Saturday, 29 September 2001

Cordwainer Smith: Norstrilia (1974)

Also published as the two novels The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968)
Edition: Gollancz, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 948

Like much of Smith's work, his only singly conceived science fiction novel (The Quest for Three Worlds being a linked collection of stories) was rescued from obscurity to become a classic of the genre. It has a publication history only too familiar for the non-mainstream in America in the sixties; following magazine appearances of extracts in 1960, it was butchered into two novels and only made its first appearance as originally intended in the late seventies.

The background to the story requires knowledge from several of Smith's short stories, describing what he called the Rediscovery of Man and available in the collection of that name. The planet of Norstrilia is the only source of the drug stroon, vital for human longevity treatment; it has made everybody there immensely rich, though they have preserved the simplicity of their way of life - based on that of sheep farmers in Australia - with massive import duties on all luxuries.

Rod McBan the hundred and fifty first inherits the Station of Doom on Norstrilia, but in order to escape from a deadly enemy begins a series of financial manipulations which end with the purchase of the planet Earth. He travels there, and has many adventures with people who want to part him from his wealth, and with the genetically altered animals known as Underpeople who appear in quite a number of Smith stories.

The main aspect of the novel which impresses even today is its sheer inventiveness. Every chapter, if not every page, has an unusual concept, and all of them are seemingly effortlessly made part of Smith's extraordinary vision of the far future. There is also the bizarre ironic prologue, which I suspect is one of many aspects of Smith's writing to be based on Chinese narrative techniques unfamiliar to most Western readers. Even if Smith is widely admired, he remains an idiosyncratic writer even today; his daring can still take your breath away.

No comments: