fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith SFF book reviewsNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith

I’ve always wanted to read the work of Cordwainer Smith (pen name of Paul Linebarger, a scholar and diplomat who was an expert on East Asia and psychological warfare), who also moonlighted as a quirky SF author who wrote a number of short stories mainly in the 1950s and 60s set in the Instrumentality of Mankind, a full-fledged galaxy-spanning far-future universe.

Smith has something of a cult following, but really only has a few books to his credit: the collected short stories that can be found in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), and The Rediscovery of Man (1993). He wrote only one novel, Norstrilia (1975), which was initially split into two novellas titled The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968).

Not knowing which to read first, I started with the novel Norstrilia, but I should have started with his short stories collected in The Rediscovery of Man, which features the 12 most well-known of Smith’s stories. Although Smith created a rich and imaginative world that doesn’t resemble anything else I’ve read before, he really established his reputation with his short stories, such as his most famous one, “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950). “Scanners…” is a poignant, bizarre, and haunting story that really is an amazing creation. I found more to like in that story than in Norstrilia, so if you want a taste of Cordwainer Smith, start with his short stories instead.

Norstrilia features an immortality drug called stroon (derived from a fungus that infects giant sheep) cultivated by hardy, frugal and conservative, and now ultra-wealthy settlers from Old North Australia; space travel via planoforming; telepathic spieking and hiering; and a permanent underclass of Underpeople on Old Earth genetically engineered from various animals. Ruling over this is the Instrumentality of Mankind, a quasi-government body of immortals that seek to keep mankind vigorous by introducing imperfections and problems into what had become a stagnant and decadent utopia, and also reviving some of the ancient cultures of man, a process known as The Rediscovery of Man.

The protagonist of Norstrilia is Rod McBan the 151st, a young man born into the most venerable family on Old North Australia (“Norstrilia”), who lacks the telepathic ability to spiek and hier like his fellow Norstrilians, and thus faces a life-and-death test (“The Garden of Death”) at age 18 that determines whether he can be a full-fledged man and citizen, or be given a lethal injection of the giggling death. Suffice to say he survives due to extenuating circumstances, but after that gets targeted by an assassin jealous of Rod’s status and immortality.

He decides to let his ancient computer, which has been idly calculating various scenarios to accumulate vast wealth for thousands of years out of cybernetic boredom, to leverage all of Rod’s considerable assets contained in his farm’s stroon fortune to do a byzantine series of futures transactions to corner the market for stroon. Incredibly, the computer manages to pull this off and makes Rod into the wealthiest individual in the universe overnight. With this new fortune, he literally buys Old Earth and everything it contains, and decides to travel through space via planoforming to visit his new acquisition.

Of course Rod’s incredible wealth attracts all sorts of thieves, gold-diggers, and revolutionaries, all who want something from him, so he genetically alters himself into a cat-man to travel Earth anonymously, with a gorgeous girly-girl cat-woman named C’mell and a tiny monkey physician named L’Agentur. He undergoes various adventures with aristocrats and underpeople, learning of the harsh inequalities that permeate Old Earth society, and finds himself sympathizing with the underpeople, who actually keep decadent human society functioning but get treated only with contempt in return. In the end Rod finally takes decisive actions that change the fate of the underpeople and himself.

I give the author full credit for creating an unusual and quirky universe, but I found the ultra-rich but stubbornly-frugal farmers of Norstrilia pretty hard to believe 15,000 years in the future. The idea that their society would be sustainable as a group of independent-minded sheep farmers sitting on vast wealth but prevented from spending it by a 20 million percent tax on imports seems pretty ridiculous, don’t you think? Yes, they allow citizens to cash out and lead an opulent life offworld; it’s hard to picture anyone not taking this option over time. Even more absurd is the idea that an antique semi-military computer could manipulate the stroon futures market of a galactic civilization spanning thousands of worlds, overnight. This is the equivalent of the NYSE or NASDAQ being taken over by a nerdy kid with a Commodore 64.

Norstrilia also betrays its origins as two different stories cobbled together. The first half featuring Rod’s trials on Norstrilia and the second half with his adventures with the Lords of the Instrumentality and the underpeople don’t really mesh well together. I’d say the second half is more interesting, but neither really captured my interest like I was hoping. If I was feeling harsh I would give it 2 stars as it feels a bit slapped together, but will be generous and assign 3 stars for the overall unique vision of the future Smith gave us. Start with The Rediscovery of Man, and then Norstrilia if you get hooked.

Publisher: This is the only novel Cordwainer Smith ever wrote during his distinguished career. It tells the story of a boy form the planet Old North Australia (where rich, simple farmers grow the immortality drug Stroon), how he bought Old Earth, and how his visit to Earth changed both him and Earth itself.”Vividly drawn and wonderfully suggestive…confirms that Cordwainer Smith was one of science fiction’s most original writers.” — “Science Fiction: The Best 100 Novels””Better than any writer we’ve yet seen, Smith represents the sense of awe and wonder that is the heart of science fiction.” — Scott Edelman, “Science Fiction Age”