Tales Too Good To Forget #1

James Blish, not that much a beast master.

Tumbrils 7, May 1946
The cover of Tumbrils #7 (May 1946) was presumably the work of James Blish himself.

I have to admit, it’s pretty easy to assume that the author of stories such as A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, and Surface Tension might be a bit on the serious side. Indeed, having read the criticism of James Blish collected in The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand (as by his William Atheling, Jr. pseudonym) I can see how such works might convince somebody that Blish was a rather earnest and po-faced individual.

However, it’s always dangerous to assume that the professional writings of an author encompass the whole of that author’s personality. Luckily for us the young James Blish published quite a few fanzines and thus inadvertently provided for anybody fortunate enough to read these evidence that he was far more than a cold and forbidding intellect.

Well okay, to be perfectly honest a lot of his early fanzine writings are indeed as earnest and po-faced as William Atheling, Jr. might lead you believe the real Blish was. But while some of this material might come across as every bit as pompous as the pronunciations of a high art maven (if you don’t believe me then go look for an issue of Renascence, but don’t say I didn’t warn you) in between the bouts of earnestness is another Blish, a wittier, lighter Blish who knew how to not take himself too seriously. The best place to look for this James Blish is in the material which he published for the Vanguard Amateur Press Association. It was here, in Tumbrils #4, that he wrote one of my favourite cat stories. Read this and you will never think of James Blish as po-faced ever again:

‘I don’t want anyone to get the notion that I dislike cats, or harbor any sort of grudge. My friends all have heard me say I refuse to marry until I can find a woman who will bear me kittens, and this is only partly due to my dislike for children. No, my whole intention in setting down these events is to correct the misinformed people who always answer, “Well, I like kittens, until they grow up.”

A mature cat, usually, has lost the salacious curiosity which makes living with a kitten a somewhat dangerous process. This nosiness takes peculiar forms, especially when linked with the feline interest in fishing and running water generally. I once owned a small black Tom who was perpetually climbing up my trouser-leg to peer in and see what that noise was. There was a time when I thought this trick charming, if somewhat morbid, but that was before he was replaced by Curfew whose curiosities led her up the inside of the trouser-leg.

This latter climb took place one evening while I was sitting in the front room listening to some records. The kitten was quite small, and once seated on my thigh in the darkness could not figure out how she had gotten there, why she had wanted to be there in the first place, or how to get out. Attempts to ease her back down the way she had come resulted merely in scars on my leg. I was forced finally to let the beast out via my fly.

Had this been the end of the matter all would have been well, however, as Curfew blinked forth into the light, I looked up and discovered that I had forgotten to pull down the window-shade, and that the woman in the next apartment was watching the whole proceedings from across the airshaft. The expression on her face could not have been wilder had she been confronted with a shuggoth, and for months afterwards I could not meet her on the stairs without her muttering to herself, “My God! Ears!”’

I like to think this story is the chest-bursting scene from the film, Alien, but made cute.

Paul Linebarger – Cordwainer Smith

Pondering the pseudonym.


Galaxy, October1962
Cover art by Virgil Finlay for The Ballad of Lost C’mell

Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger (1913-1966), citizen of the USA, was an author, political scientist, academic, and military adviser in Korea and Malaya. To me however, and I suspect to most readers of science fiction, he was better known as Cordwainer Smith, the name behind one of the most individual science fiction careers to date.

I don’t know why Paul Linebarger wrote his science fiction under a pseudonym but that he did so doesn’t entirely surprise me. If nothing else a pseudonym allows an individual to keep their writing career separate from other parts of their life if that individual feels a conflict of interest. It wouldn’t surprise me if a political scientist, academic, and military adviser who wanted his associates to take him seriously felt the need to keep his authorial activities discrete. Or perhaps he didn’t want reader reaction to his fiction to be influenced by a knowledge of his other activities. Not that I want to claim either of these suggestions is definitely why Paul Linebarger did what he did, just that they’re definite possibilities.

