Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
There’s something a bit strange about only children. Maybe it’s not polite to point it out, but not having siblings seems to leave one without context and make one a little bit more difficult to relate to. That’s what I felt with Norstrilia, the only completed novel of Paul Linebarger, a diplomat, foreign operative, and expert on psychological warfare who wrote and published science fiction under the moniker of Cordwainer Smith. Norstrilia is a strange only child.
Not only was it strange in content and tone, it was a bit awkward in form. The work was published originally as two separate pieces (serialized?) in magazines. It was only stitched together into a whole narrative later. And this particular work was compiled by a specialty press and included all the textual variations in an appendix at the end. Why do I get suspicious with textual variations? An author is never sure exactly what to say or how to say it, but usually they manage to hide this uncertainty. I suppose I don’t like the reminder of having it made manifest.
That all probably sounds like complaining, but I enjoyed reading Norstrilia quite a bit. I think I was prepared for it because even though it doesn’t have any siblings, it does have some cousins: those strange half-breeds and vagabonds that are the fiction of R. A. Lafferty. Norstrilia wasn’t a Lafferty, but it had several similar features: the strange, rollicking pace; the larger-than-life characters; the comfort with the bizarre; and the lack of emphasis on a tight, cogent plot.
So here’s what it’s about: in the far future there’s a planet called Norstrilia (a contraction of “North Australia”) that grows a viral serum that ensures long life for the rest of the galaxy and makes Norstrilia incredible rich by its export. (Think Arrakis with giant mutant sheep.) The planet is the epitome of the hardy, frontier lifestyle that Smith saw in his own time in Australia, and to preserve this way of life (as well as population control), Norstrilia has kept itself poor on purpose– even though most of its inhabitants are fabulously wealthy. One of the ways they do this is by making imports to the world incredibly expensive. The other is a test at the age of adulthood to determine whether the Norstrilian youth will receive full legal status or be killed (think the gom jabbar, also from Dune).
Against this weird background one Norstrilian grows up handicap, unable to telepathically spiek or hier like his peers. He uses a forbidden computer to play the markets and more or less by accident becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, and he buys the Earth. Traveling to Earth, he’s manipulated by various agencies– including Cordwainer’s famous Instrumentality of Man, the animal-engineered servants of humanity, and a mysterious agency living beneath the surface of the planet. Along the way a lot of things happen, with wild, lazy, larger-than-life brushstrokes that remind of Lafferty.
There’s a lot of bigness and beauty here, shot through with much weirdness. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much had I not already read things along these lines– again, had I not been inoculated, so to speak, by Lafferty. I don’t know if this means Lafferty is a gateway drug, but he certain helped. There are rambles here, large figments of imagination floating like icebergs in a froth of Silver Age science fiction, and meanderings enough to annoy someone used to the clipped, brisk pace of contemporary scifi.
But there is kindness as well. When a friend recommended this book, he said he thought kindness was a theme of Smith’s work. I see what he means, though the turn is abrupt and inexplicable halfway through the novel. The main character has a crisis of faith– mitigated by a psychological hall of horrors akin to the trial that started the narrative– from which he emerges with a sense of humility, gratitude, and benevolence. He is filled with pity for the erstwhile enemy that instigated his banishment from Norstrilia (though the denouement with this character is quite weak). From what I’ve read, Smith’s high church Anglicanism shaped his writing here in some respects.
In all, this was a book I enjoyed reading for its comfort with the bizarre and its quirks, but I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend it to readers at large. I could see it being a bit impenetrable. But if you’ve cut your teeth on someone like Lafferty or even the meandering far futures of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun, you might give Smith a try.