Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith

Paul and Rosana Linebarger

Paul Linebarger and his daughter Rosana, circa 1945

On March 9, 1948, a China scholar, psychological-warfare expert, and spy for the U.S. government named Paul Linebarger typed a letter to the editor of a 25-cent pulp magazine in Los Angeles called Fantasy Book. “First, let me point out the obvious,” he began. “I enclose my novelette, Scanners Live in Vain, for your consideration.” He added, “This is more ‘literary’ fiction than pulp fiction but I have hopes that your magazine, being off-trail, might be interested in using it.”

Calling a magazine “off-trail” may not be the most felicitous way for an aspiring author to introduce himself, but it was understandable if the boyish professor at Johns Hopkins University — who coyly described his work for the Pentagon as being “a visitor to small wars” — felt defensive about his novelette. Three years earlier, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the most literary-minded of the pulps, had rejected Scanners, calling it “too extreme” for a periodical that regularly featured marauding robots, exploding spaceships, and alien reptile overlords on its cover. Other editors seemed to agree.

It’s not hard to see why. Fifteen years before the word cyborg was invented, and with no preliminary exposition, the story plunged the reader into the passions, intimacies, and life-and-death conflicts of cybernetically augmented human beings. Man-machine hybrids had appeared before in fiction (including a celebrated tin woodman whose total-body prosthesis lacked a heart, and the robotically resurrected actress in C. L. Moore’s groundbreaking feminist sci-fi tale “No Woman Born”), but Linebarger’s central character — a courageous cyborg named Martel — was both a sleeker machine and a more acutely rendered human character than readers of the pulps were used to. Martel and his fellow cyborgs, known as “Scanners,” had their own lexicon of shop talk, expressive body language, code of ethics, professional guild, rousing songs, and finely honed sense of discipline. They were more like Marines than robots.

From the first lines of Linebarger’s tale, we’re in the thick of the action, trying to get our bearings in a new kind of body:

Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not.

We learn a lot in these few words. We’re told that Martel has the ability to switch off his emotions, though he’s choosing not to use it. Meanwhile, the collapsing furniture indicates that his navigation-by-judgment is not altogether reliable. We also learn that he is unable to hear normally, otherwise he wouldn’t have to rely on Luci’s expression to tip him off about the table. Crucially, we also know that Martel doesn’t feel pain, because he has to check visually to determine if his leg is broken.

We find out soon enough that Martel and the other Scanners have been deliberately — surgically — divorced from their own senses because their perilous vocation in outer space requires it. A mysterious force known as the First Effect causes agonizing pain in humans with intact nervous systems; they can survive interplanetary journeys only by being safely cocooned in suspended animation. Born ordinary men, Scanners have volunteered to become something both more and less than that, sacrificing the use of four out of their five senses (save sight), so they can serve as benevolent shepherds of the human race on its perambulations through the cosmos.

Brilliantly, Linebarger also gives his cyborgs a way to revel — briefly — in the bodily joys they left behind. At the end of that first paragraph, Martel says to Luci:

“I tell you, I must cranch. I have to cranch. It’s my worry, isn’t it?”

The scene that follows must have been startling to editors in the 1940s, even those thoroughly inured to blazing death rays and eight-armed insect overlords. Luci, who is Martel’s human wife, tenderly wraps a wire around her husband’s head and shoulders, studiously avoiding the monitors in Martel’s chest that enable him to scan his own life-signs. This is the cranching wire — the device that allows Scanners, for a blessed interval, to come to their senses again.

After going “under the wire” (like any street drug, it spawns its own slang), Martel can feel the air against his cheeks, sense the gentle pressure of his feet against the floor, and savor the smells of the dinner he just ate with Luci. In a sly nod to the fact that a Scanner still has most of his moving parts, Linebarger adds that Martel “gloated over the sounds of her dress as she swished to the doorway.” As the author describes it, the effects of a good cranching go beyond the restoration of lost sensory input. Like a peak psychedelic experience or lengthy meditation retreat, it can make the messy, mundane, fragmented world seem whole and precious again.

The idea that an electronically augmented revelation could restore the experience of life to its original glory was hardly ordinary cultural currency in America in 1945, but Paul Linebarger was not an ordinary man. For one thing, he cloaked his identity behind several pseudonyms, including Cordwainer Smith — a name much more famous now than Linebarger’s own — and a Chinese moniker that translates as “Forest of Incandescent Bliss.” Medically speaking, he was even a sort of cyborg himself.

Paul Linebarger and his father

Paul Linebarger and his father, circa 1920

Born in 1913, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger was the son of an American judge, also named Paul, who abruptly retired from a U.S. Federal District post in the Phillippines to help the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen overthrow the last imperial dynasty in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. In an interview with U.C. Davis psychology professor and Linebarger scholar Alan Elms in 1979, China expert Ardath Burks compared Paul senior’s decision to back the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance to “a conservative American judge in the Panama Canal Zone retiring and going down to join the Sandinistas.” Judge Linebarger — who brought expertise in finance, espionage, and the creation of propaganda to the table —  became a hugely important friend to the Tongmenhui revolutionaries. Sun Yat-sen even adopted young Paul as his godson, giving the boy his Chinese name, Lin Bah Loh.

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen

Sun Yat-sen spent many years in exile, and Linebarger’s childhood was peripatetic, ranging all over Europe and Asia. When he was six years old, the family relocated from Mississippi to Shanghai, stopping for two months in Honolulu. There, a playmate carelessly tossed a wire at Paul junior, gouging out his right eye. A subsequent infection nearly left him completely blind, and he would wear a glass eye and Coke-bottle spectacles for the rest of his days — his own humble foretaste of the life of a Scanner. Later in life, Linebarger adopted a one-eyed cat he christened Little Paul.

Glass eye

Glass eye

Growing up, Linebarger devoured the fantastical writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Mary Shelley. He read Tarzan in German and compiled a wish-list of books while he was still a kid that included Rabelais’ La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel, various Chinese classics, the Qu’ran, and “any book on Mars.”

At 14, he enrolled at George Washington University, where he proved himself a promising scholar in multiple languages. But this trajectory was diverted when his family suddenly moved back to China. In Beijing, Paul junior was drafted by his father into the burgeoning family business: espionage and psychological warfare. The young Linebarger became immersed in what we now call PsyOps — the art and science of spin, disinformation, whispering campaigns, interrogation, and other forms of influence that don’t depend on brute force, but can bring down an empire.

Of his accomplishments in this arena, the one that made Linebarger most proud was engineering the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops during the Korean War. Because they considered throwing down their arms shameful even when they had no hope of survival, Linebarger drafted leaflets advising them to shout the Chinese words for love, duty, humanity, and virtue when they approached American lines — phonemes that sound conveniently like “I surrender!”

Paul Linebarger, 1953

Paul Linebarger, Cuba, 1953

There’s little doubt that Linebarger’s glass eye and restlessly mobile upbringing contributed to his feeling of being an outsider in society — a feeling that would serve him well when he sat down to write Scanners in 1945. He recalled in his journal, “Whenever I went from one country to another, little colloquialisms and local slang eluded my understanding… I learned early that the surface meaning of words was not their real meaning. The thing to look for was the stance behind it: the emotional gesture, the moral posture.”

The unreliability of language became a major theme in Scanners, as the cyborgs — deprived of the capacity to modulate their own voices — communicate using a combination of lip-reading, a tablet and finger stylus known as the Talking Nail, and ritualized stances meant only for the eyes of fellow Scanners. (Elms, who has been working on a biography of the author for years, notes the ironic symmetry in the fact that while a wire cost Linebarger his eye, a wire can restore all of a Scanner’s sensory abilities except for sight.)

Three years after writing Scanners, Linebarger — by then a colonel in the U.S. Army — published a book called Psychological Warfare, which became the classic text on the subject, used to train interrogators and Pentagon spin doctors for decades. His PsyOps work gave him profound insight into the ways that consensus views are shaped by hidden forces. Indeed, many passages in the book — brought back into print this year after a long absence — could have been written in the post 9-/11 era:

It is tough to be modern; the difficulty of being modern makes it easy for individuals to be restless and anxious; restlessness and anxiety lead to fear; fear converts freely into hate; hate very easily takes on political form; political hate assists in the creation of real threats such as the atomic bomb and guided missiles, which are not imaginary threats at all; the reality of the threats seems to confirm the reality of the hate which led to it, thus perpetuating a cycle of insecurity, fear, hate, armament, insecurity, fear, and on around the circle again and again.

