Authors: Ursula K. Le Guin
But with Sheldon we come to another aspect of the pen name: the already public figure who wants or needs a different persona for a different kind of work.
I don’t know if there was any actual professional need for Sheldon to be Tiptree; would she have lost a job or come under governmental suspicion if she’d published her stories under her own name? My guess is that her need for the pen name was primarily and intensely personal. She needed to write as somebody other than who she “was.” She had led a highly successful career as a woman, but as a writer she needed, at least at first, to present herself, perhaps even to herself, as a man. She found her alter ego on the label of a jar of marmalade. She slipped into the impersonation very comfortably, writing not only stories but letters as James Tiptree Jr., who became a beloved, treasured penfriend to many people. When she began to want to publish as a woman she used only half of her own name, calling herself Raccoona Sheldon (a name that troubles me, because the invented half is so grotesque that it seems a self put-down). Finally, when they blew her cover, she essentially stopped writing. It looks as if the name/mask, whether masculine or feminine, was above all an enabler to her, an escape route from a public self that could not or would not write, into a private self that was all writer.
So how about Professor and Colonel Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger—what was Cordwainer Smith to him? From here on I rely completely and gratefully on the researches of John J. Pierce, the prime authority on Linebarger/Smith’s life and writing. In his fine introduction to
The Rediscovery of Man
, Pierce tells us that Linebarger published his book on psychological warfare under his own name, but his first two novels (
) as Felix C. Forrest. Then, “when people found out who ‘Forrest’ was, he couldn’t write any more.” (That sounds like Sheldon.) Pierce goes on: “He tried a spy thriller,
, as Carmichael Smith, but was found out again. He even submitted a
manuscript for another novel under his wife’s name, but nobody was fooled.” Using your wife’s name as an alias implies, to me, not only a very good-natured wife, but a very imperative need for a mask. It also implies a quite extraordinary indifference to what is so often of immense importance to a man: that he be perceived, always and totally, as a man.
My guess is that the pen name he finally settled on may have been necessary to save his dignity as an academic and an expert on grave matters, but was equally important to him because it allowed him psychic freedom. Dr. Linebarger had to be respectable and responsible and had to guard his tongue. Cordwainer Smith wrote skiffy and babbled whatever he pleased. The Doctor used his knowledge discreetly to counsel Chiang Kai-shek and advise politicians and diplomats. Mr. Smith let that knowledge out in the open to please the common folk who read popular fiction, and to serve art. Paul was a man. Cordwainer was men, women, animals, a cosmos.
Splitting the personality in this way might signify in most people that they were a bit daft; but all the writers I’ve been talking about were notably effective people in both incarnations, flesh and paper. Still, their paper selves, having long outlived the “real person,” might well ask, Which of us can claim to be real?
After all, fiction writers make a reality of words.
The arts of writing all begin in playing with words, wallowing in them, revelling in them, being obsessed by them, finding reality in them. Words are the mud this mudpie’s made of. Some writers are cool and masterful and never get their hands dirty, but Cordwainer Smith got muddy from the toes to the top of the head.
Language evidently intoxicated him and sometimes controlled him; rhymes, particularly, and the rhythms of sentences.
Golden the ship was—Oh! Oh! Oh!
That’s the last line, and the title, of one of his stories. I have a baseless, unverifiable, perhaps totally mistaken conviction
that the line came before the story: that the story grew out of, unfolded from, was compelled to exist by, an unexplained, unattached fragment of language, seven words that took hold of his mind and rocked it and wouldn’t let him be until he had made a box of meaning that would hold them:
Golden the ship was—Oh! Oh! Oh!
This kind of thing is part of his peculiar magic. He knows a powerful phrase or word when he finds one, and uses and repeats it powerfully. I suspect the “Instrumentality” was very little but a word at first, a grand word, which as he used, repeated, explored, explained it, turned out to contain in itself much of the wonderful, semicoherent “future history” of the stories and the novel. The Instrumentality of Mankind—it is a suggestive, complex, multiplex kind of phrase, a Mother Lode phrase that keeps leading to the high-grade ore.
