulating addition to the small Canberra faculty. He was also looking toward his own future, when he might have reason to leave Canberra and would therefore need friendly contacts in American academia.4

Linebarger had his own reasons for wanting to spend a sabbatical leave in Canberra. He was struggling with a book-length manuscript, The Overseas Chinese and the Kuomintang, based on his extensive visits to locations all over the world where communities of Chinese emigrants had developed. He needed time away from his academic obligations at home to update this manuscript for publication by revisiting several overseas Chinese communities. Further, the trip would give Linebarger and his wife Genevieve the academic cover to do some quiet intelligence-gathering on the side. He continued to hold a reserve commission in US Army Intelligence, and worked for at least a month every summer in its propaganda branch to fulfill the obligations of his commission. Genevieve had worked in US Government intelligence operations as well; indeed, she had met Paul when she was a student in his somewhat secretive graduate seminar in psychological warfare. Paul also did occasional assignments as a paid consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency. I have so far been unable to obtain records from the intelligence agencies concerning the Linebargers’ trip to Australia, and most of the relevant documents are missing from the various archives that hold Linebarger’s papers. But it is reasonable to assume that gathering intelligence in the island nations near Australia was at least a subsidiary objective of that trip.

Perhaps even more important to him, Paul Linebarger wanted to learn about the Australian people. A year before he arrived, he wrote to the Dean at ANU, “The invitation… to come to Canberra offers me one of the most pleasant opportunities of my life. I glimpsed your country during the war; I have read a lot about it; I consider myself already an Australophile and am quite prepared to risk the manic phase of Australomania.”5 He wrote to Michael Lindsay,

… I would consider it a treat to get to some of the Australian cities and towns, lecturing before various kinds of groups or speaking on radio and television. Naturally, I would attempt to observe the decencies of being a guest of Australia and would seek to avoid anything which would amount to the unfair or loaded presentation of a private case. I would not want, on such a trip, to serve American propaganda; USIS is doing that already, I hope. What I would enjoy trying, in my spare time from the university, would be to make American Pacific policy perhaps a little more intelligible to the Australian public. Further, I would like to talk in order to meet people, to meet people in order to understand them, to understand them in order to have a more nearly operational idea of how a real Australia fits into the real world in which we all live… I suppose that I am by temperament a rather inquisitive and talkative person, and learn much better in association with other people than I do by reading things in books.6

And shortly before he left for Australia, Linebarger wrote to Christian Herter, a friend who later became US Secretary of State, “I hope to tell the Australians a few things about America’s Pacific and Far Eastern policy which will make them understand us better, and for my own part I hope to learn as much as I can from teachers, political spokesmen, labor leaders, and journalists.”7

Linebarger was as good as his word. The Australian National University was at that time entirely a graduate institution, with very few students in international relations. Linebarger was quite willing to teach a course or two as part of his sabbatical activities, but he was assured when he got there that such would be unnecessary—that all he really needed to do was his own research and writing, with perhaps a lecture now and then and some interaction with local faculty. Interact he did—not only giving a series of lectures at ANU itself, but racing around the Canberra area and then more widely afield in Australia, giving talks at various campuses as well as at gatherings of community groups and social organizations. I use the word “racing” advisedly; Michael Lindsay loaned Linebarger a Triumph TR-2, and he used it to cover much of the continent, delighting in the car’s handling and speed.

Not all of his interactions as he toured the country were totally positive. In at least one instance, some members of his audience got so argumentative that he was later sent an official apology. This is from the Secretary of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, New South Wales Branch, in Sydney:

… I should like to thank you very much indeed for your kindness in addressing the Institute last week. Unfortunately some of the discussion lacked the impartiality and restraint usually shown at Institute meetings, and I should like to stress that the Institute as an organisation does not adopt a particular point of view on questions of international relations, the views expressed being solely those of the individuals concerned. I think the liveliness of the discussion indicated the very great interest in the matters raised by you…8

Linebarger enjoyed such controversy, and indeed courted it. Another member of the ANU International Relations faculty, Arthur Burns, later recalled how Linebarger deliberately provoked other academics with “his cheerful derision of all forms of Communism”, as well as “his support for Eisenhower, his military commitments, the black humour of his lectures on psychological warfare, his academically unorthodox prose style, but above all, I think, by his uninhibited, unbridled intellectual imagination… “9 Michael Lindsay’s daughter Erica told me of another kind of provocation: the one-eyed Linebarger sometimes replaced his standard glass eye with one that displayed the Stars and Stripes, “for special occasions”.10

