Norstrilia by Smith, Cordwainer, 1964

Norstrilia by Smith, Cordwainer - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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OK, here's the set up for this week's book review. See if you can guess what the novel is called before you start the second paragraph. And, please, try to ignore the name of the book and the author above. Thousands and thousands of years in the future on a distant and very arid planet in the buttocks of the galaxy a young man is preparing to under go a test of his humanity that is to be administered by a secret society. Should he fail the test, he will die for certain. He's a young whelp, but he stands to inherit land that is populated with monsters that produce an extremely rare drug that greatly extends the lives of the users. The planet that produces this drug is the only source in the universe. All attempts to produce the drug by artificial means, or to raise elsewhere the spectacularly massive creatures that produce the drug have failed. The planet also is populated with some of the fiercest yet most humble warriors that have ever seen the light of day. Their numbers are unknown to all but themselves, but to look at the planet, there are only a very few of them. They came to this planet after a forced migration, from a world that they only remember in the laments they sing to each other around fires at night. Computers are strongly shunned by this society (after a social movement called The Clean Sweep which did away with them), but certain individuals have developed themselves to become essentially organic computers so as to fill a necessary niche in every day life and defense of the planet. The boy is from a family that is organized as its own government (even though there is a galaxy wide government), called a "House." His House is not the strongest, but certainly not the weakest either. Everyone loved his father, who is dead. On this arid planet there is a secret garden that is set aside and which very few know about. The security forces on the planet are very thorough and competent, and patrol the planet with ornithopters. After the boy takes (and survives) his test, a member of a rival house tries to assassinate him. Finally, there is a race of people out there that look to this boy as their savior, and stand ready to worship him as a god if he can lift them from their woe. The book was published in the mid-sixties.

Have you got all that yet? If you have, and you have figured out that I am about Cordwainer Smith's epic SF novel, and the only SF novel he ever wrote, Norstrilia, then you're probably doing better than the majority of readers here. But the thing really does sound like Frank Herbert's Dune, doesn't it? I have often wondered how much time Smith and Herbert spent together, comparing notes and bouncing ideas off each other. I don't think that they would have had much opportunity to do so, with Smith living in Washington DC and at various times in Australia, which he used as a base of operations to "collect information" for our government about Communist China, and Herbert in Washington State, but it seems to me that there must have been some sort of exchange between these two men, as so many back elements of their masterpiece novels are so similar. Herbert may even have read Smith's Psychological Warfare, a book he wrote when a teacher of Asiatic studies at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. I have thumbed through a copy of that 1948 book a few times, and it looks to me as if some elements in it were directly co-opted by Herbert in Dune. Whatever the connection, I doubt it was through Herbert's first publisher, Chilton, as they apparently already had published a guide on repairing ornithipters.

Despite the immense similarities Norstrilia (pronounced, probably, Nor-STRILE-ia, after Smith's adopted home of Australia, and a bastardization of the name of the planet the produces the drug and which has a full name of Old North Australia), the core stories are very different. Smith's book is about a crippled boy who is trying to grow up in a society that usually kills people like him. Rod McBan, the protagonist, is not physically handicapped. In fact, he�s a physically a typical Norstrillian in that he is hulkingly strong, fast and agile. As owners of the one planet the produces Stroon, or the Santaclara Drug, an immortality drug, the Norstillians have over their 15,000 year history developed into a race of unbeatable warriors. Instead, McBan lacks all but the most basic ability to communicate telepathically, which is the primary means of communication on Norstrilia. McBan is able to pass all of the tests that the Norstillian government throws at him, but he knows that one way or the other they will see him dead so that he is unable to reproduce. As the sole heir to a moderately sized Stroon farm, McBan is not without immense riches of his own, though. McBan is eventually convinced by his friends that he has to leave Norstilia or be killed, so he goes to visit his outlawed computer to ask for help. The computer comes up with a plan to mortgage his property, buy futures on three years of Stroon crops, then leverages that fortune into one big enough literally to buy the planet Earth. Which is exactly what he does, and is exactly where he flees. And thus ends the first book of Norstrilia, Which was independently published as The Planet Buyer.

