Daily Archives: 9 October 2013

Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia

Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia (Ballantine Books, 1975, 1978)

1norstriliaNorstrilia is on a number of impressive lists, including Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time, David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, The Classics of Science Fiction. It has been on my ever-growing and much-neglected SFF TBR pile for years.

Cordwainer Smith was a pseudonym of US author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, who under his own name was Sun Yat Sen’s godson, an expert in psychological warfare and an adviser to the US military in a number of  combats up to but not including Vietnam. He wrote quite a lot of science fiction (can you tell I’ve looked up Wikipedia?) of which this is his only novel, but many if not all of his short stories and novellas are set in the same universe as Norstrilia – and they leave tantalising traces in the narrative here, such as a number of references to the much feared but never explained Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons, or the likewise never explained ‘underhuman’ saint D’joan.

‘Norstrilia’ is of course a corruption of ‘North Australia’: the story begins and ends on the planet of Old North Australia 15 thousand or more years from now. The Norstrilians are fabulously rich but deliberately simple people, presumably based on the impressions Australians made on Linebarger when he spent six months in Canberra in the 1950s. The Norstrilians’ wealth comes from giant sheep, not from wool but from the by-product of a sickness that has infected all the flocks … But I’m not giving a story outline. Suffice it to say that the book is very funny, and full of bizarre inventions – such as a lethal sparrow the size of a football, or beings known as underhumans who are basically animals genetically engineered to have human intelligence and other qualities, or the more or less self-explanatory Department Store of Heart’s Desires, or a future Earth where illness and enmity have had to be artificially reinvented to stop humans from going extinct from boredom. Some of the inventions are of the ooh-he-thought-of-that-in-1964 variety (the novel was first published as two separate stories in the 1960s) , such as in this exchange:

‘What’s postage?’ said the Lord Redlady, really puzzled.
‘Payments on messages.’
‘But you do that with thumbprints or eyeprints!’
‘No,’ said Rod, ‘I mean paper ones.’
‘Paper messages?’ said the Lord Redlady, looking as though someone had mentioned grass battleships, hairless sheep, solid cast-iron women, or something else equally improbable. ‘Paper messages?’ he repeated, and then he laughed, quite charmingly. ‘Oh!’ he said, with a tone of secret discovery, ‘You mean antiquities …?’

There are computer networks, videophones and CCTV. There’s cheerful female-to-male transition (anatomical details passed over in discreet silence). The plot hinges on spectacular manipulation of the global financial markets, though as this is fantasy there is no crash. There’s a totally gorgeous cat underhuman, named (according to the internets) after Linebarger’s own cat. At one point the hero has to restrain himself from running to kiss his computer – a moment imagined 40 years before the iPhone was invented. And there’s a revolutionary movement motivated, almost certainly without deliberate reference to Che, by love both for the oppressed and the oppressor.

It’s a rollicking read, rarely a dull moment, that reminds me of why I love genre fiction.