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U.S. Army Col. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith (1913 – 1966)
Carlos Caso-Rosendi

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I started to read science-fiction quite early in my life. I believe I was about 9 years old when I read some of Edgar Rice Burroughs short novels. Looking back, they were quite awful but they introduced my young imagination to the genre. That was also the time when Latin American writers began dabbling in “realismo mágico.” I had to go a few years back in time to read Wells’ Time Machine (no pun intended) and The Invisible Man. Then came the strange odysseys of Olaf Stapledon, and J. G. Ballard. I was particularly interested in Ballard’s The Drowned World.  And of course Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and many others, too long a list to write here. How could I forget  the strange Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin! Many long hours and many long cups of tea were spent by the window devouring tales of adventures in strange utopias (or dystopias) but none of them captured my imagination like some little known American writer, a U.S. Army Intelligence officer named Myron Anthony Linebarger, who signed his books as Cordwainer Smith. The man had a very unusual upbringing (his father was an American diplomat) that allowed him to learn Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and other languages and speak all of them as a native. He saw the fall of Imperial China and the emergence of Communist China when he was quite young. His imagination was definitely American but had an Asian touch that gave his writing a truly other-wordly atmosphere. After reading his stories for a while, some have discovered that they seem to be organized around a time axis of about 10,000 years. He placed the beginning of that period about 20 or 30 centuries after our age. Mankind has spread all over the galaxy and has forgotten where the ancestral home is. Men can live as long as they wish, provided they can buy stroon, a drug produced in only one world, Norstrilia: a planet of  megamillionaire shepherds that looks a lot like the 1950’s Australia. All the known universe is governed by a small but unknown group, the Instrumentality. I would describe it in more detail but you may have seen by now that Cordwainer Smith managed to create an elaborate literary model of our present world, yet different enough from our reality to safely write about the most delicate topics with careless abandon and without any fear of reprisal.

I heard one anecdote about him –I don’t know if he ever considered a conversion to Catholicism but he might have– During the 1960’s he was vacationing with his wife in Acapulco when he caught Montezuma’s revenge. It was a bad case, so he decided to stay in the hotel and sent his wife to enjoy the beach by herself. She returned late in the afternoon to find her husband praying the Rosary, kneeling in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “What are you doing?” she inquired. “I am praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe” he responded. “But we are Presbyterians!” complained his wife. And the man responded: “Yes, we are Presbyterians at home but this is Her Territory!” Apparently, he received the grace of healing and could enjoy his vacation.

Returning to the theme of this rambling article … Many times I have said here that there is no such thing as Postmodernism but we are living in the Apotheosis of Modernity. All the evils of the so-called Postmodernism were present in the first incarnation of Modernity, like the same blue oval with the word “Ford” we see today in late model cars, was present on the radiator of the first Model T many decades ago.  David Warren put it nicely:

“Implicit in modernity from the beginning was what we call post-modernity today: something irretrievably irrational and post-Christian, though from a host or legion of causes; a swamp within which we cannot trace any single spring. Mud, quite impossible to drain; though as ever we remember that God could do it.” — from “The modern post-heretic.”

Inside the many layers of social and historical commentary by Cordwainer Smith there is a moment when the ruling Instrumentality is forced to let go of total control. They have succeeded in creating a cosmic utopia but there are uncontrollable forces that make them understand that true freedom—and a degree of uncertainty—are necessary for human happiness. I won’t tell you how they solved that conundrum but I can tell you that no other Sci-Fi writer ever addressed that theme with such subtlety and power.

Not long ago we began to hear the phrase “too big to fail” regarding the catastrophic failure of some Wall Street elephantosity or other. Jordan Peterson comments that the phrase betrays a serious logical error … it should have been “It’s so big it had to fail!” In Cordwainer Smith’s benign totalitarian Instrumentality, the presumption of total control is eventually acknowledged as a mistake and eventually, corrected. The Instrumentality does not let go completely but learns that it cannot impose happiness on everyone without badly breaking the system. Our Modern Instrumentality has it backwards: they believe that elementary freedom within moral confines is not true freedom, and they are willing to impose total misery on everyone to make us equal in slavery and pain. The structure keeps growing like a monstrous Tower of Babel, seeking to control everyone and everything. Here is when the Holy Spirit comes and confounds the languages of man, a sort of Pentecost in reverse.

I propose that the sin of the Modernists today is much more grievous than the crude intentions of the ancient people of the plains of Shinar. When the Modernists invented politically correct speech, that was an early attempt to replace the Logos, the Word, Our Lord Incarnate. Because the Logos pervades the whole Universe since the first moment of creation and nothing escapes His grasp, our Modern Instrumentality intends to cut off mankind from the Logos —I know, it is true foolishness, just read Psalm 2, even God has a good laugh looking at their puny efforts— Ever from the beginning, Modernism had a God-killing wish. It is only at this time in history that they feel they are strong enough to finish their enterprise. Christ the Logos is Freedom, Truth, and Life, the Modernist Leviathan is Slavery, Lies, and Death. See John 8:44.

I will leave the concluding words to the author of Psalm 2. Spoiler alert!

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples conspire in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

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A young Col. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger and his little daughter. Photographs are copyright © The Estate of Cordwainer Smith.

Short biography from the Hoover Institution’s website

Paul M.A. Linebarger had the international pedigree and double life of a John le Carré character. Born to Sun Yat-sen’s American adviser, Linebarger grew up in China, Germany, and the United States, spoke six languages, and received his doctorate at twenty-three. After teaching at Duke, he was hired by the US War Department to serve as the Far East Asian specialist of the Psychological Warfare branch. His analysis of propaganda in the Pacific Theater resulted in the 1948 classic Psychological Warfare and the article “The Struggle for the Mind of Asia.”

Today, however, Linebarger’s work as a Cold Warrior has been eclipsed by his secret career as a novelist. Known to readers as science fiction writers Anthony Bearden, Felix Forrest, Carmichael Smith, and Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger has been lauded as the author of “the best short fiction this genre has ever seen.” His novel Norstrilia, which features an alternate universe where “cat-people” communicate with humans, has been reprinted continuously since the 1960s.

Both Linebarger’s political writings and science fiction works reside in the Hoover Institution Archives. A biography detailing the double life of Linebarger as a Cold Warrior and science fiction author has yet to be written. “Perhaps,” as he noted in the acknowledgments section of Psychological Warfare, “This is just as well: some authors might object to being remembered.”

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