Isaac Asimov was one of the most successful science fiction writers of the Twentieth Century. His Foundation series was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, projected into the far future and with one man attempting to turn back the waves; his "Three Laws of Robotics" led to both an OED entry and a Will Smith movie. Asimov spent the vast majority of his life within the Northeast Corridor, venturing out from the Boston-to-New-York axis only occasionally. He stopped teaching as an associate professor at Boston University in 1958, with no major research to his name (although he wrote a college textbook; given his consumate skill as a popular science writer, it was probably a better read than most). He was afraid of flying (he flew only twice in his life, both in the course his military service during World War II). Isaac Asimov spent the vast majority of his life staying in one place and writing. It showed, both in his often prolix novels and hs staggeringly lengthy bibliography. He is, most likely, the boringest man ever to inspire a deranged Japanese death cult. Asimov was a Futurian, one of the leftist New York wunderkind of pre-war science fiction. Anyone who knows anything about groups of artists (or groups of leftists) could predict that many of them would lead interesting lives; Judith Merril‘s memoir can be consulted for people who are interested in mere broken marriages and straying husbands. But the Futurians were surprisingly free of the world historical importance of later genre writers such as Newt Gingrich or Gene Wolfe, one of the major writers of post-New Wave science fiction and inventor of the Pringles-extruding machine. Frederik Pohl got drummed out of the Communist Party (for corrupting the youth with his decadent science fiction), but then settled down to become a mild-mannered editor and writer, with only an occasional State Department-sponsored speaking tour. Pohl’s collaborator C.M. Kornbluth had a promising start, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, but died tragically young. Donald Wollheim’s page in the history books will probably belong to his publishing company‘s bootleg edition of a novel by an obscure British don, which introduced hobbits to a yearning nation. Even Robert Heinlein, the left-coast, right-wing counterweight to the Futurians, failed to make his dent on history except via his books; he was discharged from the Navy with tuberculosis after five years of service, missing the Second World War, and after a disastrous run at political office (as a left-wing Upton Sinclair supporter) settled in for a career of writing and arguing with his colleagues.
The one writer from science fiction’s Amazing years who is worth reading and who did anything worth reading about is a more obscure one: a man who went by the rather implausible name of Cordwainer Smith. Smith was writing fiction — "The Game of Rat and Dragon", "Scanners Live in Vain", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" — were simply unlike anything being published in the genre; only Alfred Bester’s magnificent The Stars My Destination even comes close. "Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons", not one of his stronger stories, still manages to show enormous range, moving starts with a Vancean note:
No one at Sunvale, here on Ttiollé, could suspect that he was a senior warden of the Guild of Thieves, reared under the light of the starry-violet star. No one could smell the odor of Viola Siderea upon him. "Viola Siderea," the Lady Ru had said, "was once the most beautiful of worlds and it is now the most rotten. Its people were once models for mankind, and now they are thieves, liars, and killers. You can smell their souls in the open day." The Lady Ru had died a long time ago. She was much respected, but she was wrong.
Smith is off at a clip, showing less interest than he sometimes did in the weird detrius of his old, old civilization and more in one small facet of it, but demonstrating a touch of the off-kilter language he often used to remind you that things are not then as they are now:
The mother spoke with a hollow, broken voice that sounded as though it would never find the right chords for human speech again, but would go on forever with the ill-attuned flats of unexpected grief. "He’s dead," she said. "You saw him die and I guess I saw him die, too. I can’t tell what’s happened. The child was full of santaclara. He had a thousand years to live but now he’s dead. What’s your name?"
Benjacomin said, "Eldon. Eldon the salesman, ma’am. I live here lots of times."
What more could you expect from a man who would chose the name "Cordwainer"? Smith was in fact a Cold Warrior named Paul Linebarger. He was born in Wisconson but raised in China, where his father was an advisor to the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen; Sun was Linebarger’s godfather. Linebarger was blinded in one eye as a child and was apparently a studious young man; he spoke six languages by the time he entered college, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. (at age 23) and proceeded to Duke. Smith went on to work for the Army Intelligence Corps during World War II. After the war’s end, he went off to Johns Hopkins. He wrote the definitive textbook on psychological warfare, called, logically enough, Psychological Warfare. He described himself as "a visitor to small wars", detailed as a colonel in the Army Reserves to work (for the British) in Malaysia and (for the U.S.) in Korea, where according to one account, he put together propaganda booklets that encouraged Chinese soldiers to surrender by "chanting the phrases ‘honor,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘humanity,’ which recited in the proper order sounded like ‘I surrender’ in English." He consulted for the C.I.A. and for President Kennedy.
His stories were unlike those of his contemporaries in part because Linebarger was a genius; in part because, like Pound, they drew on Chinese models; and in part because as an adult Linebarger was, by all accounts, utterly uninterested in the main body of science fiction writing and s.f. fandom in particular. And maybe it was also because he was a little crazy; a 1955 book by Robert Lindner, The Fifty Minute Hour gave five case studies from Lindner’s psychotherapy practice. One, "The Jet-Propelled Couch" describes "Kirk Allen", born in Hawaii, the son of a naval officer, raised in Polynesia and now both an important government scientist and crazy as a loon, the author of a 12,000 page biography of his life as a galactic emperor and survey of his realms, complete with all the spurious astronomical data a bored physicist could create for himself. Lindner basically demands so much detail that he bores Allen into submission ("Eventually the strain of such scrutiny took the escapism out of Allen’s delusions, and they lost value for him."), although briefly he keeps up the pretense that he’s still delusional because he thinks Lindner is still interested. Allowing for some details to have been changed, the story matches Linebarger, who visited therapists throughout his life, reasonably closely. But although those who have studied it say that they may never be sure, if anyone was capable of cranking out "82 maps, drawn to scale in full color, consisting of 23 planetary maps in four projections, 31 continents on these planets, the rest being maps of cities on those planets" to amuse a psychologist, it was Paul Linebarger, soldier, author, and scholar. Becoming Speaker of the House or inventing the Pringle would have been child’s play.