Cordwainer Smith was born 100 years ago

Paul Linebarger aka Cordwainer Smith in 1953
Paul Linebarger aka Cordwainer Smith in 1953

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (photo ©Rosana Hart, Hartworks, Inc.), this was his real name, was born on July 11, 1913 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father was a lawyer and activist with strong ties to China and, in particular, its nationalists, so much that the father of the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-sen was young Paul’s godfather.

When he was a child, Paul Linebarger had already great problems to his sight: he became completely blind in his right eye and an infection limited his left eye’s vision. Despite these problems, since his family moved to various countries he ended up speaking six languages ​​and at 23 he received a Ph.D. in political science at Johns Hopkins University.

The ties with China deeply influenced Paul Linebarger’s life. For several years he taught at Duke University and published several political essays in the Far East. In 1936 he married Margaret Snow, by whom he had two daughters. The marriage lasted until 1949.

During World War II, Paul Linebarger served in the U.S. Army working as a consultant in the creation of the United States Office of War Information and the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board, also in the organization of a section devoted to psychological warfare.

During the war years, Paul Linebarger also worked on the coordination of the military intelligence in China, operating as contact with the Chinese nationalists. Thanks to his old contacts, he also became confident of their leader Chiang Kai-shek. His work continued after the end of World War II by providing advice to the British armed forces during the Malaysian Emergency and to the American armed forces during the Korean War. In those years he also managed to publish his first novels of different genres under the pen names Felix C. Forrest and Carmichael Smith.

In 1950, Paul Linebarger married Genevieve Collins and they had several children. In the same year he published his first science fiction story, signed with the pen name Cordwainer Smith with which he’s known in the world of science fiction, titled “Scanners Live in Vain”. His stories make up the fictional universe of the Instrumentality of Man, in which civilization is rebuilt after a nuclear disaster.

Over thousands of years, are created the Underpeople, animals genetically modified to reach an intellectual level equivalent to that of humans. They’re discriminated against but eventually they get equal rights. To this cycle belongs the only science fiction novel by Cordwainer Smith, “Norstrilia”, obtained in 1975 by joining two shorter novels: “The Planet Buyer” (1964) and “The Underpeople” (1968).

Unfortunately, Linebarger / Smith died on August 6, 1966 due to a heart attack. He wasn’t a career soldier but having served for several time in the U.S. armed forces had reached the rank of colonel and was buried in the military Arlington National Cemetery.

Paul Linebarger was a person who had out of ordinary experiences and you can see that in the science fiction stories signed as Cordwainer Smith. In the stories of the Instrumentality of Man he used a style influenced by the Chinese stories, as if they were telling the legends of the distant future instead of the past with the Underpeople instead of ghosts and other supernatural creatures. This made him a truly unique and unrepeatable author even though he has influenced writers of later generations.

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