Sometimes I think the words get away from him. The story “Drunkboat” is Arthur Rimbaud getting high on absinthe getting Cordwainer Smith high on
Le Bateau ivre
and sailing out across the galaxy. It’s a tour de force. But it’s full of awfully bad verse.
Point your gun at a murky lurky.
(Now you’re talking ham or turkey!)
Shoot a shot at a dying aoudad.
(Don’t ask the lady why or how, dad!)
Lord Crudelta, in the story, quotes this as an example of words remaining long after their referents are gone, laboriously explaining that an aoudad was an ancient sheep and that he doesn’t know what ham and turkey were, but that children have sung the song for “thousands of years.” Well, I don’t believe it. No sane child would sing that for five minutes. I think Cordwainer Smith had that stupid aoudad/how dad rhyme in his head and couldn’t get it out, and it overcame his better reason and forced itself into the story.
When you let words take you over, as Rimbaud and Smith did, you relinquish control to a sometimes dangerous extent. You can’t keep the
stupidities and inconsequentialities out, the way a tight-control writer can; you’re on a wild ride and you have to take what comes. What comes may be treasure and may be junk. I find much of “Drunkboat” overwritten, straining for effect, starting with its rather pompous claims to fame: “Perhaps it is the saddest, maddest, wildest story in the whole long history of space.” . . . “We know his name now. And our children and their children will know it for always.” And the story is full of obsessive jingles, “Baiter Gator” and “ochre joker” and so on, which weaken what should be a stunning effect when Rambo/Rimbaud bursts into a wild flood of rhyming speech. There are too many one-sentence paragraphs, italics, and other heavy devices to show significance. And yet, and yet . . . what a wonderful image, the man swimming, swimming slowly through spacetime, reaching through the walls, seeking his Elizabeth. . . . And the recurrent characters, Sir-and-Doctor Vomact, the Lord Crudelta (whose Italian name means what Lord Jestocost’s means in Russian), the Instrumentality itself. “Drunkboat” is a wild jungle of language, grotesque, deformed, obstructive, energetic, vividly alive.
I seem to be impelled to discuss stories that I don’t particularly like, instead of the ones I love, such as “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” “Mark Elf,” “A Planet Named Shayol.”
A Smith story that I have always resisted, kept my distance from, is “Think Blue, Count Two.” When I reread it some while ago for consideration for the
Norton Book of Science Fiction
I saw again what I’d disliked—a pretty girl, blue-eyed, called “doll” and “kitten,” a plot that teases by threatening sadism but dodges the threat by rather implausible means, and a sentimental ending where the doll-kitten goes off with the deformed sadist, now miraculously cured and tamed. A very
romantic story, plunging (as romanticism will) from sappy sweetness to sick cruelty, with not much actual humanity in between. When it came to choosing for the
, I wanted “Alpha
Ralpha Boulevard,” which uses these characteristic Smithian themes in a story that is not excessively, but magnificently, romantic—a beautiful, powerful story. When my coeditors argued for other choices, I whined. I wanted “Alpha Ralpha” in that book the way I wanted Fritz Leiber’s “The Winter Flies” in it—passionately—because to me they are uniquely valuable, unsurpassed explorations of regions of fiction that are still unfamiliar, still New Found Lands.
Well, so, then I reread “Think Blue” again for this paper. I did so looking for evidence, as it were, of what I don’t like in Smith. Served me right.
What I found was that I had misread and underestimated the story shamefully. Indeed the heroine-doll-kitten seems the typical malefantasy girl, virginal, beautiful, defenseless, with “no skill, no learning, no trained capacities,” no threat to nobody, no sir. She’s being used to hold the crew together during a long voyage; she has “Daughter Potential,” that is, every man will want to protect her, she will keep everybody alive “for her sake.” However, in case things get really bad, she has another protection aboard, in the form of one of Smith’s unforgettable inventions, a cube of laminated mouse brain.
