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Sunday, 10 April 2016

Who was Kirk Allen?

One of the chapters in Nick Redfern’s Science Fiction Secrets is called “The Strange World of Kirk Allen”. I’m fairly sure I’d read about this case somewhere before, though I can’t remember where. It was originally written up in 1954, under the title “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, by a psychologist named Robert Lindner. It concerns a client who was sent to him for treatment several years earlier – a young man whose identity is hidden behind the pseudonym “Kirk Allen”.

Taken at face value, it’s a fascinating – and rather scary – case. At the time Lindner met him, Kirk Allen was working as a physicist on an ultra-secret government project – from the timing it might even have been the Manhattan Project. But Allen wasn’t the sort of person you’d want to see anywhere near an atom bomb. At the age of 14 he came across a series of science fiction books, whose larger-than-life hero had the same name as him (whatever his real name was). Allen became obsessed with the books, convincing himself they were accounts of real adventures he was going to have in the future. But it was only after he started working at the government lab that things got seriously weird. He discovered he could teleport to this alternate existence where he was “lord of a planet in an interplanetary empire”.

Fortunately Lindner managed to cure Allen of his delusion, by pretending to go along with it and making him see how ridiculous it was. No-one has ever worked out for certain who Kirk Allen was, but according to one theory he was a man named Paul Linebarger – who went on to write science fiction himself under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith.

The full version of “The Jet-Propelled Couch” can be read online – Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Both parts are 13 pages long, but there’s a lot of psychological padding. If you’re in a hurry, the important bits can be found on pages 1, 6, 7, 11, 12 and 13 of Part 1 and pages 1, 8, 10, 11 and 12 of Part 2. Forteans will be particularly interested in page 12 of Part 1, where Allen wonders whether he has “what Charles Fort called a wild talent”!

Reading through Lindner’s account, there are a couple of fairly obvious problems with it (this is why I used the phrase “at face value”). Firstly, he was based in Baltimore – so why on Earth would he have a client who worked at Los Alamos, 1500 miles away? Secondly, he says that Allen was born in 1918, which would mean it was 1932 when he encountered the series of science fiction books featuring the hero who shared his name. But there were almost no SF books in 1932. The only possibility I can think of is the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, featuring the hero John Carter (a common enough name – or even commoner if just one of those names was shared). But the Barsoom novels are all set on Mars, whereas Kirk Allen’s adventures take him on “an expedition to a planet in another galaxy” and into contact with “the Intergalactic Institute”. Stories with that sort of scope did turn up later in the 1930s, but only in the form of magazine serials.

[As an aside, I can’t resist pointing out that if Kirk Allen was his real name, not a pseudonym, then the larger-than-life hero he identified with might have been Captain Kirk of Star Trek. But since Star Trek didn’t appear until more than a decade after “The Jet-Propelled Couch”, that would require time travel as well as space travel.]

Another article I found very interesting (and which clarifies some of the issues I just mentioned) is “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch” by Alan Elms – another psychologist who happens to be a strong advocate of the “Cordwainer Smith” theory. The most important thing I learned from his article is that when psychologists write up case studies for publication, they don’t just hide their client behind a pseudonym. They change every little detail that might be taken as pointing at the client’s true identity. So in the case of Kirk Allen, there is no way he could have been a physicist who worked at the Manhattan Project, because the hints pointing in that direction are too strong. Similarly, it’s extremely unlikely that he shared one or both his names with a science fiction hero – which again is too clearly hinted at to be true. On her website, Cordwainer Smith’s daughter mentions another investigator who “examined another one of Lindner’s stories, figured out who the person actually was, and found out that Lindner fictionalized the stories far more than you might think”.

So I don’t think Kirk Allen’s fantasy world was based on any specific book or series. It seems more likely that, having immersed himself in SF from an early age, he created his own intergalactic scenario out of his own imagination. And reading “The Jet-Propelled Couch” it really was one heck of a scenario and one heck of an imagination. That makes it even more believable that after he’d rid himself of his delusion, “Kirk Allen” went on to become a successful science fiction writer.

Elms makes a pretty good case for Kirk Allen being Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith. Linebarger wasn’t a Manhattan Project physicist – but he served as an intelligence officer during the war, which is almost as sensitive. Conspiracy theorists will be gratified to see where Elms says one of his informants “implied that I was reaching for secret government stuff and had better back off”.

I read half a dozen Cordwainer Smith stories back in the 1970s, when I used to read a lot of SF anthologies. They’re highly imaginative, galactic in scale … and distinctly weird. Take the picture below, for example. It’s the cover of an anthology I read when I was still at school: Spectrum 4, edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. You might assume the image is an exercise in Daliesque surrealism… but actually it’s an objective depiction of a “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith.


Brian Clegg said...

One possibility for the 'books' (allowing for serialised novels as books) would be the early E. E. Smith novels. The Skylark of Space novels were published in the 20s, and, even more promisingly, Spacehounds of the IPC in 1931.

Andrew May said...

Yes, that's possible. When I said about "intergalactic" fiction turning up in the later 30s I was thinking of the Lensman stories, but I'd forgotten about Smith's earlier work in the same vein.

Kid said...

It's interesting that his name is similar to Kirk Alyn, who played Superman before George Reeves. Any connection, d'you think? After all, Superman is an alien from another planet. Can't get much more SF than that.

Andrew May said...

That's an excellent point, Kid. I'd never heard of Kirk Alyn the actor (or if I had, I'd forgotten), and I've certainly never seen his name mentioned in this context. But having just checked on Wikipedia, the timing is just right (Kirk Alyn played Superman in 1948 and 1950, so would still be a recent memory when Robert Lindner wrote "The Jet-Propelled Couch" in 1954). So it does seem very likely that Lindner based the pseudonym Kirk Allen on Kirk Alyn, either consciously or unconsciously.

Peni R. Griffin said...

There was actually a comic book hero who swapped places with a hero on a distant planet - my husband would know off the top of his head, but I can't muster forth enough details to google it myself. There was a ray involved and the character had a nice strong pulpy name in both incarnations.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Peni - that's not something I'd heard of, but I'll look into it. Kid Robson, who commented earlier, is something of a comics expert, so he might be able to shed some light if he's still following the thread.

Kid said...

Adam Strange went to the plant Rann via a Zeta-Beam, but he didn't swap places with anyone, although Rick Jones swapped places with Captain Marvel in the Negative Zone when he struck his wrist Nega-Bands together. One of them perhaps?

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid. When I first read Peni's comment Rick Jones came to mind, but I decided the situation wasn't close enough to her description (no rays, and not a "pulpy name").

Adam Strange, like many DC characters, is one I'm almost totally ignorant of. However, looking at his entry on Wikipedia ("Strange is an archeologist suddenly teleported from Peru, Earth to the fictional planet Rann through a Zeta-Beam"), I think he is a pretty strong contender.