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:

Cordwainer Smith and Cyborgs

Steve Silberman, a contributing editor for Wired magazine, has posted an excellent article about Cordwainer Smith on his new blog NeuroTribes: . I supplied some background information on Smith (Paul Linebarger) to Steve, but he did his homework with other sources as well, and provides a very thoughtful reading of Smith’s first published science fiction story, “Scanners Live in Vain.” “Scanners” itself is available free and honestly online from Baen Books (, or you can find it in the Baen Books collection of Smith stories When the People Fell, or even better in the NESFA Press collection of all Cordwainer Smith’s short stories and novellas, The Rediscovery of Man. “Scanners Live in Vain” was written 65 years ago, but it is still a long way from retirement!

Alan Elms biographical interview

Alan Elms: Personality in Psychobiography

Interviewed by Kate Isaacson for the psychohistorical journal Clio’s Psyche

Alan Elms was born in 1938 in  Texas, and grew up in Arkansas, California, and Kentucky.  He received a BA in psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 1960 and earned his PhD in personality and social psychology at Yale University in 1965.  After teaching for three years at Southern Methodist University, Dr. Elms joined the  psychology faculty at the University of California, Davis, in 1967. He taught courses in personality theory, psychobiography, and political psychology to undergraduate and graduate students for many years. [In 2002, after this interview was published in Clio's Psyche, he became an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UC Davis.]

Dr. Elms was a founder of the Personology Society and has been a long-time member of  the Bay Area Psychobiography Working Group.  He has received numerous honors for his work, including the 1988 Henry A. Murray Award, given by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association (APA), for career contributions to personality psychology.  His books include: Role Playing, Reward, and Attitude Change (editor, 1969), Social Psychology and Social Relevance (1972), Attitudes (1976), Personality in Politics (1976), and Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology (1994). Uncovering Lives earned a CHOICE Magazine award as one of the “Best Academic Books of 1995.”  In his final year of teaching before retirement, he received a UC Davis faculty research fellowship that took him to the University of California Washington Center in Washington, DC, to teach undergraduate seminars on personality and politics and to do research at the Library of Congress. He continues to work on  psychobiographical studies of Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) and Carl Jung, and is planning to write a book on “the Freud Wars.”    Kate Issacson interviewed this distinguished scholar at UC Davis and by phone and e-mail in the fall of 2001.

Kate Isaacson (KI): What influence did your early environment have on your interest in psychology?

Alan Elms (AE): When I was 10 or 11 and living in Arkansas, I began reading newspapers every day.  I found two kinds of articles especially intriguing: those on UFOs and those on the behavior and various bizarre or just deliberately funny statements of Arkansas politicians.  Then we moved to San Diego, where in 1950 my father took me to an anti-Nixon rally, when Nixon was running for the U.S. Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas.  Nixon at that point was an  entertaining person to be against.  When we moved back to the South several years later, this time to Kentucky, Happy Chandler was the governor.  He had been baseball commissioner and was a very  amusing character, though as governor he was close to being a total idiot.  I had fun writing satirical pieces about him for the local newspapers.

KI: What did your parents think about your going into psychology?

AE: My father would have preferred that I go into some other “more scientific” area such as nuclear physics.  I had declared at 12 or 13 that I wanted to pursue a career as a writer.  He and my mother had both reacted very strongly against that idea, mainly in terms of “This is an uncertain profession” and “You’re not going to have a steady salary.”  My mother asked, “What if you run out of ideas?”  So I went into psychology, in part to earn a regular salary while still pursuing a career as a writer.

KI: Frank Sulloway (Born to Rebel, 1996) describes first-borns as typically less rebellious than later-borns.  As a first-born, how do you identify with his characterization?

AE: On his questionnaires I come out as an “honorary later-born,” partly because of a considerable degree of adolescent rebellion against my father.  In comparison to my five siblings, I have both shown the most initiative and been the most rebellious.  Sulloway’s research does not sufficiently take into account sheer individual variability.

