Cordwainer Smith

By: Erik Davis
July 11, 2009


Set like jewels within a vast diadem of a single future history, the SF stories and solitary novel penned by CORDWAINER SMITH (1913-66) in the ’50s and early ’60s transcend the American pulps in both style and substance. Formally, they slip and slide like wry Orientalist fables (in real life, Smith was an army intelligence officer and East Asian expert named Paul Linebarger). Thematically, Smith explored the inner landscapes opened up by postwar mind science. A line can certainly be traced between Psychological Warfare, a classic military text that Linebarger published in 1948, and Smith’s widely praised 1950 story “Scanners Live in Vain,” in which interstellar pilots neurologically zombify themselves in order to withstand the “Great Pain of Space.” Like Philip K. Dick, Smith’s psychological concerns bloomed into religious ones, and the post-human nostalgia and liberation theology of some of his tales, partly rooted in his deepening Anglican faith, hold up a hard mirror to the simultaneous shattering and retrenchment of the religious imagination that characterizes our days.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Partisan (1904-13) and New God (1914-23) Generations.