Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lord of the Instrumentality

July 11, 1913, is the birthday of Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, known to science fiction fans by his nom de plume Cordwainer Smith.

If you haven’t read Cordwainer Smith, mere words cannot convey the beauty and mystery of his writing. His stories are like nothing else in science fiction. Written in a narrative style heavily influenced by Chinese storytelling, they tell the story of the Instrumentality of Mankind, a world nearly 14,000 years in the future, in which the servile classes (the “underpeople”) are evolved from animals: C’mell, half cat, half woman; D’Joan, a Joan of Arc figure of dog origin; and the mysterious E’Telekeli, an eagle who leads the fight for emancipation. The ruling class, the Lords of the Instrumentality, are Chinese mandarins, powerful and tradition-bound. The Instrumentality is held together by the immortality drug stroon, available only on the planet Norstrilia.

The real-life Paul Linebarger is as remarkable as the fictional creations of Cordwainer Smith. Paul’s father, a jurist, was recruited by no less than Sun Yat-Sen to help establish the legal system for the new Republic of China. Sun Yat-Sen became godfather to the young Paul, who grew up immersed in Chinese culture. He became fluent in six languages, and obtained his PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 23.

As World War II began, Linebarger organized the first psychological warfare unit in the US Army, and wrote the classic textbook on the subject: Psychological Warfare, published in 1948. Although officially an academic, Linebarger did undocumented work for the CIA and DIA, and advised John F. Kennedy. He referred to himself as “a visitor to small wars.”

There’s circumstantial evidence, but no solid proof, that Linebarger was the real life “Kirk Allen,” the psychological patient whose strange story was told in “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” in Robert Lindner’s well-known book The Fifty Minute Hour. “Kirk Allen” had created a far future world in which he believed completely. As part of Lindner’s attempt to cure him, Lindner himself became obsessed with that world.

Thanks to my friend Ralph Benko, I was elected to the exclusive Cordwainer Smith society, the Instrumentality of Mankind, whose limited membership includes the Linebarger daughters as well as a number of science fiction luminaries. Although the Instrumentality doesn’t do very much (I attribute this to the lack of stroon), it’s an honor I appreciate very much.

Paul Linebarger passed away in 1966, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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