The second book in Norstrilia, called The Underpeople, tells the tale of McBan's adventures on earth. The Underpeople are genetically modified animals that are essentially serve as slaves, though they do have some freedoms slaves ordinarily don't get. Some in the past have hypothesized that Smith really writing about the Civil Rights Movement and African Americans when he described the Underpeople and their plight. The author of the introduction here believes, as do I, that more likely than not that he was expressing sensitivity for the plight of Chinese peasants. Smith was the god-son of Sun Yat Sen, and spent long periods of his youth and later years in China. He was an educator on Chinese culture, language and lifestyle, but he was also a spy, and especially towards the date of his death he went to China to spy on the communists. Whichever mirror the Underpeople found their reflections in, this section of the book is by far the best of the whole novel. Where The Planet Buyer, is concerned with the power and problems brought by money and the psychology of loneliness, The Underpeople is about the plight of the poor and down trodden who later flower into a free people, but because it concerns itself more with social acceptance and racism, the second book is not really a mirror image of the first, it being a bit of a hunting/adventure book. Smith even goes so far immersing his hero into this new world as to have him physically modified to look exactly like an Underperson; a cat, named C'Roderick, and a mate to his guide, C'Mel. The meat of the second book is pretty much an quest tale where McBan goes through a gauntlet of sorts in the dwellings of the Underpeople, meets their leader, and trades his fortune to get his psychic disability fixed, thereby delivering to the Underpeople the resources that they need to leave their bonds for another planet.

Smith's career in a few respects mirrored Herbert's as well. Smith took over six years to research and write this book, and when he was refused time and time again because of its length, he turned to serial publication. Both men wrote more set in these universes, and both died before finishing. Herbert's largely unabridged book carried him to fame and glory, however, but Smith's was butchered by unkind publishers, and while it did not exactly fall into obscurity, the title certainly did not become a household word as Dune went on to become. If you look around at publishing records you will see that under one name or another each book has been published time and time again. I tend to suspect that neither Smith nor his estate saw much in the way or royalties for many of these editions. In fact, it was not until about 13 years ago that NESFA (New England SF Association) brought both books together and published them under one cover, with Smith's original interstitial material, as well as several appendices with language that wound up in later versions. Instead, Smith made his name popular in SF writing by publishing a series of very, very high quality short stories, almost all (I think; divining his publishing history is pure chaos) of which were set within his Instrumentality of Mankind universe, which also provided the setting for this book. Norstrilia and especially Smith's Instrumentality stories are regarded as classic tales of SF, and are very highly regarded by the critics. I think that the stories have a lot of intellectual appeal, but also have much going for them as mass market stories. In this book Smith does lose me a bit with making money the end all power of the universe. I mean, he had super competent and deadly, psychic immortals to work with, and the most powerful one of them is that way because he�s rich. I just have a little trouble swallowing that. I also think that he underused the Underpeople, and may have missed the boat by having McBan rely directly on Underpeople mysticism to resolve his problems rather than co-opting their mysticism, which other humans bought into, for his own purposes. But the book is a fantastic read and another excellent example of how SF changed from the 50's to the 60's when it morphed from heroic adventure stories to morality tales that everyone could relate to on multiple levels. Three out of five stars.

As a final note, if you are interested in purchasing this book, go ahead and splurge for the NEFSA edition, which is still in print. The various appendices alone are worth the price of admission, but the introduction really is one of the best I have ever read. Linebarger apparently suffered from quite a few psychological conditions, and knowing what he was suffering from really helped me to put the motifs and themes of this book into perspective. The introduction places all that in context for me, and I generally found it as interesting as the work itself.

Copyright � 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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