Paul Linebarger aka Cordwainer Smith was one of those rare individuals who excel in more than one area of their professional life. He was from quite an unusual background as he father had strong links to the Far East. He had the Chinese premier Sun Yat-Sen as a godfather and at a fairly early age advised his successor Chiang Kai-Shek. He maintained his links with China and subsequently had some involvement with Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong). During the Second World War he worked with the US intelligence services and was later a presidential adviser.

Cordwainer Smith was one of several pseudonyms which Linebarger adopted and he used this name for his sci fi publications during the latter part of his life. His output under this name ran to 33 stories and one novel. These are far from the more usual sci fi stories with quite unusual angles and approaches. The stories are unified in that they cover seven distinct ages or phases and there is a lot of cross referencing between these stories and, indeed, stories which were never published.

This book covers the life of this exceptional individual, from his childhood up to his premature death, aged 53, in 1966 and looks at his professional and personal life. However, the meat of this biography is in taking a close look at the stories he wrote – in fact the title `Lord of the Afternoon’ refers to the last of the seven time periods he created. Cordwainer used what was happening in the world around him as a basis for much of what is in his fiction and there are elements of the Cold War, Vietnam War which was just beginning prior to his death, and the Civil Rights movement. The latter is the inspiration for the `Underpeople’.

This is not a particularly easy read, and is, in parts, more akin to a text book than a biography. However, there is a lot of interest here and the parallels between Lindbarger’s fictional characters such as JFK and even Marilyn Monroe are quite fascinating. Not for everyone, but a worthwhile read nonetheless.

Review of Lord of the Afternoon by Brett Hassell