Celebrated SF author Cordwainer Smith grew up among anti-imperial revolutionaries in China, then became a master of psychological warfare. Over at PLoS blog Neurotribes, Steve Silberman has a terrific article about Smith and his cyborg masterpiece "Scanners Live In Vain."
Fifty years ago, the word "cyborg" was coined by scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, and Silberman's article is part of a month-long celebration of the cyborg spearheaded by culture critic Tim Maly. Maly is publishing 50 articles about cyborgs on his Tumblr this month. Silberman makes an eloquent argument that only a man like Paul Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith's real name) could have done justice to cyborg consciousness - due to Linebarger's own strange experiences in the world.
"Scanners Live In Vain," which you can read for free here thanks to Baen Books' generosity, is the story of a technologically-augmented human, called a scanner, who gives up 4 of his 5 senses in order to have a job working in space. Though he can temporarily bring his senses back online by "cranching" with a special brain wire, the scanner is viewed by his fellow humans as a degraded creature. This despite the fact that he rescues human crews in space repeatedly. Published in the late 1940s, several years before Asimov's I, Robot, the story takes readers inside the consciousness of a cyborg - showing us his unfeeling way of feeling, and his strange way of processing the world.
To explain what might have inspired this story, Silberman begins by giving us a quick sketch of Linebarger's unusual childhood:
Born in 1913, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger was the son of an American judge, also named Paul, who abruptly retired from a U.S. Federal District post in the Phillippines to help the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen overthrow the last imperial dynasty in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. In an interview with U.C. Davis psychology professor and Linebarger scholar Alan Elms in 1979, China expert Ardath Burks compared Paul senior's decision to back the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance to "a conservative American judge in the Panama Canal Zone retiring and going down to join the Sandinistas."
Growing up in China, Europe, and the Americas, Linebarger was exposed to a bewildering set of very different cultures and languages. He also lost one eye to an accident when he was a child, and sight in his other eye was severely limited by an infection. As Silberman puts it, Linebarger was already a cyborg of sorts - with his one glass eye and thick glasses, he saw the world only by virtue of prosthetics.
When he grew older, Linebarger wrote fiction under pseudonyms and, under his own name, authored what became a definitive military guide called Psychological Warfare.
Describing his career in psyops, Silberman writes:
Of his accomplishments in this arena, the one that made Linebarger most proud was engineering the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops during the Korean War. Because they considered throwing down their arms shameful even when they had no hope of survival, Linebarger drafted leaflets advising them to shout the Chinese words for love, duty, humanity, and virtue when they approached American lines - phonemes that sound conveniently like "I surrender!"
Linebarger writes about strung-out states of mind so convincingly, it's clear that his experiences in the hospital as a kid left an indelible impression. One might even say that these experiences - along with his perpetual dislocation as the son of a spy - made the body itself, and all of culture, seem like an elaborate prosthesis imposed on the essential man.
Read more about LInebarger's career, along with his other novels, over on Neurotribes.