James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Blog > Post

Why Are There No Authors Named Smith in Science Fiction?

27 Feb, 2022


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

[Every once in a while Tor turns a piece down. Enjoy an example of such a piece written despite advice that it was probably a bad idea]

As one scans the shelves for new fantasy and science fiction to read, there is an absence. An absence usually overlooked, as absence is not as obvious as presence. The peculiar void that occasions this essay? The lack of authors surnamed Smith.

Now, at first glance this may seem inexplicable. Smith is said to be a common surname. However, while being an online pundit keeps me too busy to do even the most rudimentary research (not even a quick click on ISFDB), pure reason unsullied by mere factual evidence (or even the ability to bent over slightly to look at lower bookshelves) hints at reasons why SF author Smiths might be uncommon1.

The surname Smith hints at a hereditary occupation. Perhaps Smiths are fated to spend their time forging swords, horse shoes, and other metal accoutrements of civilization. Certainly not writing. Is it morally correct to encourage Smiths to explore fields other than the one hinted in their names? The case for educating Smiths in non-smithy fields is as far as I know as yet unproven. Simple prudence is against unproven innovations: until such time as all possible negative outcomes of opening the public schools to Smiths have been disproven, it might be better not to expose them to the skills needed for writing. 

It may be that the sort of thing Smiths are inclined to write isn’t really science fiction or fantasy. For example, Cordwainer Smith seems at first glance to be an SF author named Smith — but this is false on at least two points. The relevant one in this case is that Smith drew on Chinese literature for inspiration. As we all know, something cannot be two things at once — a nation is either a democracy or a republic, either rectangular or dry land — so it may well be Cordwainer Smith wrote fiction with the superficial appearance of science fiction that was in fact a form of Chinese literature. 

Even in the cases where a Smith appears to have written F and/or SF, it may well be that the credit is misplaced. This is the second reason what Cordwainer Smith is not an example of an SF-writing Smith. His real name was Paul Linebarger, not Cordwainer Smith. Smith was just a name he used, perhaps an example of political correctness gone mad. 

Even were actual Smiths to write F and/or SF, it could well be that this violation of convention would be by its very nature salacious and immodest. Smith being, as we’ve agreed, an uncommon name among writers, might a Smith-penned book be by its rarity titillating to certain members of society? Perhaps editors simply do not care to risk unleashing a wave of licentiousness.

Furthermore, might not the publication of works by Smith needlessly drawn attention away from non-Smith books whose past popularity proves that they are more central to our culture than Smith books? Surely, if Smith books were the equal of canon works, they would already be part of the canon?

One must also consider that it is a known fact than many people named Smith are married. Could we ever be certain that the work ascribed to a married Smith was their work and not that of their more talented spouse? 

Now, some of you may proclaim but George O. Smith wrote science fiction! Surely, that proves Smiths write science fiction.” No, that proves a singular, exceptional Smith happened by some quirk of fate to write SF. He also ran off with John W. Campbell’s wife … but nobody argues that all Smiths commit infidelity with Campbell’s wife. If nothing else, the scheduling challenges would have been insurmountable. 

Some people, many of whom may not be extremists, might argue that perhaps Smiths simply need more examples of authors and characters named Smith to inspire them. This of course would be an enormous injustice to all those people not named Smith, who would have to wade through page after page of irrelevant Smiths. 

However, Cordwainer Smith does hint at a possible workaround for the otherwise intractable Smith problem: pen names. Rather than pointlessly challenge the status quo, which being ancient must shored up by mighty and immovable institutions, that rare Smith who for reasons of perversity or derangement must write could simply adopt a pen name more suited to their occupation. 

Failing that, the least society can do for Smiths is to continually remind them of their place in society by inserting into fiction minor supporting characters who hew closely to the roles readers would expect of someone named Smith: blacksmiths, arrow smiths, coppersmiths, and career criminals of one sort or another. Prosperity will reward such visionary writers! 

1: Aren’t the essential seeds of all of these lifted directly from Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing?” You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.