One thing Linebarger did not like about Australia was its academic politics. He arrived to find himself in the midst of a bitter battle between the ANU administration and several members of the International Relations Department. In appointing Michael Lindsay to the faculty, the administration had apparently made promises that they failed to keep; Lindsay felt they were more interested in saving face for administrators than in fair treatment of faculty. The administration in turn found Lindsay’s leadership of the department less than satisfactory, and had lingering concerns about his wartime Communist affiliations.n Linebarger’s appointment as a visiting professor was not endangered, but he was greatly distressed by the administration’s mistreatment of his friend Michael. He acknowledged that he did not fully understand Australian faculty politics, but said they made him appreciate “the responsible and honorable leadership” in the International Relations division of Johns Hopkins.12

Linebarger’s criticism of academic politics was nearly the only negative thing he had to say about Australia—that and “coffee which would have nauseated a musk-ox”,13 and the bitter cold of the Australian winter. (In another letter, he made a point of thanking Michael Lindsay’s wife Hsiao-li for “her desperate efforts to keep her fretful Americans warm.”)14 He found Australians on the whole to be generous and direct—”so nice to us that even the political fights were good fun”.15

Linebarger was concerned about what he saw as a “Pleasure Revolution” in America, and was pleased that Australia had so far resisted it.16 As with many other visitors from America, he saw much of Australian life in the 1950s as resembling his nostalgic recollections of small-town America during his early-twentieth-century childhood. Linebarger was especially appreciative of the “excellent welcome” and “great good fellowship” he and Genevieve encountered at St John the Baptist, the Anglican church in Canberra, where his helpful stockbroker Mr Greenish was a member of the congregation.17

As Linebarger ended his first sabbatical in Australia, he felt well pleased with his activities there. He wrote to a Chinese colleague in Taiwan, “In four days my wife and I leave Australia, where I have made about 75 speeches in 5 months, upholding the Taipei-Washington alliance, and where (despite political differences) we have made many friends.”18 With a bit more restraint in some regards, he wrote to his literary agent, “I sent off three book manuscripts in the Chinese and international affairs field from Canberra and I gave more than sixty lectures in 5 1/2 months. Outside of that I loafed.”19

From Canberra to Norstrilia

When Paul Linebarger arrived in Australia in February 1957, his career as a science fiction writer had barely begun. His first mature sf story, “Scanners Live in Vain”, had been written in 1945 but published only in 1950, and it did not receive wide attention until it was anthologised in 1952. His next published story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon”, did not appear until 1955. It was an immediate success with Galaxy magazine readers, and it was soon chosen for “Best Science Fiction” anthologies in the US and England. Its enthusiastic reception encouraged Linebarger to write several more stories in 1955, but they were weaker than those first stories and did not find immediate publication markets. He wrote no sf at all in 1956. In Australia in 1957, he only thought about it.

What Linebarger began to think about in 1957 was a novel, at first titled Star-Craving Mad—a punning title that had nothing to do with the novel’s contents. He seems to have been too busy with other matters in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia to put any of the novel down on paper. The first pages of Star-Craving Mad were not written until nearly a year after he returned to Washington. But Chapter I of what he labeled “First Draft”, dated 22 April 1958, was already firmly located on the planet called Old North Australia.20

Old North Australia, or Norstrilia for short, was described as “an earth-size planet not far from the North Star,” whose people, “like their earth ancestors… had a simple, wholesome, ruggedly agricultural life”—a planet that was “pleasant, backwoodsy, and so unimportant, so harmless, that it was almost entirely forgotten,” until the life-extending drug stroon was discovered there. Such locations as New Melbourne, New Canberra, and New Queensland are mentioned in that first chapter of the first draft. But the focus is on a backwoods sheep farmer named Arthur MacArthur CLI, a direct descendant of the John MacArthur who first brought sheep to the original Australia on Old Old Earth. Arthur MacArthur’s father has manipulated land leases and stroon futures to become the wealthiest man in the universe; then he has promptly dropped dead, leaving his incredible fortune to his none-too-bright son, Arthur CLI. Arthur CLI is described as representative of Old North Australians in general, who “prided themselves as a race on not being too bright, but they also prided themselves on honesty, manliness and above all else on individual obstinacy.” Arthur’s own individual obstinacy takes the form of wanting to spend a good deal of his fortune to visit Earth: “Earth the Enchantress, the Old, the Wicked, the Undying Babylon among the planets, the undefeated Carthage of the stars, the port of all calls, the transshipment [point] of all wisdom and vice, the mother of passions, the home of corruption and the festival of human thought”—and also, among other things, the location of “the Chinese pleasure cities in Nanbien, which had once been his ancestral homeland of Australia.”21

That sounds like a promising beginning for an sf novel: an innocent but fabulously wealthy sheep farmer loose in the pleasure dens of Old Earth. Linebarger worked on that premise intensely for six weeks, from 22 April to 30 May, 1958. But the premise remained sketchily developed. Arthur MacArthur is little more than a strong and slow-witted farm boy. He gets to Earth, where people try to rob him. He escapes into the bowels of Earthport with the beautiful cat-girl C’mell. MacArthur and C’mell become lovers, and hatch a plan to help a shipload of cat-people “to planoform into the unknown”, forcing “mankind to face a dangerous earth-begotten humanoid rival among the stars.”22 In an additional chapter, a strong but slow-witted bull-man named B’gench (a sort of underperson equivalent to Arthur MacArthur) is persuaded by a misshapen eagle-man to become the underpeople’s one-man army against the humans of Earth. After that chapter, Star-Craving Mad abruptly lost its priority in Linebarger’s life. Over the next two years he tried a page or so now and then, but nothing pulled him out of the not very original fictional hole in which he had left MacArthur and B’gench.

