Norstrilia Cordwainer Smith, 1975
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.