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

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

  1. peternz says:

    “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.

  2. robulus says:

    OK, so whats with the nude chick again?

  3. Pasketti says:

    #1: Lin Carter, “Under the Green Star”?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Star_Series

    It really doesn’t sound like Cordwainer Smith. The details were probably fictionalized quite a bit, but Smith/Linebarger’s life doesn’t really sound like Allen’s. Chances are, it’s nobody that anybody has ever heard of.

  4. Anonymous says:

    i’m with Brainspore..how 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”..

  5. Fiddy says:

    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.

  6. buddy66 says:

    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.

  7. Anonymous says:

    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?

  8. Anonymous says:

    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.

  9. mdh says:

    @ danalan – the human mind is amazing even when it goes straight.

  10. denkbert says:

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

  11. Anonymous says:

    Heard this story many a year ago and always thought it must be John Carter, too.

  12. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    POPVOID was a great zine!

  13. Anonymous says:

    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.”

    Adam

  14. nanuq says:

    I never got into the Barsoom series (I just couldn’t get past the Martians being hatched from eggs).

    I once wrote a post on Paul Linebarger (who never had time to be a psychotic patient with all of his achievements). Kirk Allen was never identified so far as I know (and may even have been a composite of several other patients).

    http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2009/03/war-of-words.html

  15. endymion says:

    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.

  16. slida says:

    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.

  17. LittleLethe says:

    @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.

  18. Anonymous says:

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

  19. buddy66 says:

    The guy got well. So he threw all that alternate reality crap out.

  20. DeWynken says:

    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!

  21. Anonymous says:

    S’funny the protagonist’s name is Kirk Allen.

  22. Anonymous says:

    #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.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I love how Mark is always touting Harper’s on BoingBoing. Harper’s is the best! If you can get your friends to read it too, then you can sit around some beers and discuss the articles. It makes for fantastic conversation.

    Hear hear!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hear,_hear

  24. ksol1460_newsdesk says:

    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.

    Jay

  25. Rusty Idols says:

    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.

  26. angusm says:

    #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!”

  27. rosanahart says:

    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 http://www.cordwainer-smith.com — especially the blog.

  28. johnofjack says:

    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.

  29. Amelia_G says:

    American stylist of the 1920′s = James Branch Cabell?

  30. Talia says:

    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.

  31. Halloween Jack says:

    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.

  32. hawamahal says:

    Glad to see the full text is now available! I am also skeptical about the Kirk Allen – Linebarger connection. The attribution by Leon Stover seems sketchy, at best. As Rosana said, the best discussion is in Elms essay: http://www.ulmus.net/ace/csmith/behindjetcouch.html

    Also, in case anyone is interested, a scan of the original dustjacket from the first edition (Jan 1955) is posted here: http://www.yunchtime.net/?p=87

  33. Kid Geezer says:

    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.

  34. CraigMaher says:

    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!

  35. Anonymous says:

    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.

  36. overunger says:

    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!

  37. popvoid says:

    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.

  38. Anonymous says:

    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

  39. Crawford Tillinghast says:

    Sounds as if Mr. Allen really needs to lay off that salvia divinorum.

  40. Anonymous says:

    Does this remind anyone else of House of Leaves?

  41. Anonymous says:

    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.

  42. Anonymous says:

    Is Robert Lindner still alive? I’d love to talk with him.

  43. Anonymous says:

    “swashbuckling interplanetary adventurer.”

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

    pun intended?

  44. mr.skeleton says:

    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.

  45. Anonymous says:

    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.

  46. Anonymous says:

    We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

  47. eustace says:

    K-Pax was originally a book, and a very entertaining one, IMHO. Haven’t seen the film, tho; can’t say how they compare.

  48. hokano says:

    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.

  49. gorckat says:

    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.

  50. danlalan says:

    wow.

    Isn’t the human mind an amazing thing, even when it goes askew?

  51. gregoryg says:

    I can’t be the only one who thinks a fictionalized version of this story would make an amazing film.

  52. Phikus says:

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

  53. Brainspore says:

    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).

  54. angusm says:

    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.

  55. Anonymous says:

    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.

  56. Anonymous says:

    When this physicist was six years old, did he often play with a stuffed tiger?

  57. Stefan Jones says:

    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.

  58. Daemon says:

    I’m voting for a differant Carter… Lovecraft’s Randolf Carter

  59. Anonymous says:

    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.

  60. Anonymous says:

    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.

  61. buddy66 says:

    @35: Good eye, HOKANO. But we never thought he’d end up pushing a broom.

  62. lauriok says:

    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..

  63. Phikus says:

    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.

  64. tp1024 says:

    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.

  65. Anonymous says:

    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?

  66. buddy66 says:

    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?”

  67. DonBoy says:

    Surely any series of psychiatric reminiscenses is best served by a cover with a naked lady on it.

  68. Anonymous says:

    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.

  69. Brainspore says:

    Donboy, almost ANY topic is best served by a cover with a naked lady on it.

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