Reviewed by Ted Gioia

A certain imaginative excess characterizes the best
science fiction and fantasy.   For better or worse, the
masters of these genres are rarely known for their
nuances and subtleties; rather, they stand out for the
sheer extravagance of their visions, their willingness to
"go all in" (as the poker players describe it) no matter
what the consequences.

But even by sci-fi standards, Cordwainer Smith grabs our
attention for the lavishness of his
imagination and the risk-taking of
his storylines.  Other, more sober
authors might hesitate before em-
bracing the over-the-top plots that
were a trademark of Smith’s fiction,
and his sole sci-fi novel
Norstrilia is
no exception.  On the very first
page, Cordwainer Smith makes sure
you know he does nothing by halves.
"The story is simple," he writes.  
"There was a boy who bought the
planet Earth."  And before the first
chapter is over, readers may not
understand why or how this hap-
pened, but they have further
learned that our hero "also bought
one million women, far too many
for any one boy to put to practical
use, but it is not altogether certain, reader, that you will be
told what he did with them."

Then in a throwaway line, Smith adds:  "But he didn't want
girls.  He wanted postage stamps."

Related Reviews
The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Welcome to the world of Cordwainer Smith—a pseudonym:
our author was born as Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger in
1913—a  man whose narratives travel so far beyond the
conventional that, if you pushed them any further, they might
come across as psychedelic visions rather than coherent tales.  
Remember that this was the same author whose best known
short story, "Scanners Live in Vain," was rejected by editor-
guru John Campbell as "too extreme"—quite a verdict coming
from Campbell, who published a story describing how to make
an atom bomb in the pages of
Astounding more than a year
before Hiroshima, attracting a swarm of FBI agents to his
office, who tried to get the magazine pulled off the
newsstands.   Recipes for nuclear bombs might have been
okay for Campbell, but when Cordwainer Smith submitted a
story to him the following year,
that’s where he drew the line.

Smith himself led a life of extremes.  He was a brilliant
thinker, holding a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and able to
speak a half-dozen languages.  Even if he had never written
any sci-fi works, he would be remembered for his book on
psychological warfare, and his expertise found him called
upon by important parties—the U.S. Army, the British
military, the CIA, even President John F. Kennedy—for advice
and guidance.   Yet, according to some accounts, Smith also
served as the inspiration for a un-
settling case study, published by
Dr. Robert Lindner in 1955, which
describes a strange government
worker who had intense visions in
which he thought he was living in
outer space.  As Lindner describes
it his patient told him about being
"Lord of a planet in an inter-
planetary empire in a distant uni-
verse, garbed in the robes of his
exalted office."  When challenged
on these hallucinations, the subject simply replied: "I knew
the experience was real."

If this account is actually based on the historical figure of Paul
Linebarger, we can perhaps better understand the intense
visionary quality of the sci-fi fiction he wrote under the name
Cordwainer Smith.  And if it is "too extreme," the reason may
be that he experienced his stories to a degree that no other
science fiction author, before or since, could match.

Smith himself was not unaware of the psychologically
disturbing aspects of his storytelling.  How revealing that the
author’s original title for the work that became Norstrilia was
Star-Craving Mad.   From the very opening of the book, we
are told that the protagonist, Roderick Frederick Ronald
Arnold William MacArthur McBan the 151st (even the
character’s name suggests a confusion of identity), has
something wrong with his head.   He is almost exterminated
by the government at the start of the novel, for lacking the
required telepathic skills that everyone else has in his society,
and a revealing later interlude in the book describes his
mental reworking by a humanized cat who is also the last
clinical psychologist on Earth.   Even given the very strange
elements in the story, we can perceive linkages to first-hand
experiences with psychoanalysis, as well as to a plausibly
autobiographical account of a rich inner life beyond the
normal or conventional.  

Rod McBan lives on the planet Norstrilia (an abbreviation of
Old North Australia) where a shrewd rustic population has
accumulated great wealth by dealing in a life-extending
product known as stroon.   But even by Norstrilian standards,
McBan reaps windfall profits in what would today be called an
“online trading scheme.”   Overnight he has become the
wealthiest man in the universe, and he uses his new-found
riches to buy out the original home of mankind, the planet

As if this story isn't dramatic enough, Cordwainer Smith
incorporates a half-dozen or so other fanciful subplots—these
involve the liberation of intelligent animals, intrigues in
intergalactic politics, two romances involving our protagonist
(but neither featuring the one million women mentioned
above), a murderous lunatic from an aquatic planet, a sex
change operation on Mars, and almost every other kind of sci-
fi storyline you could cram into a two hundred page book.

If you haven’t read Smith’s short stories—gathered together
in the large one-volume collection
The Rediscovery of Man
you will be left puzzled at many passing references and half-
explained backstory. You will simply scratch your head when
characters tremble at the thought of "Mother Hitton's Littul
Kittons" or extol the great "teaching of Joan"—matters that
are elaborated elsewhere in Smith’s oeuvre, but just left
hanging here.   In general, readers who are new to this author
should start with the shorter fiction, and only come to
Norstrilia after familiarizing themselves with Smith’s
cosmogony and worldview.  

As you will come to learn, almost everything in Smith’s science
fiction can be made to fit together into single grand scheme.   
By the same token, the scheme is maddeningly intricate, a
literary house of mirrors where even adepts can lose their
Norstrilia always seems to teeter on the edge of chaos,
and while Smith manages to tie up the story and resolve the
key conflicts in the final pages, the book will still strike most
readers as messy and almost bizarre in its excesses.

From one perspective, Cordwainer Smith was very much a
product of 1950s culture—with his Cold War obsessions and
psychoanalytical positivism.   Yet I sometimes wonder what
would have happened to this author’s writings had he not
died, at the age 53, in 1966.   His late works seem to anticipate
aspects of the psychedelic ‘Summer of Love’ counterculture
that would take center stage in American culture in the
months following his passing.   I have a hunch that this author
would have produced a seminal book---akin to Heinlein’s
Stranger in a Strange Land or Herbert’s Dune—that would
have shaken people up and reached a new generation seeking
just the kind of extravagantly liberating stories that were this
author’s bread and butter.

Norstrilia, alas, is not that great novel.  But in its zany energy
and wild development, it gives us some sense of the angles and
concepts that Smith’s never-written masterpiece might have
broached.  Then again, many of this author’s detailed
notebooks have never surface—so perhaps there is something
grand out there, waiting for (to borrow a word this author so
loved) "rediscovery." Yet even on the basis of the surviving
works, Cordwainer Smith is a must-read author from science
fiction’s golden age and a role model for other writers who
want to push their fantasies to the brink.  
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