Atomsk by Carmichael Smith (alias Cordwainer Smith, alias Paul Linebarger)

Written in 1949 (and only recently available as a Kindle eBook), Atomsk is a pyschological spy novel which takes place just after the end of World War II, when tensions between the U.S. and Russia were rising towards the post World War II Cold War. It is the story of master psychological spy Major Michael Andreanof Dugan, a half-Aleut who is given orders to penetrate an area of Russia known as Atomsk, where some form of atomic testing is taking place. Dugan is told to not only enter and learn, but to make sure the Russians knew he (or someone like him) had been there (in order to keep the current post World War II tense peace).

Having recently read two World War II books focused on the Pacific side of the War, Atomsk was a natural followup. One of the two books, Retribution by Max Hastings, is a non-fiction account written by a British author which features several areas not covered in other books on World War II. Some of those areas focused on China, following Chiang Kai-shek  as he dallied with the U.S. for aid and Mao as he hid and lived to survive through the chaos.

When the novels of Cordwainer Smith were recommended to me by a gent who previewed my John Carter Primer video at the New York Review of Science Fiction, I found that Cordwainer Smith was one of the pen names for Paul Linebarger. Linebarger wrote the definitive book on Psychological Warfare, was a Major in the Army during WWII and was in China, ending up as a confidant of Chiang Kai-shek during the war. Known mostly for his limited output of science-fiction (one novel and some short stories) which he wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger also wrote Atomsk under a different pen name, and two other books (writing as Felix C. Forrest).

In Atomsk, super-spy Dugan spent WWII playing the role of a Japanese officer, working through any psychological means to thwart their war effort. He goes to great efforts to prepare for the Atomsk mission, even having his appendix scars changed to be more like ones a Russian would have. As he moves from Japan to Manchuria and through Russia towards his target, he changes roles like others change clothes. At one point, he spots a Russian spy who is trying to pass himself off as an American officer; Dugan arranges to rouse a drunken mob into a lynch mob, thus disposing of the potential threat without damaging his own cover.

Though written over sixty years ago, the usage of psychological warfare by the character (no doubt reflecting Linebarger’s prowess on the subject) is enjoyable to read. But what stood out in the book is how allies and friends tried to see the “real” Dugan, and how Dugan perceived his real self as he shifted from role-to-role. An excerpt from his debriefing shows this:

“What I really mean is, do you ever stop playing a role, underneath all these different characters, Major? Is there a real Dugan underneath…?”

Dugan turned his eyes away from Landsiedel. Not even looking at him, he said, “That’s not the way it seems to me. I’m myself, no matter where I go, no matter what I do. I act out those other people. On the outside, it may look as though I really change. Did I impress you that much – that way?”

“You did,” said Landsiedel flatly.

Looking forward to reading other Linebarger books, including the Psychological Warfare one, if a copy can be found!

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