Homunculi of the Mind
When not practicing psychological warfare, Cordwainer Smith wrote fiction.
BY LUCAS BERNHARDT
[This piece originally appeared in the summer 2010 issue devoted to science fiction.]
VERY EARLY ON, it was assumed that Americans were scrappy. From just a mule, a butter churn, a railroad spike, and an aptitude for improvisation—a homestead. Scholars later pointed out that although intelligent people do not buy in to the idea of “national character,” they do. As Americanism became less a matter of conquering wildernesses and more that of, say, assessing sales unit efficiency, the American imagination rebelled. From the 50s on, fantasy was the national pastime, and Cordwainer Smith was fantasy’s Sandy Koufax.
Born, raised, and interred Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, Smith learned the propaganda ropes during World War II, and developed into a psychological warfare expert. During the Cold War, while ostensibly a Professor of Asiatic Studies at Johns Hopkins, Smith traveled the world, undermining the morale of indigenous insurgents everywhere. On his down time he wrote fiction, much of it set in a far, far future he may or may not have believed he’d visited. In this future, an indigenous insurgency of considerable merit is gaining the upper hand.
My favorite Cordwainer Smith story, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” involves a key future-historic event called “The Rediscovery of Man.” Some fourteen thousand years hence, a totalitarian world government has decided to combat its citizens’ sterility and malaise by reintroducing—on a calculated basis—risk, deprivation, disease, and national cultures, all problems they’d solved long ago. Virginia and Paul, the story’s protagonists, emerge from a period of hypnosis with new identities, speaking an ancient language: French. They fall in love with one another on sight, but Virginia soon worries that their new lives may not be authentic. Paul is unconcerned, but Virginia must have the truth. They are to go on a journey, their ignorance of the dangers of the road and of the means for defending themselves from harm notwithstanding. Their chances of success are poor. Like household pets set loose in a city, they are, at first, “Drunk with happiness.”
Lucas Bernhardt is Propeller’s poetry editor.