The Jet-Propelled Couch: true story of a physicist who thought he was a science fiction hero on another planet

This is the incredible true story of a physicist who believed he could project himself to another solar system and live as a swashbuckling interplanetary adventurer. When he was a teenager and living on a Polynesian island, he had read a series of "strange and adventurous" science fiction / fantasy books by an American writer. The protagonist shared his name, and eventually the physicist started thinking he really was the character. But he was still able to maintain a dual identity -- he sort of "astral projected" into that fantasy world while keeping the appearance of a skinny-tie wearing physicist.

The article was written by the man's psychiatrist, Robert Lindner, and appeared in Harper's in 1954. (It was also a chapter in Linder's entertaining case-history book The Fifty-Minute Hour). The physicist, "Kirk Allen" (his name was changed by Lindner), worked in a government research lab, and his superiors were concerned by his behavior (Allen would often space out at work while his fantastical reveries played out in his head) so they sent him to Lindner.

I don't want to spoil the story (and the excerpt below won't spoil it). You can read it in its entirety at Harper's website (Part I, Part II). Harper's kindly opened access to the article at my request, so now anyone can read it for free. (If you subscribe to Harper's for just $16.97 in the United States and CAN$24.00 in Canada, you'll get access to all the archives dating back to 1850!)

200909171508 Kirk read the numerous volumes of his “biography” over and over again. Soon he no longer needed the books “to refresh my memory,” but was able to recapitulate them entirely in his mind. While his corporeal body was living the life of a mundane boy, the vital part of him was far off on another planet, courting beautiful princesses, governing provinces, warring with strange enemies. Now, using his “biographer’s” material as a base, he took off on his own. Assisted by the maps, charts, diagrams, architectural layouts, genealogical schemes, and timetables he had painstakingly worked out while using the books for his guide, he filled in spaces between the volumes with fantasy “recollections” of his own; and when this was done, he began the task of his life: that of picking up where his “biographer” had left off and recording the subsequent history of the heroic Kirk Allen.


For many days I pondered the question of how Kirk Allen could be restored to sanity–and yet remain alive. For there seemed to be nothing that could compete with the unending gratifications of his fantasy. Meanwhile Kirk turned over to me all of his records.

It is impossible to convey more than a bare impression of these. There were, to begin with, about 12,000 pages of typescript comprising the amended “biography” of Kirk Allen. This was divided into some 200 chapters and read like fiction. Appended to these pages were approximately 2,000 more of notes in Kirk’s handwriting, containing corrections necessitated by his more recent “researches,” and a huge bundle of scraps and jottings on envelopes, receipted bills, laundry slips.

There also were a glossary of names and terms that ran to more than 100 pages; 82 full-color maps carefully drawn to scale, 23 of planetary bodies in four projections, 31 of land masses on these planets, 14 labeled “Kirk Allen’s Expedition to –,” the remainder of cities on the various planets; 161 architectural sketches and elevations, all carefully scaled and annotated; 12 genealogical tables; an 18-page description of the galactic system in which Kirk Allen’s home planet was contained, with four astronomical charts, one for each of the seasons, and nine star-maps of the skies from observatories on other planets in the system; a 200-page history of the empire Kirk Allen ruled, with a three-page table of dates and names of battles or outstanding historical events; a series of 44 folders containing from 2 to 20 pages apiece, each dealing with some aspect–social, economic, or scientific–of the planet over which Kirk Allen ruled. Finally, there were 306 drawings of people, animals, plants, insects, weapons, utensils, machines, articles of clothing, vehicles, instruments, and furniture.

The reader can imagine my dismay at the sheer bulk of this material; I do not know if he can appreciate with what misgivings I approached the task of weaning this man from his madness. Aside from everything else, he was my patient under the most inauspicious possible conditions, for he had not come of his own volition. The authorities had sent him, demanding he be treated not only for his sake but because they feared that in his disturbed condition he was a poor security risk who could neither be kept on the job nor discharged.

Speculation abounds on the true identity of Kirk Allen. Alan C. Elms thinks it could be Cordwainer Smith. It's more fun for me to think Kirk Allen's real name was John Carter and that he had fantasized that being on Barsoom, fighting the bad Martians while Deja Thoris stayed at home hatching the eggs containing his and her children.

"The Jet-Propelled Couch" (Part I, Part II) (Thanks, Paul Ford!)


  1. I recall a series of 5 books I read as a kid with a similar premise. I forget the names, but maybe someone here has read them as well:

    I had books 2-5. There were “editor’s comments” that talked about keeping the identity of the author secret because the stories were supposed to have actually occurred, but it would ruin a good man’s name to reveal it as truth.