My father was the last boy among nine children and was, in his own way, a somewhat rebellious individual.  One of the points of issue between me and my father was that I usually preferred staying inside, reading books, when he wanted me to be outside hunting, fishing, or farming.  But one of his older brothers told me that when my father as a young teenager was supposed to be out working on the family farm, he’d sometimes instead climb up on the roof of the house, out of sight, and read books.  I saw this earlier rebelliousness as something I could emulate.  I was academically an excellent student, but at times I resisted when teachers tried to make me do something that I saw as unreasonable or unfair.  My father would be outraged at the teachers and he’d write letters to the newspapers, denouncing the teachers and criticizing school policies.  He was not someone who obeyed orders without question.  As with psychobiographers Mac Runyan and Jim Anderson, I’ve written a non-fiction piece on my very early life in the form of an essay about my father, due to be published shortly in Between Fathers and Sons, edited by Robert Pellegrini and Theodore R. Sarbin.

KI: Did you have early literary publications?

AE: I published several poems in campus literary magazines and elsewhere.  But my main publishing venue was the campus humor magazine, the Penn State Froth.  I wrote large parts of each issue — satire, parody, crude campus humor, cartoons.  I also wrote two novels — both unpublished — at about that time.  The first was a combination tribute to and parody of the Beat Movement — I had been much impressed by Kerouac’s On the Road and The Dharma Bums. I was intrigued by Kerouac but didn’t believe in totally spontaneous writing — and it turns out that Kerouac didn’t either, though he pretended that was what he was doing.  My second novel was a comedy of campus political intrigues, featuring the rebellious editor of a campus humor magazine.

KI: So with these literary and political interests, how did you get involved with psychology research?

AE: I started with rats.  The Penn State Psychology Department was heavily behaviorist, really Skinnerian, so my first research assignment as an undergraduate was running a couple of rats in a Skinner box.  I found that pretty boring and I thought monkeys would be at least a step up.  The first social psychology class I took was taught by C.R. Carpenter, who was the only person who had done any systematic field research on monkey and ape behavior at that time.  I joined his last expedition to Barro Colorado Island in Panama, which primarily did a census of howler monkeys to find out the social composition in each group.  I also observed the incidence of intra-group aggression among these monkeys for a senior honors thesis.

KI: How did this lead to your joining the Milgram studies on obedience to authority?

AE: After about two weeks of studying howler monkeys, I knew that I didn’t want to make that my life work.  By the time I got to Yale Graduate School I wanted to do research on human beings.  I started there with Irving Janis, who was doing research on persuasion and the effects of role-playing on attitude change.  I knew something about that because I had been a competitive debater in high school and college for seven years.  In debate you don’t necessarily just advocate a position you believe in – sometimes you are assigned to a different position and have to support it regardless of your own beliefs.  It’s a very good background for research, for identifying the important issues and outlining the main points and supportive evidence.

But Irving Janis was to be away on sabbatical my second year, so I began looking for someone else to work with.  Stanley Milgram was a new, young assistant professor at Yale then, very organized, very self-confident.  He hired me for the summer when the obedience experiments began.  Milgram kept detailed notebooks of everything he was thinking and doing.  He was very good at outlining things and developing procedures.

I was very interested in using social psychological research to address major social issues.  Obedience to authority certainly was one.  It was important at the time in terms of understanding the psychological processes that led to the Holocaust but it was relevant to other social issues as well.  This was 1961, when obedience to destructive authority was evident among more than a few U.S. citizens.  I had recently written a couple of articles for the Nation magazine about right-wing political activism and I saw connections.

KI: What was your role during the experiments?

AE: I participated in the first few trials and helped develop the procedures for the rest of the obedience research.  I prepared the lists of words the subjects were supposed to memorize, recruited subjects on the phone, came to the lab every day, made sure the electrode paste was ready for application, etc. — I was Milgram’s man Friday.  Stanley and I both played various roles in the pilot, including each of us being the person giving the orders.  But we decided neither of us worked out very well as the Experimenter: I looked too young and Stanley was too short (he was around 5’6” or 5’7”).  He wanted somebody who would immediately be perceived as an authority.  Usually we both remained behind the two-way mirror, observing and discussing the current subject’s behavior.

KI: Did the obedience research change the tide of research in social psychology?

AE: It did briefly encourage some other researchers to find situations that realistically involved human subjects, rather than the very artificial experiments that most social psychological laboratories were doing then, and are now.  But then the controversy developed about ethical issues, and the Feds and the APA established ethical guidelines that made it very difficult to do research even remotely like that.

KI: In retrospect, how do you view your involvement with the studies?