Then Australia saved him—or rather, Australia and China and a psychotherapist or two. Linebarger had maintained his contacts with Australia, mainly through his correspondence with his ANU friend Michael Lindsay and with his stockbroker Mr Greenish. Lindsay’s battle with the ANU administration, especially with the university’s vice-chancellor, became more and more heated. After the vice-chancellor folded International Relations into another department, apparently to avoid appointing Lindsay as its head, Lindsay angrily announced his resignation from the ANU faculty. Linebarger was initially incensed by the vice-chancellor’s actions, which he described as “utter gibbering nonsense… he is a man caught up in the play of events and personalities larger than himself and he is doomed to perpetual frustration as long as he, with the capacities of a custodian, tries to handle the job of an entrepreneur.”23 In a later letter, Paul tried to be more kind about the man: “THE VC. Poor guy! He sounds as though he is flipping his lid on the matter of the international relations department. The more I think of his situation, the sorrier I am for him. He is certainly not the kind of mad genius whom the ANU needs for the next decades of vital and exploratory growth.”24 Meanwhile, Linebarger helped Lindsay find an academic position in America.

Linebarger’s frequent correspondence with Mr Greenish mostly dealt with more pleasant topics: small but complicated stock transactions, occasional donations of a few pounds to St John’s Church in Canberra, and reminiscences about Linebarger’s life in Australia: “My wife and I think often of the cookaberra [sic] birds outside our windows in the morning, and of the hearty Australian welcomes we received throughout your wonderful country. Perhaps leaving some money there will help us to come back sooner or later. Give our best wishes to our friends at the church.”25 Three years after the Australian sabbatical, however, Linebarger’s letters to Mr Greenish told of personal crisis:

You almost lost a client. My appendix burst in Saltillo [Mexico] on 4 August and they had to clean me up and do a good job of opening and closing my abdominal wall to get rid of the peritonitis. On the way home from Mexico I developed one abscess which they were able to drain from the outside; three days ago I got out of the local hospital where they were treating another intra-abdominal abscess in an effort to avoid surgery. You may imagine that I have gotten behind in my correspondence, but I think I am now on the road to recovery.26

Not very far along that road, however, as Linebarger wrote to Mr Greenish a month later: “My health is only fair; they are still making x-rays—jolly painful, too, with the barium stuff—for some unlocated malformation of my gastrointestinal system. I remain cheerful, however, and hope that it will all be finished within a few more weeks.”27 Linebarger’s stated optimism hardly offset his realisation that he had nearly died in Mexico or on the long road back into the US. His recovery from this almost fatal experience was slow, sporadic, and partial. Seven months later he wrote to Mr Greenish that he was in “convalescence from spinal surgery.”28

During this period of serious illness and convalescence, Linebarger had time to rethink his approaches both to the underpeople and to Norstrilia. He wrote such key stories as “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” developing the sensual cat-girl into a much more serious heroine of the underpeople; and he began a new version of Star-Craving Mad, now titled Old North Australia. He wrote a final draft of that new version in early 1962, and with minor modifications, that is what has come down to us under its ultimate title, Norstrilia.

The best of the Cordwainer Smith stories do not embody a single autobiographical element, political/philosophical issue, or literary trope, but combine or overlay several of them. “The Game of Rat and Dragon”, for instance, incorporates aspects of Linebarger’s Army Intelligence role in World War Two; his difficulties in relationships, especially with women; and his progress in psychotherapy.29 “On the Storm Planet” incorporates his personal observations of (and involvement in) the Nasser intrigues in Egypt in the early 1950s; his early childhood adventures in Mississippi; and his love and loss of a young nursemaid during those Mississippi years.30 Similarly, Linebarger’s development of Star-Craving Mad into the novel Norstrilia moved well beyond the original narrative arc of Arthur MacArthur’s inheriting his father’s wealth, going to Earth out of sheer curiosity, evading a robbery plot, and helping his lover C’mell and her cat-people escape their enslavement by humans. In its new incarnation, the novel became a much more complex and emotionally sophisticated story. The renamed protagonist Rod McBan and his fellow Norstrilians became more complex as well. In Star-Craving Mad, Linebarger had described the Norstrilians as tough, honest, obstinate, and not too bright. In Norstrilia, all those words still applied except the final phrase. Now he said, “When people met them in outports, they always thought that Norstrilians looked simple; the looks were a snare and a delusion… They looked as simple as sheep but their minds were as subtle as serpents.”31