    The author supposedly was either para or quadriplegic, iirc, and was astral projected to another world of gigantic proportions where people lived at the tops of massive trees.

    The first book apparently had the author saving a civilization or people from some big threat, and the next 4 was a grander adventure across the world.

    As a kid, I bought it hook, line and sinker. This sounds similar, but doesn’t sound like what I was reading.

  2. The best part is that we can’t be sure he wasn’t a science fiction hero on another planet. If you’re going to have delusions of grandeur, go with something big (and unfalsifiable).

  3. I had an eerie feeling of “But I’ve read this on BoingBoing before …” and wondered if they were resetting the Matrix. Fortunately, Google confirmed that you had indeed posted about this previously.

    Smith/Linebarger seems an unlikely candidate for ‘Kirk Allen’, if only because he wasn’t a physicist (although Lindner could have fictionalized that to disguise his identity). More significantly, Allen’s fantasies – which are Burroughsian wish-fulfillment fantasies of being the tallest/strongest/fastest/handsomest man in a world full of hot chicks and strange enemies – sound much less original and inspired than Smith’s imagined SF worlds.

    Allen sounds a little like Henry Darger, the Chicago eccentric who wrote a 15,000-page story about his fantasy world, and illustrated it with enormous collages (now recognized as fairly remarkable examples of naive art).

    Everyone except the dullest of us probably daydreams, but only a few work out, record and illustrate our daydreams in such obsessional detail.

  4. I read this years and years ago, in a dusty old hardcover in the stacks of a community college. I’m glad to hear it is more widely available.

    One of Jack Vance’s “Demon Princes” novels (The Book of Dreams) deals with a criminal mastermind who, as a troubled nerdy child, obsessively filled a notebook with descriptions of heroes and adventures. In a bio article that ran recently in the NYTimes Vance’s wife suggested that this aspects of the villain’s background was patterned after Vance’s childhood. Of course, Vance went on to have real-life adventures, built his own house and sailboat, etc.

    #3: Movie, hell!

    It sounds like he was making material for a SF role playing game.

  5. DC Comics has been publishing the adventures of Adam Strange (“Strange Adventures” currently in the large format Wednesday Comics broadsheet), which uses this exact plot device.

  6. Everyone except the dullest of us probably daydreams, but only a few work out, record and illustrate our daydreams in such obsessional detail.

    Some of us interact with others in a collective daydream, rolling dice to determine the outcome of our actions.

  7. When you read the story, just replace SF-novels by the bible and it becomes quite unremarkable. Nothing you didn’t hear of a dozen times or more.

  8. Funny, I was just thinking about the Brian Aldiss space opera “The Eighty-Minute Hour” this morning. It’s a space opera with a libretto, but if I remember correctly, the only space travel occurred in the mind of one character, addicted to a fantasy role-playing drug.

    I wonder if there is a connection?

  9. This book was very popular at the time among intellectually inclined people. It was also when the talking cure was becoming accepted, even fashionable, among the bourgeoisie and being in treatment was no longer a thing to be ashamed of. Lindner was, I think, Norman Mailer’s psychiatrist. But I’m thinking of Vonnegut here. Do you suppose Slaughterhouse Five ‘s Billy Pilgrim was born on “The Jet-Propelled Couch?”

  10. i’m with do we know that he was not who he thought he was?.with all the new stuff going around about time and space..who knows,one second here could be weeks “there”..

  11. As soon as I read this, I immediately thought this guy had to share the name of John Carter. I loved the Barsoom series from the time I first discovered A Princess of Mars in 7th grade (through the SF Book Club, with the famous Frazetta covers and interior illos).

    I read all of them in the series, even the really bad ones, but the first three volumes (Princess, Gods and Warlord of Mars are absolute masterpieces of adventure fantasy.

    My math teacher saw me reading one of them in study hall, and forced me to wrap the book in a standard paper textbook cover to hide the Frazetta painting of the scantily clad naked martians. She thought it was much too racy for junior high readers and threatened to send me to the principal’s office if I refused. I complied sheepishly, since I didn’t want this terrific book to be confiscated and lost to censorship. I was having far too much fun reading it.

  12. Nothing to do with content. Sexy pics on paperbacks was S.O.P. fifty years ago. (You should’ve seen Anna Sewal’s Black Beauty. ) “Paperback” itself implied trashiness; as in, “He reads nothing but paperbacks.” giggle.

