Friday, March 29, 2013

Cordwainer Smith was crazy, maybe?

Due to travel, I'll be brief. The Atlantic has an online article about Cordwainer Smith that boils down to:

  1. Cordwainer Smith has been tentatively identified as "Kirk Allen," a pseudonym created for a psychological portrait of a man who was pretty normal, except he believed that he had lived before on alien worlds. Is Cordwainer Smith (Paul Linebarger) actually that patient? We don't know!
  2. Cordwainer Smith wrote really strange stuff, stories that were too out there even for science fiction editor like John Campbell, Jr., who even supported L. Ron Hubbard! So his stuff must really be crazy!
  3. He's like a Tolkien of sci-fi, reaching for "mythic grandeur!"
In short, we have sensationalism (science fiction written by a crazy person!) with a touch of reductionism ("you've heard of Tolkien, right?").

I get that this is a short piece meant to introduce Cordwainer Smith, but the "Kirk Allen" stuff is pure speculation; and the article doesn't mention one of the foundational facts of Paul Linebarger, which is that his dad was involved with Sun Yat-sen and that Smith had a lot of exposure to Chinese culture. Which is kind of important when you're saying, "wow, this guy writes stuff that is totally confusing to Western readers!" Instead of reaching for the most sensational solution ("he was insane!"), there's a perfectly adequate theory (backed up by some criticism) that Smith used several Eastern works/tales/myths as inspiration.

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