In my introduction to the NESFA edition of Norstrilia, I identified several of the overlapping elements in the novel’s finished version, but by no means all of them. Though I noted that the novel is not fully integrated, I did not point out how certain elements predominate in one section of the novel but not in others. Linebarger’s observations of Australian national character, for instance, are significantly expressed mainly in the first third of the novel. His reworking of mythic elements from the classic Chinese epic Journey to the West occurs mainly in the second third. His consideration of religious issues is not really prominent until the final third. Rod McBan’s difficulty in telepathic hiering and spieking, inspired by Linebarger’s problems in relating to both peers and adults during his childhood, recur in various forms throughout the book. So do concerns about death and resurrection, salient to Linebarger’s nearly fatal Mexican trip shortly before he resumed work on the novel.

Certain additions and changes between Star-Craving Mad and Norstrilia appear to have been influenced by Linebarger’s continuing contacts with Australia in the years after the 1957 sabbatical. Lord Redlady and the Onseck, important characters in Norstrilia who in their different ways motivate Rod McBan’s journey to Old Earth, were not present at all in Star-Craving Mad. Lord Redlady is clearly inspired by Linebarger’s friend Michael Lindsay, who was a British lord and who, with his Chinese wife Lady Lindsay, had worked for the Reds. Lord Redlady is an offworlder representing the Instrumentality, as Lindsay was a non-Australian with a seat in the House of Lords. In his attempts to assist Rod McBan, Lord Redlady is opposed by a local official, the Onseck (short for Honorable Secretary), who bears envious grudges against both Redlady and Rod, and who tries to kill Rod before the escape to Earth. The Onseck sounds suspiciously like the ANU vice-chancellor who tried to kill the International Relations program and who, in Linebarger’s perspective, was a small-minded administrator envious of the internationally famous Lord Lindsay. Linebarger’s subsequent effort to see the VC simply as a “Poor guy” who is “flipping his lid” sounds like Rod McBan under psychotherapeutic treatment in Hate Hall, forgiving his last enemy the Onseck, and thereby becoming able to forgive himself.32

Linebarger’s other frequent correspondent in Australia was his stockbroker, Mr Greenish. Mr Greenish modestly kept personal remarks at a minimum in his letters, but he was so helpful in his support of Linebarger’s small stock-trading account that when Greenish moved to another firm, Paul insisted that his account follow to that firm.33 In Star-Craving Mad, Arthur MacArthur’s fabulous wealth comes from his father’s trading in real estate and sheep futures, much as the Linebarger family’s more modest wealth came from long-term family real estate holdings and from additional real estate trading by Paul’s father. By the time Linebarger wrote Norstrilia, Rod McBan’s fabulous wealth comes not from real estate deals but from his ancient family computer’s manipulation of the galactic stock exchange—a small revision, but one that reflects Linebarger’s appreciation of Mr Greenish in the intervening years.

One further change from early draft to later, remarked upon by other scholars as well,34 is the addition of a strong religious element to the final third of the novel. In Star-Craving Mad, the leader of the underpeople is a badly modified eagle-man with no religious convictions or connotations. By the time of Norstrilia, this eagle-man is leading a revival of long-suppressed Christianity, and he inspires intense religious devotion in his followers, who come to include Rod. Earlier in Linebarger’s life, he had not been much concerned with religion, and indeed was regarded by some family members as an agnostic. A year or so before he began Star-Craving Mad, he was greatly impressed by his mother-in-law’s sustained religious faith in the face of death.35 Even then, there is no clear indication in his papers that he became especially religious until he went to Australia and began regular attendance at the Anglican church in Canberra. St John’s is a small church but not an ordinary one; it is the oldest building in Canberra, far antedating the construction of the nation’s capital city around it.36 Regular participation in the services there may have given Linebarger not only a greater sense of community (evident in his letters to Mr Greenish) but a feeling for the power and persistence of religious belief over time. His close confrontation with death in 1960 may have made his own newly revived religious beliefs especially meaningful to him, with the result that faith in the “Old Strong Religion” became an essential part of the underpeople’s cause in Norstrilia.

A reader doesn’t need to know any of this in order to enjoy Norstrilia. But the sources of a writer’s creativity are a legitimate topic for scholarly study, and in the case of Cordwainer Smith, even the nonscholarly fan may at times wonder, “How the hell did he come up with this idea?”, or “Why on earth—or off it—did he toss this character into that already messy mixture?” Paul Linebarger had multiple reasons for doing such things, ranging from his eclectic accretion of admired literary models to his mythicising of his own personal history and the lives of others close to him. In the changes between Star-Craving Mad and Norstrilia within a three- or four-year period, we can see such mythicising in action.