AE: I participated for about a year.  It was certainly the most striking study I had been involved with, just in terms of research subjects engaging in what they felt to be a really intense and emotionally involving experience.  My main criticism is that Stanley was really not interested in personality variables that might affect people’s behavior; his concern was strictly with situational factors.  Irving Janis was clearly both a social and a personality psychologist.  Stanley Milgram was purely a social psychologist and I thought he was missing something.

KI: Please tell us more about your advisor, Irving Janis.

AE: He was an unusual psychologist in that he not only did laboratory studies of attitude change but was very interested in major political issues — this was when he wrote the book on groupthink (published as Victims of Groupthink, 1972).  He also was trained as a psychoanalyst.  He really started me on psychobiography by assigning our first-year graduate seminar to read Freud’s key chapter on the Irma dream and asking us to come up with additional interpretations besides Freud’s.  Irving responded very positively to the ones I came up with, based on material in Freud’s letters.  That eventually resulted in my first psychobiographical paper, on Freud and the Irma dream and Martha Freud’s sixth pregnancy.

Irving was a good role model — quite eclectic in his methodology as well as theoretically He was strongly Freudian but also utilized ego psychoanalysis, Erik Erikson and David Rappaport.  One of his major books was Psychological Stress (1958), which discussed the effects of stress in social psychological terms but used as an extended example a woman he had treated in full-scale psychoanalysis while she was developing cancer.  This was a combination of nomothetic and very idiographic research, so I was determined to do the same thing.

KI: After completing your doctorate, you taught at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas before coming to UC Davis in 1967?

AE: Yes, starting in Fall 1964  – John Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas less than a year earlier.  I figured it would give me the opportunity to do sustained research on the personalities of extreme right-wingers.  This was the time that the John Birch Society was very active.  It was also then that Richard Hofstadter published his book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965), which impressed me.  I assembled a sample of extreme right-wingers, people who had written really extremist letters to Dallas newspapers, and a sample of moderates.  I made certain statistical comparisons among those samples but I became most interested in how the right-wingers’ individual autobiographical experiences motivated them to take these extreme positions.

I was moving toward psychobiography with this interest in right-wingers as individuals rather than as an average.  In my first real book, Social Psychology and Social Relevance (1972), I included a good deal of material about personality variables interacting with social psychological variables.  But when I was hired at UC Davis, it was principally as a laboratory researcher and as a questionnaire researcher.  I was still working both on studies of attitude change and on political beliefs and thought Davis would be a good place to do research on left-wingers.  The students at Berkeley had started the Free Speech Movement by that time and the anti-Vietnam War movement was getting strong there, and Davis is only 60 miles from Berkeley.  But I found it nearly as hard to find real left-wingers in Davis as in Dallas.  So I gave up that line of research and at about the same time I stopped doing lab research on attitude change.  I decided there were plenty of other psychologists who were more eager to do lab research than I was and they were probably better at it, whereas I was one of a very few psychologists who seemed genuinely enthusiastic about psychobiography.

KI: What is your primary intellectual affiliation now?

AE: I’m primarily a personality psychologist but I still think I have some things to say about social psychology.

KI: Please describe your theoretical biases and methodologies in doing psychobiography.

AE: I try to find the theoretical orientation most appropriate to the subject I am studying, since I don’t feel that any single theoretical perspective fits everyone.  If I’m looking at what appears to be midlife crisis issues, I’ll go to Erikson or Daniel Levinson.  If I see a lot of sexual symbolism in a subject’s dreams or writings, I’ll see if Freud’s ideas about such things still work (as they do in looking at Freud himself!).  I’ve written about my preferred methods at some length in Uncovering Lives.  As with theoretical approaches, I try whatever works in amassing useful data about a subject.

KI: How do you respond to critics who claim that psychobiography is hopelessly subjective and therefore extremely prone to bias?

AE: By doing as good a job as I can of avoiding bias in my own work and using care to collect the sorts of biographical data that will persuade even the critics that there is something useful in a psychobiographical approach.

KI: What are your thoughts on Freudian psychobiography?

AE: With regard to Freud’s own psychobiographical work, I regard him as the field’s great pioneer who broke the trail for the rest of us but who failed to overcome his own biases.  See my “Freud as Leonardo,” Chapter 3 in Uncovering Lives, for a detailed discussion of what he did wrong in his longest psychobiography — especially in terms of his projective identification with Leonardo.  With regard to others’ work in Freudian psychobiography, sometimes it works and sometimes they should have chosen another approach.

