Norstrilia Cord­wainer Smith, 1975

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The story is sim­ple, so

the un­named nar­ra­tor tells us at the be­gin­ning of this novel. There was a boy who bought the planet Earth. He went there, got what he wanted, and came home again. Ev­ery­thing else is the de­tails.

So be­gins Norstrilia, one of science fic­tion’s most re­mark­able and un­der­val­ued nov­els, by one of the field’s most mys­te­ri­ous prac­ti­tion­ers. His pen name was Cord­wainer Smith. His real name was Paul Linebarger: an Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tive, the god­son of found­ing fa­ther of the Repub­lic of China Sun Yat- sen and a close friend of Chi­ang Kai- shek, an ex­pert on psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare, and ad­viser to both the CIA and Pres­i­dent Kennedy. Men­tion his name, and science fic­tion writ­ers from Alas­tair Reynolds to Jeff Van­der­Meer start singing his praises, yet his work still seems the pre­serve of a few, hard­core fans. He be­gan pub­lish­ing un­der the Smith name in 1950, with “Scan­ners Live In Vain”, a story that was re­jected by most of the SF mag­a­zines of the time, yet went on to be widely in­flu­en­tial.

The story in­tro­duces us to the world of the In­stru­men­tal­ity of Mankind: a 15,000 year his­tory of the fu­ture, a body of sto­ries that have them­selves be­come myths and leg­ends in the telling. The 32 or so sto­ries he pub­lished all take place in that con­text, and are filled with of­ten grue­some, yet beau­ti­ful images. In “A Planet Named Shayol”, for in­stance, crim­i­nals are sent to the tit­u­lar planet, where they can live for­ever, as im­mo­bile hu­man trees, sprout­ing ad­di­tional body parts ev­ery­where, which are then reg­u­larly har­vested.

Norstrilia, Smith’s only novel, was it­self pub­lished in two parts, the first of which con­cerns the planet of Old North Australia. Set­tled by Aus­tralian farm­ers ( and nom­i­nally headed by the Queen of Eng­land), it is home to gi­ant, dis­eased sheep which pro­duce an im­mor­tal­ity drug called Stroon. The Norstril­ians ruth­lessly con­trol pop­u­la­tion growth,

One of sci- fi’s most

re­mark­able and un­der­val­ued nov­els

and the hero, Rod McBan, is a young man about to face the Gar­den of Death – a de­ci­sion whether he should live or die as he reaches adult­hood. Rod sur­vives, but when an old en­emy tries to kill him, Rod turns to his only friend, an old battle com­puter, who ma­nip­u­lates the stock ex­change in such a way that Rod be­comes su­per- rich and ends up buy­ing Old Earth it­self. As ev­ery­one in the galaxy will soon be af­ter him, Rod is sent to Earth by a rene­gade Lord of the In­stru­men­tal­ity ( the won­der­fully named Lord Red­lady) and given the iden­tity of a cat- man, C’Rod­er­ick.

Here, Smith re­turns to the un­der­ly­ing sub­ject which oc­cu­pies many of his sto­ries of the In­stru­men­tal­ity. The un­der­peo­ple are an­i­mal- de­rived be­ings The Re­dis­cov­ery Of Man ( Cord­wainer Smith, 1993) given in­tel­li­gence and hu­man fea­tures. They are an in­vis­i­ble un­der­class of ser­vants and slaves, ruth­lessly con­trolled, ruth­lessly dis­posed of. In the un­der­peo­ple, Smith draws clear par­al­lels with the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment of his time, and it is their quest for equal­ity which drives the next part of the novel. Rod is es­corted on Earth by C’Mell, a “girly­girl” work­ing for Earth­port, a 25- mile high, hour­glassshaped space­port on Earth, yet she is also the pawn in the machi­na­tions of the un­der­peo­ple- sym­pa­this­ing Lord Jesto­cost of the In­stru­men­tal­ity, and the se­cret leader of the un­der­peo­ple’s re­volt, the Ee’telekeli, a pow­er­ful telepath and ea­gle- de­rived crea­ture with strange pow­ers living deep un­der­ground…

All this takes place against the Re­dis­cov­ery of Man, in which hu­man­ity, hav­ing lived in a sort of drugged utopia for thou­sands of years, is given a mod­icum of crime, dis­ease and un­cer­tainty in which they can now play. Ref­er­ences to other sto­ries in Smith’s mythol­ogy abound, as does the end­less in­ven­tion, the small de­tails, the bound­less smells and sights of Old Earth. At the novel’s con­clu­sion, Rod re­turns to Norstrilia, a lit­tle bet­ter, a lit­tle wiser, hav­ing do­nated the bulk of his money to the un­der­peo­ple; yet 20 years later, now mar­ried with twin sons, he must re­turn to the Gar­den of Death to see which of his chil­dren, if any, has made it through to adult­hood. It is a heart­break­ing end­ing to a mar­vel­lously in­ven­tive novel, which re­minds us that as far as we’ll go, the hard­est thing to change would be our­selves. Lavie Tid­har’s lat­est novel, A Man Lies Dreaming, is on sale now.

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