Back to Canberra

The early 1960s were good years for Cordwainer Smith. He not only finished Norstrilia but produced most of the stories we now consider to be Cordwainer Smith classics: “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, “The Ballad of Lost C’mell”, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, and others. But his career as Professor Paul Linebarger was not going so well. In terms of original scholarly research, little reached print. His book manuscript on the Overseas Chinese had been rejected even by his own university’s press, and the political biases that he saw as forcing its failure were not diminishing in academia. He developed ideas for several other scholarly projects and began work on some of them, but they have come down to us only as incomplete or unpublished manuscripts in the Hoover Institution Archives.

Linebarger’s thoughts began turning again to an Australian sabbatical. It would permit him to complete another textbook, this time in collaboration with his wife, and it would allow him to develop a scholarly monograph on North Korea. Perhaps he also thought of Australia as a place that would reinvigorate his science fiction. In his two longest sf works, Norstrilia and the story-cycle published as Quest of the Three Worlds, his heroes had reached a peaceful resolution to their quests that did not point toward sequels. The vast temporal and spatial range of the Cordwainer Smith future history left plenty of room to explore other ideas, but there appears to have been no overarching scheme to guide him in a particular direction. Australia had stirred his science fictional imagination once, and might do so again.

During this time Linebarger was thinking not only about taking another sabbatical in Australia, but about retiring from his university position and moving to Australia permanently.37 His health had always been precarious, from the time he was a small child; now it was often worse than that. The operations following the disastrous summer in Mexico left him so exhausted at times that even death seemed a tempting alternative. His story “A Planet Named Shayol”, dating from this time and incorporating his experience of several powerful pain-killing drugs, was first titled “People Never Live Forever”—a phrase that characters in the story repeat hopefully rather than despairingly. The story he began writing in 1965, not long before he left for Australia again, features a “most ancient” man, so physically exhausted that he must artificially summon his last reserves of strength in order to take one final trip into the world down under (“Under Old Earth”). The tone of exhaustion in this story expresses at least some of Linebarger’s own feelings when he asked, at age 51, whether his university would let him retire on a modest pension. They would not, so he went off on his second Australian sabbatical instead.

Linebarger’s old friend Michael Lindsay and family were no longer in Australia; they were now well set up in Washington, DC, with Linebarger’s help. But another good friend at ANU, Arthur Burns, was still there; likewise his stockbroker Mr Greenish, and the friendly congregation of St John’s Church, and plenty of other warm and forthright Aussies. Academic politics at ANU had apparently quieted down; at least there is no mention of it in Linebarger’s correspondence from that time. The university’s vice-chancellor remained unaware that he had been immortalised in science fiction literature as the bitter and homicidal Onseck, who drove Rod McBan far from Norstrilia.

In spite of his physical deterioration, Linebarger again pursued a busy course of multiple actions while on this sabbatical. He engaged in a heavy schedule of lectures at ANU and throughout Australia (Arthur Burns has described one memorable scene where Paul “took time off from a dinner party at Melbourne for a long drink of hydrochloric acid”, presumably to deal with his ulcers).38 He and his wife completed their textbook on Southeast Asia to their satisfaction, though apparently not to that of the publishers’ anonymous consultants; the book was never published. In the final two months of the sabbatical, Linebarger and his wife visited New Guinea and Indonesia, political flashpoints where they had both academic and political intelligence interests. Then they continued on, as Linebarger later listed their itinerary, through “Singapore, Manila…, Taipei, Seoul, Hongkong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Tehran, Doba, Bahrein, Aden, Mogadishu, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Jerusalem, Beirut, Athens, Constantinople, Zurich, Amsterdam, London and home. A few of the places we visited seemed like the cloacas of all creation, but the total results in notes, correspondence, and contacts were good.”39

On the science fiction side of the 1965 sabbatical, Linebarger completed the story “Under Old Earth,” and saw publication of the first half of Norstrilia. The publishers had insisted upon bifurcating Norstrilia so that each of its separately published halves would not exceed the assumed attention span of the typical sf reader. At the publishers’ request, Linebarger had written a quick wrap-up to the first half, to make it appear as a complete novel, titled The Planet Buyer. Even in that severely truncated form and published as a cheap paperback original, the book made waves. Theodore Sturgeon reviewed it in glowing terms, proclaiming that “The Next Great Name [in science fiction] Is Smith.”40 Sturgeon’s review caught up with Linebarger while he was visiting Alice Springs; he immediately responded with a happy though pseudonymous note to Sturgeon, who was one of his favourite authors. At about this time Linebarger was also writing the front matter for the second half of Norstrilia, retitled The Uttderpeople, so that readers who picked it up without having seen the first half could still make some sense of it. Thus the book that had begun to occupy his thinking while he was in Canberra in 1957 was finally wrapped up while he was in Canberra in 1965. In his own notes he lists Canberra as first and last in the string of places where Norstrilia was written.41