Psychological Warfare

Psychological Warfare, 1948

To write his first mainstream novel, Carola, Linebarger adopted a kind of transsexual prosthesis. He imagined himself to be a female writer named Lucy Estes and got to work, finishing his first draft of the novel in a month. Then, in the grand tradition of female authors who adopt male or ambiguous pseudonyms, he attributed Carola to “Felix C. Forrest,” a thicket of polyglot puns sprouting from transliterations of Linebarger’s various names. It’s no coincidence that Martel’s wife in Scanners is called Luci; one of the notable features of the Smith canon is that certain odd words and names keep returning in different contexts, like the craggy faces of character actors reappearing in a director’s films.

For his science-fiction output, Linebarger adopted the nom de plume Cordwainer Smith, punning on his English name. Though Astounding Science Fiction (which had launched the careers of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and L. Ron Hubbard) would have been Linebarger’s choice for his pulp-fiction debut, at least Scanners found a home in Fantasy Book, finally coming out in 1950.

Fantasy Book

Fantasy Book, art by Jack Gaughan

The magazine’s “off-trail” circulation might have meant the end of Smith’s brief career but for the happy coincidence that Frederik Pohl — one of the deans of American science fiction — had a story in the same issue. Pohl found it difficult to believe that the author of Scanners was a newbie to the genre. He felt certain that Cordwainer Smith must have been the pen name of an already well-known writer: Heinlein, Sturgeon perhaps, or A. E. van Vogt. In his introduction to the Smith collection When the People Fell, Pohl observed, “There was too great a wealth of color and innovation and conceptually stimulating thought in Scanners for me to believe for one second that it was the creation of any but a top master in science fiction. It was not only good. It was expert. Even excellent writers are not usually that excellent the first time around.”

Pohl effectively jump-started Smith’s career by reprinting Scanners in one of the first mass-market sci-fi anthologies, Beyond the End of Time, in 1952. For years, the author’s true identity was a matter of smoky late-night debates among SF writers and fans not likely to ever come across a copy of Psychological Warfare, or to make the connection if they did. By the late 1950s, Cordwainer Smith stories appeared regularly in magazines like If and Galaxy. Sci-fi heavyweight Robert Silverberg, author of ingenious books like Dying Inside and The Majipoor Chronicles, also hailed Scanners as a subversive classic, including it in his influential 1970 anthology, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Despite his considerable — and long-sought — success, Linebarger avoided fanboy conventions like the plague. Pohl explained:

He was not at all a recluse. In fact the opposite. Paul was gregarious and conversational, traveled immensely, spent a great deal of his time in classes and meetings. But he did not want to meet many science-fiction people. It was not that he did not like them. It was almost a superstition. Once before he had begun a career as a writer. He had published two novels—Carola and Ria, neither of them science fiction; what they remind me of most are Robert Briffault’s novels of European politics, Europa and Europa in Limbo. He had had every intention of continuing, but he couldn’t. The novels had been published under the pseudonym of Felix C. Forrest. They had attracted enough attention to make a number of people wonder who “Felix C. Forrest” was, and a few of them had found out. Unfortunately. What was unfortunate was that when Paul found himself in face-to-face contact with “Forrest”‘s audience, he could no longer write for them. Would the same thing happen with science fiction under the same circumstances? He didn’t know. But he did not want to risk it.


Carola, by Felix C. Forrest, 1948

Though Linebarger’s books have been cycling in and out of print for decades, a comprehensive collection of his sci-fi stories is now available as The Rediscovery of Man. Much of this work is devoted to fleshing out a shadowy organization called the Instrumentality of Mankind, a secret government that rules the Universe — not an unlikely scenario for an author with deep networks in spook country from Foggy Bottom to Chungking. (Intriguingly, one of the Instrumentality’s laws prohibits the exportation of religion from one planet to another.) In recent years, a loose confraternity of Linebarger aficionados, including Elms and author Ralph Benko, has resurrected the Instrumentality on the Web, complete with royal titles like Lady Jenny C’estQuoi and Lord Anachron Vastator (in truth, the ur-cyberpunk writer Harlan Ellison).