  13. #8: Better replace all the bibles with SF-stories. Might bring people back to actually think about useful stuff.

  14. My parents had _The Fifty-Minute Hour_, looking exactly as pictured here, when I was a kid. Cool to see the cover again.

    And I just subscribed to Harper’s, after reading this entry. Awesome magazine, awesome web interface. Archives going back to 1850; every web article easily pdf-able. I’m impressed and happy.

  15. This is an interesting coincidence, because I actually am a swashbuckling space adventurer, and I project myself into this reality just to comment on BoingBoing posts.

  16. @5Angusm

    I can name a few that do that, including myself. However, the term they use is, “Creating the next Great American Novel”.

    I know I go to similar lengths when I’m writing fantasy/sci-fi, even just for short stories.

  17. Anon was right, this sounds so much like Paul Pope’s take on Adam Strange in Wednesday Comics (A book which really deserves a BoingBoing feature IMHO) that it’s scary.

  18. Why wouldn’t they have been able to fire him? I wonder if (with the era, supposed location, and possible security concerns) the patient might have been one of the scientists on the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately I don’t know 1930s sci-fi (or 1920s fantasy) well enough to say if there were any scientists on the project who shared a name with the main character in two different prolific authors’ work.

    … It’s probably not that simple, especially since any or all of these details could be fabrications, and since–if it were that simple–someone probably would have found it already.

  19. as others have said, who’s to say he wasn’t right? :)

    Reality, to a larger degree than most of us believe, is subjective. Or I think it is, anyway. I’m obviously no deity to be able to say one way or the other. :)

    Regardless of what it was doing to his “Earth” life, I think the man was lucky to have such a vivid other life to escape to.

  20. A more interesting speculation regarding Smith/Linebarger is that he wasn’t writing fiction, per se. In actuality he was a political exile banished from the very far future (having offended the Lords of The Instrumentality) and wrote history forward from our time.

  21. “swashbuckling interplanetary adventurer.”

    “But he was still able to maintain a duel identity”

    pun intended?

  22. Anon 6: “When this physicist was six years old, did he often play with a stuffed tiger?”

    Nah. Couldn’t be. Calvin grew up to be Frazz.

  23. What a poor lonely guy; a troubled physicist retreating into a fantasy land for comfort. It’s a bit like the life of the eccentric and obsessive artist, writer, and recluse, Henry Darger in Chicago. I found it entertaining, and it made for a great story. It’s fascinating study of a man’s descent into delusion and madness, and his hopeful redemption from it.

  24. Somewhere in a distant solar system, the counselors of one interplanetary captain are becoming somewhat worried about their leader’s increasingly frequent lapses into absent-mindfulness and primitive human mode of thought, as if his psyche is being clawed at by some faraway force..

  25. “It’s more fun for me to think Kirk Allen’s real name was John Carter and that he had fantasized that being on Barsoom”

    I like to think of him as Randolph Carter, on a mission through the dream-world to finally reach unknown Kadath.

  26. I’m surprized no one has mentioned what happened to his works.
    I, for one, would love to pore through his maps, his drawings and writings.
    I wonder if it all still exists, somewhere?

  27. I wonder if the good doctor tried to cure this chap?

    I am hoping he merely helped him keep one foot in our world whilst allowing him to step back happily into his fantasy when time allowed.

    In college we where asked to describe a place we had never been to using multi-sensory descriptive writings. The smell, texture, colour etc of a famous place. Our audience was always convinced we had actually been to these places.

  28. It strikes me that it probably wouldn’t be THAT hard to find out whether this is a straightforward record of a patient, his name changed for obfuscation, or a composite.

    If the former, then it’s clear that he was in fact a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, in which case, it’s probably not that difficult to find out if there was a John Carter there at the right period.

    I’m going with “John Carter” since he saw his name in several books. “John Carter” seems a much more common name than, say, “Paul Linebarger.”


  29. Of course there’s the kids cartoon Bing & Bong who visit nearby tiny planets sitting on a couch attached to a catapult.

  30. Cool. That’s how I go to sleep..pretend I’ve zoomed out into a fantasy world aka White Gold Wielder. Asleep in minutes, works like a charm every time. And no lepersy either!

  31. #17 got it right! (i think) The Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘John Carter of Mars’ series is wonderful. Glad to see I’m not the only one who likes sci-fi from the early 1900s.

  32. #37

    There’s a great SF story to be written there: John Carter seen from the other side.

    “But, Prince of Helium, the black dators are attacking again – we need you to rally the defenses! This is no time to indulge your fantasies of being … what was it again? … a ‘lab technician’ working a nine-to-five job for some government on a faraway world. Get a grip, and face reality, man!”

