Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith (1975)
To our detriment, this is Smith’s only novel, his output otherwise being a large number of quirky short stories mostly set in this universe of The Instrumentality of Mankind. Having said that, ‘Norstrilia’ has a complex origin since it was originally published in two shorter separate parts in 1964 as ‘The Planet Buyer’ (which itself was expanded from a shorter piece ‘The Boy Who Bought Old Earth’) and ‘The Store of Heart’s Desire’
Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan to the Hundred and Fifty-First (known as Rod McBan) is a boy living on the peculiar world of Norstrilia, heir to one of the prosperous mutant sheep ranches.
Norstrilia, or Old North Australia, where the people are still subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, (despite the fact she’s been dead for at least fifteen thousand years) was originally an Australian farming world until a virus attacked the sheep. What could have been tragedy changed the fortunes of mankind as a by-product of the sheep’s illness was Stroon, a longevity drug. Thus Norstrilia became the richest planet in the galaxy. The Norstrilians did not want to change their way of life however, and so incredibly high taxes are paid on any imported items to their world. Their children are tested in their teens to see if they are physically and mentally fit to survive, and those that fail get sent to a painless death.
Rod McBan is about to be tested, and his family are worried. Rod seems unable to hier or spiek. In other words, unlike the other telepathic natives of Norstrilia, he can neither hear thoughts nor project them. A girl who loves him, Lavinia, knows that this is not strictly true as there are times when Rod can hier everyone’s thoughts for miles around and when he is angry his mind is powerful enough to disable or kill.
Having survived the test, with the help of Lord Redlady, a member of the ruling body – The Instrumentality of Mankind – it seems Rod is still in danger from one Houghton Syme, an old schoolmate of Rod’s who is determined to kill or destroy him. Rod has access to an ancient computer, hidden on his land which, when Rod asks it for help, puts a financial scheme in motion. By the next day, Rod McBan is the owner of virtually all of Old Earth and therefore has to travel there to take ownership of his prize and escape the murderous attentions of Houghton Syme.
Once on Earth he becomes acquainted with the Underpeople; races of bioengineered animals who have a prophecy of a rich man coming to Earth to set them free. Could this be Rod McBan?
Smith certainly had a facility for creating well-defined characters. Norstrilia is set in a marvellously detailed if slightly unrealistic landscape. The narrative is peppered with songs and poetry which adds to a certain undercurrent of joy that suffuses the book.
Eccentric and fascinating figures appear and disappear, such as The Catmaster, who is a kind of guru/healer figure and the only Underperson allowed (by special dispensation of The Instrumentality) to take Stroon.
Smith throws in ideas right. left and centre, such as the giant alien architects who once visited human worlds and built indestructible buildings on various planets (on a whim) before leaving.
It’s a marvellously clever mix of comedy, drama, satire and romanticism, interspersed with poetry and song.
At the end of the day, however, it is simply the story of a young man who (much like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) travels to another world, has adventures, makes friends and enemies and ultimately realises that what he wants and needs has been at home in his own back yard all the time.