I asked Benko — who contacted me (as “Lord Te”) on behalf of the Instrumentality years ago — what gives Scanners Live in Vain its enduring power, despite the fact that some of its premises and technological details (really, oysters?) have been rendered obsolete. He replied, “The story is full of the existential honesty that gives Paul’s work its nuance and the brutal compassion which makes it literature rather than cheap entertainment. When the time comes to produce a movie that rivals the aesthetics, paradoxes, drama and emotional intensity of Blade Runner, Cordwainer Smith is out there patiently awaiting discovery.”

The phrase “brutal compassion” gave me oxymoronic pause, but on reflection seems just right. The language of Scanners is both pared to the bone and emotionally charged, with a tragic gravitas reminiscent of Rutger Hauer’s magisterial dying words in Blade Runner, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…” Linebarger’s clipped rhythms and percussive monosyllables put the horrors they describe into sharper relief.

He knew what had hit him. Amid the roar of his own pulse, he knew. In the nightmare of the Up-and-Out, that smell had forced its way through to him, while their ship burned off Venus and the habermans fought the collapsing metal with their bare hands. He had scanned them: all were in Danger. Chestboxes went up to Overload and dropped to Dead all around him as he had moved from man to man, shoving the drifting corpses out of his way as he fought to scan each man in turn, to clamp vises on unnoticed broken legs, to snap the Sleeping Valve on men whose instruments showed that they were hopelessly near Overload. With men trying to work and cursing him for a Scanner while he, professional zeal aroused, fought to do his job and keep them alive in the Great Pain of Space, he had smelled that smell.

After Scanners, Linebarger’s most unnerving creation was “A Planet Named Shayol.” (Sh’eol or שְׁאוֹל — “the pit” or “the abyss” — was the ancient Hebrew name for the land of the dead.) The story is one of the most haunting visions of an utter hell outside of Dante, with plot points anticipating current developments in tissue engineering and the infamous Vacanti earmouse that caused a flap at M.I.T. in 1996.

Vacanti mouse

Vacanti mouse, 1996

Published in 1961, it’s even druggier than Scanners, with a hipster nurse who gets her patients stoned on the fictional equivalent of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and a cow-faced organ farmer proffering a synthetic opiate called super-condamine. Linebarger writes about strung-out states of mind so convincingly, it’s clear that his experiences in the hospital as a kid left an indelible impression. One might even say that these experiences — along with his perpetual dislocation as the son of a spy — made the body itself, and all of culture, seem like an elaborate prosthesis imposed on the essential man. Ich bin ein Scanners, waiting for the next cranch.

Rosana Hart

Rosana Linebarger Hart

I asked Linebarger’s daughter Rosana — now a 68-year-old writer, webmaster of the official Cordwainer Smith website, and former llama rancher in Colorado — if her father’s adventures in spook country afforded him the opportunity to sample some of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA stash. She replied, “Paul didn’t have to. He was just naturally out there.”

She added that she had volunteered for LSD experiments run by Willis Harman at the International Federation for Advanced Studies at Stanford in the mid-’60s. Rereading her father’s work after taking part in those experiments, she recalls, “I got into the stories in ways I never had before. I could sense the numerous layers of reality, new to me.” (The IFAS experiments, chronicled in Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s Acid Dreams, were most likely a spook-related initiative themselves.)

With Linebarger, there were always more layers of reality. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rosana, then a Stanford junior, got a letter from her dad telling her that if the A-bombs started raining down, she should make her way to Mexico with an American Express card and await further instructions. She did not find this advice reassuring.

Linebarger died of a heart attack in 1966, at age 53.

Paul Linebarger (1913-1966)

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966)

[Note: This essay was solicited by Tim Maly for his 50 Posts About Cyborgs project, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term cyborg in a paper called “Cyborgs in Space” by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Thanks to Maly for the invitation. Biographical details are drawn primarily from interviews with Rosana Hart and Alan Elms and from Elms’ brilliant 1984 essay, “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith” [PDF link]. Interested readers are advised to find more information at Elms’ website. Art and photography is used with permission of Rosana Hart. Please visit the official Cordwainer Smith website.]

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