Other things were nearing an end as well. Paul made one more long trip in late 1965, back to Taiwan to receive an honorary degree. When the Linebargers returned to America, Paul tried to pick up his academic work again. But as he reported to a foundation executive in a request for more travel funds, “From these trips we returned exhausted and on 19 December [1965] I had a stroke—what is now called a cardio-vascular accident, somewhere in the right hemisphere of my brain. My blood pressure is still 180/120. My left side is numb, scalp to fingers to toes, but I still have my eyesight—thanks be to the Lord!—and I have motor control… Though I tire easily and am often dizzy, this letter, typed by myself, is evidence (I hope) that I am trying to make a recovery and am to a great extent doing so.”42

During previous periods of illness and recovery, Linebarger had made use of his enforced inaction to develop new science fiction ideas. He tried to do so this time as well, writing to his agent about “the things which go through my head while I am waiting here convalescent! How the Instrumentality first came up… How Brain Gibraltar finally died… A runaway planet which maintained total radio silence in order to survive but which was picked up by telepaths and occasionally called ‘the house of the dark magician’…”43 That letter ended, “Wish me luck. I need it.” Seven months later, a year after he returned from his second Australian sabbatical, Paul Linebarger underwent an experimental operation that he had been told might clear up all his health problems. But at age 53, his luck had run out; the dark magician’s house went dark for the last time; and Brain Gibraltar died forever.


  1. Quotations and citations to Norstrilia in this paper refer to the “First Revised Edition” (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1994). Norstrilians also appear in several short stories (especially “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”), which may be found in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordivainer Smith, ed. James A. Mann (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1993).
  2. Diane Standley has suggested to me that “stroon” is a simple modification of “strine”, the word “Australian” as currently spoken in Australia. This is a good time to note that Australians (and presumably Norstrilians) would pronounce the first “i” in “Norstrilia” as a long rather than a short “i.”
  3. Letter of 13 September 1945 to Uncle Isaac and Aunt Adelaide; Paul M. A. Linebarger Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Box 3. Linebarger’s ocean voyage took place in June-July 1943. All subsequent citations to the Hoover Institution Archives refer to the Paul M.A. Linebarger Papers. I would like to thank Elena Danielson and the staff of the Hoover Institution Archives for their assistance. I wish also to thank Rosana Hart, the executrix of the Paul M.A. Linebarger estate, for allowing me to quote from the Linebarger manuscripts.
  4.  Letter from Lindsay to Linebarger, 29 November 1955; letter from Linebarger to Lindsay, 2 January 1956; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  5. Letter of 2 January 1956 to S.F. Nadel; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  6. Letter of 15 February 1956 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  7. Letter of 31 December 1956 to Governor Christian Herter; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  8. Letter of 28 June 1957 from Marcia Barron; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  9. Arthur Bums, “Paul Linebarger”, originally published in Australian Science Fiction Review No. 11, August 1967; reprinted in Andrew Porter, ed., Exploring Cordwainer Smith (NY: Algol Press, 1975), pp. 5-10, at pp. 6 and 8.
  10. Interview with Erica and Michael Lindsay, Washington, DC, December 3,1988.
  11. Differing perspectives on this dispute are summarised in Lindsay’s article, “Why I Am Resigning”, in the Australian magazine The Observer, 25 July, 1959, pp. 451-453, and in The Making of the Australian National University, by S. G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese (St Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1996), pp. 108-109, 121, and 132-133. I am grateful to Sigrid McCausland, Archivist, and to Colin Steele, Librarian, both of the Australian National University, for their assistance in locating this and other information on Paul Linebarger’s stays at the ANU.
  12. Undated letter to Priscilla Mason [probably mid-1957]; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  13. Letter of 16 June 1957 to Phil Thayer; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  14. Letter of 21 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  15. Letter of 12 September 1957 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  16. Cited in “John Foyster Talks with Arthur Bums”, originally published as “Extracts from a Conversation between John Foyster and Doctor Bums” in Australian Science Fiction Revieiv No. 11, August 1967; reprinted in Porter, Exploring Cordwainer Smith, pp. 18-24, at p. 20.1 would like to thank John Foyster both for initiating the first efforts to collect information about Paul Linebarger’s Australian connections, shortly after Linebarger’s death, and for recently interviewing Arthur Burns’s son, Jonathan Bums, to obtain further background information.
  17. Letter of 29 December 1957 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  18. Letter of 10 July 1957 to Professor Tao; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 7.
  19. Letter of 19 July 1957 to Harry Altshuler; Paul Linebarger Collection, Department of Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. I would like to thank Alexandra Mason and the staff of the Department of Special Collections for their assistance.
  20. This manuscript and other portions of Star-Craving Mad are located in the Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  21. All the quotations in this paragraph are from Chapter I of the Star-Craving Mad manuscript at the University of Kansas.
  22. “What has happened in the middle of the book”, one-page typescript dated 30 May 1958, in Star-Craving Mad manuscript, University of Kansas.
  23. Letter of 9 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  24. Letter of 21 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  25. Letter of 13 November 1959 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  26. Letter of 26 September 1960 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  27. Letter of 20 October 1960 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  28. Letter of 19 May 1961 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  29. See Alan C. Elms, “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith”, Science-Fiction Studies 34 (November 1984), pp. 264-283.
  30. See Alan C. Elms, “Between Mottile and Ambiloxi: Cordwainer Smith as a Southern Writer”, paper presented at the Science Fiction Research Association Annual Conference, Mobile, Alabama, June 5,1999.
  31. Norstrilia, NESFA edition, p. 11.
  32. Norstrilia, NESFA edition, p. 161.
  33. “Triplicate letter,” 30 March 1959; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  34. J.J. Pierce, “The Treasure of the Secret Cordwainer”, Science Fiction Review 48 (Fall 1983), pp. 8-14; Johan Heje, “On the Genesis of Norstrilia”, Extrapolation 30 (Summer 1989), pp. 146-155.
  35. Interview with Genevieve Linebarger, September 26,1979.
  36. A detailed history of the church, with many photographs, may be found in Firm Still You Stand, by A.H. Body (Canberra: St John’s Parish Council, 1986). I appreciate the efforts of Adrienne Greenwood and other parishioners of St John’s to locate information about Paul Linebarger’s church involvement.
  37. He had had such thoughts as early as 1957, a few months after returning from his first sabbatical there: “… if I had my two daughters [who lived mostly with his ex-wife] I would be tempted to dream of coming back and staying. The place is so relaxed and healthy, if the human beings [e.g., the VC] would only let one relax.” Letter of 3 November 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  38. Arthur Burns, “Paul Linebarger”, p. 5.
  39. Letter of 28 March 1966 to Richard Ware, Relm Foundation; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  40. National Review XVII (1 June 1965), pp. 471-472.
  41. The Underpeople, manuscript of new opening, 5 April 1965; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  42. Letter of 28 March 1966 to Richard Ware, Relm Foundation; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  43. Letter of 17 January 1966 to Harry Altshuler; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 5.

