Take a moment to recognize one of those odd historical coincidences that history occasionally serves up: Today is the anniversary of both Cordwainer Smith‘s birth and John W. Campbell‘s death. For those outside sci-fi literature, this date probably goes utterly unnoticed, but it shouldn’t. These two men literally changed the course of not just science fiction, but history itself.
Campbell was the editor of the pulp fiction mag Astounding Science Fiction (today known as Analog Science Fiction & Fact) from 1937 until his death on this date in 1971. In that time, he helped shape the careers of such luminaries as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, the latter of whom described Campbell as “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.”
The Campbell Award for best new science-fiction or fantasy writer is named in his honor. It’s a fair bet that the sci-fi writers whose ideas helped shape the Golden Age of Sci-Fi (and thus the generations of scientists and entertainers inspired by such) would have been markedly different without Joseph Campbell in the world.
Cordwainer Smith (real name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger), meanwhile, wasn’t nearly so influential a writer as Campbell was an editor, but his day job was pretty significant. Smith was one of the founding fathers of psychological warfare, helping establish and develop the U.S. military’s psy-ops divisions during World War II. A political scientist by training, Linebarger/Smith was also an expert in Far Eastern culture and history, rising to the rank of adviser to President John F. Kennedy.
His fiction, meanwhile, was vividly bizarre with an emphasis on psychological distortions and strange devices. Author Charles Stross inserted a tip-of-the cap to Cordwainer Smith in his current Hugo-nominated novel, Glasshouse, in the form of the Linebarger Cats — giant cybernetic spacefaring felines armed with atomic weapons and animated by the disembodied intellects of immortal humans. The reference to Cordwainer’s fiction was obvious, which should give you a hint of how weird his stories really were.
It’s difficult to divine exactly what it means that Smith’s birthday and Campbell’s deathday share a date, but it’s worth mentioning — if only to remember the two spec-lit titans whose biographies intersect in such an ephemeral way.