We stiffened it with celluprime and then we veneered it down, about seven thousand layers. Each one has plastic of at least two molecular thicknesses. This mouse can’t spoil. As a matter of fact, this mouse is going to go on thinking forever. He won’t think much, unless we put the voltage on him, but he’ll think. And he can’t spoil. . . . I told you, this mouse is going to be thinking when the last human being on the last known planet is dead. And it’s going to be thinking about that girl. Forever.
The mouse does protect her, through the projection of various fantasies, which I no longer find as implausible as I did, because I now see that in fact she is protectable. She is not the inevitable victim I took her
for. Veesey has strength and courage; she meets the danger posed by her psychotic male companions with stoicism: “Life’s life, she thought, and I must live it. Here.” Her reaction to her own Daughter Potential is stoical endurance—“Is it
again? she thought to herself.” She’s a woman, not a child, and she knows it if they don’t. (She is, in fact, remarkably like some of Dickens’s much-ridiculed heroines, Lizzie Hexam, Amy Dorrit, Florence Dombey, who, though the male characters see them as childish, and many readers follow suit, are in fact strong, courageous, adult women, survivors against all odds.) She is childlike only in the depth of her innocence. At the most frightening moment she asks the rapist, “Is this what crime is, what you are doing to me?” But the allegory is of an Innocence stronger than Experience—of a genuinely inviolable soul.
And the sick bits, I now realise, are not self-indulgent, as so much literary rape and torture is. Trying to say something seriously about who men are, what their chief problem may be, Smith found these were the images to say it with—the necessary vocabulary.
The apparitions summoned by Sh’san to save Veesey from the men and the men from themselves are much more complicated and psychologically tricky than I had thought. Since they bring about the happy ending, they can partake in high comedy; and they do, especially the last one, the ship’s captain:
“If I stop to think about it, I find myself pretty upsetting. I know that I’m just an echo in your minds, combined with the experience and wisdom which has gone into the cube. So I guess that I do what real people do. I just don’t think about it very much. I mind my business.” He stiffened and straightened and was himself again. “My own business,” he repeated.
“And Sh’san,” said Trece, “how do you feel about him?”
A look of awe—almost a look of terror—came upon the captain’s face. . . . “Sh’san. He is the thinker of all thinking,
the ‘to be’ of being, the doer of doings. He is powerful beyond your strongest imagination. He makes me come living out of your living minds. In fact,” said the captain with a final snarl, “he is a dead mouse brain laminated with plastic and I have no idea at all of who
am. Good night to you all!”
The captain set his cap on his head and walked straight through the hull.
This reality-shifting also contains one of Smith’s central and to me most fascinating themes: that of the animal as savior. The engineer who created the cube imprinted his own personality in it, the minds of the girl and the two men create the apparitions, the girl’s imprinted call for help switches on the voltage that activates the cube—but the saving energy lies, finally, in the brain of a dead mouse.
The mouse is worth remembering.
It’s easy to remember Smith’s great Underpeople savior figures—D’joan the dog woman, the pure sacrificial figure; E-tele-keli, man and eagle, who flies deep under Old Earth; and of course, threading her way like a wandering red flame through the stories and the novel, C’mell the girlygirl, all woman and all cat.
In stories where animal and human are mixed in the way Smith mixed them, the human body dominating but possessing animal characteristics, the effect is usually horrible or pitiful: the Minotaur or the awful creatures of Dr. Moreau’s island.
Here is B’dikkat, the cattle-person of Shayol, Smith’s version of the Minotaur:
An enormous face, four times the size of any human face Mercer had ever seen, was looking down at him. Huge brown eyes, cowlike in their gentle inoffensiveness, moved back and
forth as the big face examined Mercer’s wrapping. The face was that of a handsome man of middle years, clean-shaven, hair chestnut-brown, with sensual, full lips and gigantic but healthy yellow teeth exposed in a half-smile. The face saw Mercer’s eyes open, and spoke with a deep friendly roar.