[This paper was first published in Foundation 78 (Spring, 2000), pp. 44-58.]

Hamlet Attempts to Alleviate Ophelia’s Anxieties about Copernican Astronomy, the Impending Post-Claudius Singularity, and Other Riddles of Existence

Doubt thou the stars are fire;

Doubt thou the Big Bang set them all aflame;

Doubt thou the second law of thermodynamics will extinguish every final flickering photon in 101000 years, give or take a few trillion millennia,

But never doubt I love.


Doubt that the sun doth move;

Doubt that a spaceship canst ever exceed the speed of light;

Doubt that hyper-intelligent aliens hath oft dropped by to probe our fundaments and deposit slate-black obelisks and scribble arcane riddles in crop circles and Mayan hieroglyphs and giant chalk horses ever since Cro-Magnons stood erect,

But never doubt I love.
Doubt truth to be a liar;

Doubt the uncertain fate of Schrödinger’s cat;

Doubt Gödel’s theorems, Tipler’s omega point, Vinge’s singularity, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the anthropic cosmological principle, and the simultaneous existence of infinite multiverses where absolutely anything can happen and has and will and does,

But never doubt I love.


— A. C. Elms (with a little help from W. Shakespeare)

[First published in Science Fiction Studies, July 2012, Vol. 39, p. 359]

Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award 2011

As announced at Readercon 22 last weekend, the 2011 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award went to Katherine MacLean. A good choice, I think — not quite as obscure as last year’s awardee Mark Clifton, but obscure enough (from the viewpoint of current science fiction readers) to need rediscovery. The really astonishing thing about this year’s Rediscovery Award is that for the first time it went to a LIVING writer! Indeed, Katherine MacLean at 86 was still quite alive enough to be interviewed at the Readercon session where the award was announced. Scott Edelman filmed the interview (by Samuel Delaney Jr.) and posted it on YouTube: McLean interview.

I’ll warn you that the interview is 48 minutes along and is rather slow-going until the last 20 minutes or so. MacLean’s recollections tends to wander, and Delaney is a better interviewee (I once interviewed him onstage when he was a NASFiC Guest of Honor) than an interviewer. You can find the basic information about MacLean in a well researched entry on Wikipedia. She has mainly been a short story writer, and her short stories have often been anthologized, for instance in the Norton Book of Science Fiction. At least two of her books are available in paperback from, apparently kept in print-on-demand by small-press publisher John Betancourt.

Spicy Beef & Honey-Veggie Stir-fry

(Serves 4-6)

• 1 lb thin beef strips cut into ½ – 1 inch segments

• Spicy Chinese Marinade: 1 TBS dark soy sauce, 1 TBS hoisin sauce, 1 TBS dry sherry (or rice wine), 1 TBS dark sesame oil, 1 tsp Asian chili sauce

• 3 TBS cooking oil

• 4 cups frozen stir-fry vegetables

• Szechwan Hoisin-Honey Sauce: ¼ cup low-salt chicken broth, ¼ cup dry sherry (or rice wine), 2 TBS hoisin sauce, 2 TBS honey, 1 TBS dark sesame oil, 2 tsp Asian chili sauce, 2 tsp cornstarch

• 2 cups rice (preferably Jasmine or Basmati) plus 4 cups water.