However, I’m rather less interested in why Linebarger chose to write under a pseudonym than why he chose that pseudonym to be Cordwainer Smith. Now if it had been given to him by an editor then there would be no mystery as back in the day editors seemed to delight in devising the most ridiculous pseudonyms possible. Compared to the likes of Wolfe Herscholt, Belli Luigi, Polton Cross, Deutero Spartacus, and Volsted Gridban , all fine examples of editorial perverseness, a name like Cordwainer Smith hardly stands out.

However Paul Linebarger chose his own pseudonym and given the care with which he wrote his stories I can’t imagine him applying anything less than the same degree of care to choosing a pen-name. In which case I think it reasonable to assume Linebarger chose Cordwainer Smith because it had some sort of significance to him. He wouldn’t be the first to do so, Robert Heinlein for example constructed the pen-name Lyle Monroe from his mother’s maiden name and a surname taken from one branch of her family.



In Linebarger’s case however just what that significance his chosen pen-name might have isn’t immediately apparent. As far as I’m aware Paul Linebarger never explained why he chose Cordwainer Smith and those words have no obvious connection to the man. But that’s alright because I have a theory (actually, I always have a theory, it’s my least endearing trait people tell me).

Let’s start by looking at Paul Linebarger’s Wikipedia page. According to that entry:

“Cordwainer” is an archaic word for “a worker in cordwain or cordovan leather; a shoemaker”, and a “smith” is “one who works in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier”: two kinds of skilled workers with traditional materials.

Well okay, the assumption here seems to be that Paul Linebarger chose the Cordwainer Smith for the archaic craftsman connotations it holds. And it’s true that an author can be reasonably be described as a traditional skilled worker, just with words rather than leather or metal. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature, was written nearly 5000 years ago which is long enough ago  to count as pretty traditional in my book).

Which is all very well but as it stands it doesn’t seem to me to be the full story. Paul Linebarger doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who would be satisfied with such a shallow hidden meaning. Which is why I found one particular detail in the Michael Kelly book, London Lines: The Capital By Underground, of particular interest.

In this book Kelly spends several paragraphs describing the area surrounding the Barbican tube station. (The Barbican tube station is situated near the Barbican Estate, on the edge of the ward of Farringdon Within, in the City of London in case you were wondering.) According to Kelly outside the nearby Bow Church is the following:

“And, in a little square of grass, there is a statue of Captain John Smith, ‘Citizen and Cordwainer, 1580-1631, First among the leaders of the settlement at Jamestown from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking people’.”

Now this I find interesting, very interesting. If Captain John Smith was a cordwainer does not this suggest a connection with Cordwainer Smith? I have to wonder if perhaps Linebarger called himself Cordwainer Smith as a sly reference to Captain John Smith. If Linebarger viewed Smith as one of the founding fathers of the USA perhaps then his Cordwainer Smith pen-name was his way of hinting at a similar role in his own future history, The Instrumentality. It strikes me as the sort of meta joke Linebarger would have enjoyed. It would also allow him to imply that the tales in his future history, The Instrumentality of Mankind are being set down by one who had been part of the history of The Instrumentality right from the beginning (which as the author he clearly had). Somebody indeed who still lingered on in the wings for reasons unimaginable to tell us these tales of his past but our future history.

A tenuous connection can also be made to the Greek mythological figure Hermes, messenger for the gods and a known trickster. He was the god of boundaries and the transgression of boundaries as well as being the patron of heralds. According to legend, shortly after birth, Hermes secretly left his home and hid the cattle of Apollo. In order to ensure the cattle would not leave tracks, he made each one a set of four boots. A cordwaining trickster god who was the patron of both heralds and boundary transgressions? That seems like a reference Paul Linebarger would appreciate.

Of course this is all speculation of the most tenuous kind but I like to think that ‘tenuous legend’ is how Paul Linebarger hoped Cordwainer Smith would be remembered.

Not a man, but the ghost who wrote.