  33. I am Linebarger/Smith’s daughter and I am not really sure myself about whether Kirk Allen could be based on my father.

    For a long time, I assumed it wasn’t because my father was so chatty that I thought I would remember some mention by him, and I don’t. But Alan Elms makes some very good points.

    So I don’t know. It’s one of many things I’d love to ask him if he came back from the grave!

    For more about this Kirk Allen question, see my site — especially the blog.

  34. I tend to be skeptical of these real-life psychodrama books, even though I certainly consumed enough of them back in the day. They tend to be a little too polished in the telling, as if the writers not only changed identifying biographical details but also pared away or modified anything that got in the way of it being a good anecdote. Plus, of course, they all reinforce the efficacy of the “talking cure”, which doesn’t hold up so well in real practice.

    I guess that what I’m getting at is, are we really so sure that “Kirk Allen” isn’t just another dedicated fan who’s reinforcing and extending canon with fanon? Maybe Lindner just wanted to add the punchline “…and eventually he began to believe that the make-believe world was real!”, and realized (like James Frey’s stories of his experiences in rehab) that confidentiality rules could serve his purposes in more ways than one.

  35. I read this article back when the paperback shown above was new (yes, I am that old). I read the book because I was fascinated with a picture I saw in Life magazine of Bobby Darin being flushed down a giant drain, and I read that the movie (Pressure Point) was based on a story from this collection. But it was the jet-propelled couch story that really captured my imagination. I have wanted to re-read this for a while. It’s definitely a story that sticks with you. Thanks for this link.

  36. I’d love to know what happened to “Kirk Allen”‘s writing that he turned over to the psychiatrist. It may be thousands of pages of dribble, thousands of pages of space opera, or thousands of pages of delusions along the lines of Henry Darger.

    Think this might be in an archive somewhere?

    Brian Siano
    (didn’t feel like setting up an account, but doesn’t post anonymously if he can help it.0

  37. FWIW, If one were going to go “mad”, that sounds like a pretty awesome way to do it.

    The completeness of this guy’s vision makes him sound like a confused Tolkien.

  38. My real name is Elric Of Melnibone but I never thought much of it. (Yes my middle name is “Of”. Is that unusual?)

  39. I wonder if he didn’t just lie to his psychiatrist about being “cured”? He was obviously not that eager to share his psychosis, maybe he just saw it as the best way to get rid of the shrink. From what I understand, he was no longer working on the same project where his employers sent him to therapy anyway.

  40. why did this guy even need to be cured? IT doesnt sound like he was harming anyone, doesnt sound like the therapist thought he was dangerous, so the patient was to be doomed to a life of bachelorhood, so he daydreamed, big deal.

  41. It’s funny how the publisher marketed the book with that cover. Nothing of the content is depicted on the cover in any way.
    But I bet they sold a good many!

  42. I see your mention of christian religion and raise you one: L. Ron Hubbard.

    Can’t believe no one else brought up that fellow. While he certainly isn’t Kirk Allen he is a SciFi author who apparently believed in distant alien planets, leaps of time, etc. And had an even superior meme, from the looks of it.

  43. This guy created a complete role-playing game inspired by books! It was just a one-player game. Do people ever get this obsessed with their job or other money-making activities? Or is it most often and escape or entertainment?

    In any case these materials need to be found. I want a large, fully illustrated coffee-table book summary of this guys work, really!

  44. Known to few, I have the ability to astral project myself into the life of a lab technician who astral project’s himself to a king of Mars. I also don’t stir my hot chocolate.

  45. Finally got around to reading the great article. I wonder if the film K-Pax, in which the title character played by Kevin Spacey purports to be from another planet, was inspired from this.

  46. I wish they’d lose the baloney about “unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality”. More like “between here and there”.

    I have done the same thing literally all my life, except it’s just one planet and I’m not a king or anyone important. In fact, my job there is something a lot of people might think was boring although I enjoy it. Speaking and writing the language, doing pictures of the cities, etc., got me in hot water when I was a kid, but doesn’t affect my current (and equally boring) employment in the earth world.

    Someone compared Darger to Tolkien and as a matter of fact that’s not so far off the track. He might have been obsessive-compulsive, but not delusional; he called the series The Realms of the Unreal, so he knew it was something he thought up.

    Unfortunately, it’s likely that all that stuff Kirk Allen did got probably thrown out by Lindner’s widow. She burned everything related to his work after he died, on his request. Damn.


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