1.) In a medium mixing bowl, combine beef with Spicy Chinese Marinade and marinate for at least 30 minutes.
2.) Bring wok to highest level heat and add 1½ TBS cooking oil. Wait for wok to regain highest heat level, then add half of the beef, stirring & tossing it & pressing beef against sides of wok for 1 minute. Transfer to plate. Return wok to high heat and add remaining half of the beef to hot wok; repeat procedure.
3.) Return wok to highest heat and add the other 1½ TBS cooking oil. Wait for wok to regain high heat, then add all vegetables. Stir-fry for 1-2 minutes.
4.) Add Hoisin-Honey Sauce and beef to veggie mixture in wok. Stir for 2 minutes, then transfer all contents of wok to serving dish.
5.) Meanwhile, cook rice in rice cooker. Serve stir-fry with rice.

This recipe is very loosely adapted from Wok Fast, a cookbook by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2002, pp. 89-90). Though I have done stir-fry on a gas stove, the cooking stove I now have is electric and therefore impractical for stir-fry, so instead I use an electric wok. For guests who are sensitive to spicy foods, it’s a good idea to go a little easy on the Asian chili sauce in both the marinade and the hoisin-honey sauce.

Alan Elms

For Emily’s 180th

Yesterday, December 10, 2010, was Emily Dickinson’s 180th birthday. In celebration, I publish here for the first time a bit of light verse that I wrote for my writing group about ten years ago:


Me and Emily
We never wrote for Fame –
Stitched our Verses out of Sight –
Had no Truck – with the Book-Hawkers’ Game –

She left her Manuscripts to Chance –
Pending her Sister’s – posthumous Zeal –
Mine rest in the Upstairs Study –
Third Drawer – Seventh File.

Me and Emily
We punctuated as We felt –
Half our Rhymes – were Accident –
Our Words were oft – free-spelt –

We masked Ourselves in Metaphor
And always dressed in White –
Well – I cheated when the Washer broke –
But isn’t the Wish – what makes it Right?

Me and Emily
We had our Problems getting Dates –
But – Somewhere up in Eden –
I know my Em still waits –

We’ll hold a Ceremony
With God as J. of P. –
Then it’s Wild Nights! through the Eons –
For Emily and Me.

* * * * * * * * *

Perhaps I should explain, for any reader who needs such explanation, that the “Me” and “I” of the poem is not really me. I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry and I regard her as one of the greatest poets in the English language, but I’ve never identified with her or yearned for her love in the ways the poem describes.

Rather, the poem was suggested by an incident in our writing group shortly before I wrote it. A new visitor to the group — as I recall, he showed up only once or twice — read us a few of his poems. Some kind members of the group encouraged him to submit them for magazine publication. Oh no, he said, he was not writing them to gain a current audience; he was writing them for posterity. I don’t think posterity has had time to discover him yet; meanwhile I thought this was a funny enough idea to write my poem in the persona of a would-be Emily clone.

— Alan Elms

Emily and Me

Me and Emily
We never wrote for Fame –
Stitched our Verses out of Sight –
Had no Truck – with the Book-Hawkers’ Game –

She left her Manuscripts to Chance –
Pending her Sister’s – posthumous Zeal –
Mine rest in the Upstairs Study –
Third Drawer – Seventh File.

Me and Emily
We punctuated as We felt –
Half our Rhymes – were Accident –
Our Words were oft – free-spelt –

We masked Ourselves in Metaphor
And always dressed in White –
Well – I cheated when the Washer broke –
But isn’t the Wish – what makes it Right?

Me and Emily
We had our Problems getting Dates –
But – Somewhere up in Eden –
I know my Em still waits –

We’ll hold a Ceremony
With God as J. of P. –
Then it’s Wild Nights! through the Eons –
For Emily and Me.

— Alan C. Elms

The Creation of Cordwainer Smith

This paper, which originally appeared in the scholarly journal Science-Fiction Studies in 1984, was my first publication on the science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. The paper provides a basic biography of Smith (whose real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) and a psychobiographical analysis of several of his stories. Subsequently I have published several more papers on specific aspects of Smith/Linebarger’s life and work; I plan to post most of them on this website. I am also writing a full-scale biography of Linebarger, which will include a much more detailed account not only of his life history and of his science fiction, but of his careers in several other fields. Meanwhile, this article provides the fullest account of his personal history and of his psychological development as they relate to his science fiction. An Adobe Acrobat pdf file of the article can be found at this site:

The Website of Alan C. Elms