'Norstrilia' by Cordwainer Smith

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Posted by Orpheo (26th Oct 2001, 12:15)

Originally published in Wyrmtongue October 2001.

Cordwainer Smith burst on to the SF scene in 1950 with an oblique short story "Scanners live in Vain." And after the publication of the story he vanished. It wasn't until the stories third publication, that the elusive Smith reappeared with a string of bizarre and imaginative short stories that are still some of the most interesting reads around today. The man behind the stories is almost as interesting as one of his stories. His true identity was kept secret until shortly before his death in 1966. A lieutenant in the Operation Planning and Intelligence board during World War II and subsequent advisor to the Kennedy administration Dr. Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger kept his writing talents hidden for the many years of his literary career. Not that Dr Linebarger was ashamed of SF, far from it; he is even quoted as saying that science fiction has attracted more Ph.D's than any other literary genre.

The Smith reputation was built on a sold foundation of short stories, but during his time as a writer he did write one novel, and "Norstrilia" is it. Originally published as two novellas (The Planet Buyer and the Underpeople) the story surrounds one Rod Mcban, a stroon farmer from Old North Australia or Nostrilia as it is known. Stroon, the santaclara drug, gives the user virtual immortality and is a priceless commodity that can only be produced on Nostrilia. To escape an assassination attempt Rod Mcban buys earth and escapes to it, where he gets embroiled in revolution to free the enslaved underpeople, genetically engineered slaves of man, cut from domestic animals.

This is classic Smith, with all the charm of his short stories. New readers may find his style of unexplained weirdness a bit bewildering, but that is half the charm of Smith stories. Not everything is explained, nothing is quite concrete, there is so much there which is left for you to decipher. This leads to a very oblique story, which I personally find quite appealing and that is why I constantly find myself returning to Cordwainer Smith. Then there is just the bizarre. Some of it is very silly, (stroon is milked from the bodies of giant sheep...) some of it is just inexplicable, but one thing is certain, you will never read a book like it ever again. Smith is unique in so many ways. However, despite being an ardent Smith supporter I did find this book lumbering. It has none of the succinctness of his short stories, and as it lopes from one bizarre set piece to the next, it is very easy to get lost. It is also let down by the ending, for after all the momentous incidents throughout the book the grand finale trips over itself as it strives to round the book off. Ultimately an unsatisfying read. For Smith fans only.

Nostrilia is out of print in the UK but a collection of short stories has been published in the "Masterworks" series under the title "The Rediscovery of Man". Both "Nostrilia" and "The Rediscovery of Man" along with a second collection, "The Instrumentality of Mankind" are available in the library.

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- Norstrilia

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- Smith, Cordwainer

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