KI: How do you assess the work of psychologists who use quantitative methods to study lives, such as Dean Keith Simonton and Frank Sulloway?

AE: Dean and Frank have both come up with interesting findings, which psychobiographers may find useful in providing a broader context for individual case studies.  Frank provides a number of mini-psychobiographies in Born to Rebel that sometimes support and sometimes contradict his overall quantitative findings.  He doesn’t seem to realize that his conclusions about children finding individual psychological “niches” in the family are more Freudian than Darwinian.

KI: What has been your experience in working with the dreams or daydreams of your subjects?

AE: I don’t usually have dreams or daydreams to work with, but I do look for imaginative constructions when I can find them.  In examining the psychobiographical foundations of B. F. Skinner’s theories, for instance, I found it very useful to have his novel Walden Two available to analyze, rather than having to work only with his intentionally non-self-revealing technical books and articles.

KI: Is psychobiography of women subjects, or “feminist psychobiography,” the same as or different than that of male subjects?

AE: “Feminist psychobiography” and “psychobiography of women subjects” are not the same thing.  Blanche Wiesen Cook’s psychobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (1992) is explicitly feminist, pushing Roosevelt herself into a particular feminist pattern that the data don’t fully support.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “stealth psychobiography” (my term) of Eleanor Roosevelt in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (1994) is not feminist in any dogmatic sense, but is attentive to issues in her life that a female biographer would probably be more sensitive to than a male biographer would be, or might overlook or misinterpret.

KI: Can autobiography or memoirs be psychobiography?

AE: An autobiography or memoir can certainly be sufficiently attentive to psychological questions and answers to qualify it as psychobiography.  Erikson’s essay, “Autobiographical Notes on the Identity Crises,” on his own personal history in relation to identity issues is as psychobiographical as one can get.  Likewise Henry Murray’s essay in A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 5, 1967).  Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) is psychobiographical in part, though I think Jung would have done better in his self-analysis if he’d used something besides Jungian theory.

KI: How are we to evaluate the quality of psychobiographies?

AE: By closely tracking the research methods used, by careful assessment of the quality of the biographical evidence, by evaluating the psychobiographer’s evident biases and relating them to his/her interpretations of the data, and by considering whether another theoretical approach to the subject would explain more or be more coherent.

KI: Please list the five people who you think have made the greatest contribution, in rank order, to psychobiography, with a brief “why” for each one.

AE: Freud, of course, as the granddaddy of us all — arguing in favor of a comprehensive approach to the subject’s psychology, rather than just doing pathography; offering at least a hint of appropriate methodological models; and providing an imperfect model, but a model nonetheless, of how to apply a broad theoretical approach to a specific subject (for example, Leonardo).

Erikson, of course — refining Freud’s approach; giving us very detailed examples of applying theory and method in two major cases and a number of shorter ones; giving much attention to issues of countertransference; and providing us with a developmental schema which among other things reminds us of certain key questions that we need to ask about our subjects at different parts of their life cycles.

Beyond Freud and Erikson come a number of people who have made significant contributions but whom I couldn’t rank in any sensible way: Henry Murray, William McKinley “Mac” Runyan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jim Anderson, Irv Alexander, Peter Loewenberg, etc.

KI: What special considerations are necessary in doing cross-cultural psychobiography, such as on Saddam Hussein?

AE: In my chapter on George Bush Senior and Saddam (in Uncovering Lives), I enunciate some of those considerations. Erik Erikson discussed them at greater length in Gandhi’s Truth.  Basically, they add up to the need to be very careful when you’re studying somebody from a different culture — whether it’s a subculture within our own country, or a culture as different from ours as that in Iraq or India or Renaissance Italy.

KI: Please name five exemplary psychobiographies, with a brief reason for each one.

AE: Erikson’s Young Man Luther and Gandhi’s Truth are exemplary for their biographical detail, theoretical perspectives, and displays of methodological thoughtfulness.  I know that several of the specialists on Luther have complained about one or another detail in Young Man Luther, but I haven’t seen them producing a more psychologically sophisticated or persuasive account of his basic motives and his development in young adulthood.  Likewise for specialists on Gandhi — Erikson did as good a job as anyone could expect in approaching Gandhi from a non-Indian’s perspective and at the same time offered us a fascinating comparison of Gandhi’s “truths” with Freud’s “truths.”  Both books are full of explicit and implicit methodological lessons for would-be psychobiographers.

Freud’s Leonardo book, for providing later psychobiographers with an array of prescriptive and proscriptive guidelines as detailed in my Uncovering Lives.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lyndon Johnson, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), still one of the best political psychobiographies, for her use of inside information about LBJ and for her attention to the ways in which personality interacts with specific political roles.  Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, for insightful analyses of the great husband-and-wife team, even though Goodwin avoids citing the sources of her theoretical approach.  John Bowlby’s book on Darwin, Charles Darwin: A Biography (1990), for the restraint he shows in suggesting connections between Darwin’s psychosomatic problems and Darwin’s theories, while advancing a persuasive explanation of how those psychosomatic problems developed and were eventually resolved.

KI: Which are a couple of purported psychobiographies that are examples of how not to do psychobiography?

AE: Gail Sheehy’s multiple analyses of Presidential candidates in the magazine Vanity Fair, partly collected in her book Character: America’s Search for Leadership (1988); and various Freud-bashing books trying to invalidate Freud’s theories by offering wild analyses of his personality.

KI: What training and experience has been most helpful in your doing psychobiographical work?

AE: Getting a fair amount of clinical training during graduate school was helpful, but I think it would have been less helpful if I hadn’t also been getting trained in the more “scientific” approaches to research in personality and social psychology.  Training in classical and contemporary psychoanalytic theory, in grad school and later, has been quite useful.  In addition, I have undergone psychoanalytic psychotherapy from two wise analysts.  I wouldn’t say that it changed my outlook on society, but I think it gave me greater self-insight (a useful thing for a psychobiographer to develop as much as possible) and more self-confidence that my perceptions of others’ behaviors and personalities were more often than not reasonably veridical.

KI: What are you working on now?

AE: I’m working to finish a couple of book-length projects: a psychobiographical novel on C.G. Jung and a full-scale biography of Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith.  The Jung novel, focusing on his six-month journey across East Africa and down the Nile in 1925-1926, grew out of my research on Jung’s autobiography and is an effort to get at some psychological insights about him that might be more elusive via straightforward psychobiography. The book on Linebarger is my first and maybe last effort at doing a life history essentially from scratch.  Previous biographical work on him was quite limited in length and scope, so I’ve had to work from the ground up to establish the broad outlines as well as the details and subtleties of his life.  (I do want to give credit to John J. Pierce, who did the first biographical work on Linebarger in a fanzine article and a book introduction.)  Linebarger is a fascinating subject for several reasons.  His book, Psychological Warfare (1948), was a pioneering effort and is still well worth reading. His scholarly studies of China only partly conceal a strongly ambivalent personal relationship with the Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek regimes. His work for U.S. Army Intelligence and the CIA, mostly unpublished and unavailable for public view, was given alternative expression in several pre-James Bond spy novels (only one of which was ever published, Atomsk) that are a good deal more psychologically complex than anything Ian Fleming ever wrote. Perhaps most significantly, his science fiction under the pseudonym “Cordwainer Smith” remains strongly influential on many contemporary science fiction writers (for example, Ursula Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad) for its psychological strangeness as well as its literary style. In addition, Linebarger may have been the patient in the famous case history by Robert Lindner, “The Jet-Propelled Couch” in The Fifty-Minute Hour.  So there has been plenty to sustain my interest over two decades of intermittent but often intensive research on Linebarger’s life and work.

KI: What is the status of the book-length psychobiography of Elvis Presley that you are/were collaborating with Bruce Heller on?

AE: Elvis is on the back burner right now, but I move him to a front burner again every time I visit Graceland.  Maybe that book will get finished after Cordwainer.

Kate Isaacson is a doctoral student in personality and social psychology with Alan Elms at the University of California, Davis.  Her research interests are in psychobiographical theory and methodology, literary psychobiography, life course theories of personality, and the personality and social correlates of addiction.  She is currently the research coordinator for the Northern California Methamphetamine Study (National Institute of Health/UC Davis Medical Center), and is working on a psychobiographical study of Tennessee Williams, a study of recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a longitudinal study of creative productivity in Pulitzer Prize winners and nominees. [Actually, as of the 2010 date of this website posting, Dr. Isaacson has become a faculty member at Holy Names University in Oakland, CA.]

The Website of Alan C. Elms