(I’ll be devoting this post to a brief bio of Smith, and this book, but the short stories and novellas will be important next time. And then we’ll come back and examine his entire universe.)
Cordwainer Smith is my favorite science fiction author. His work is weird, imaginative, and vastly under-read. He was kind of a “writers’ writer,” though, which is where the influence comes in. Unfortunately, not all of the influence was good. Except his influence on me. If you read my fiction books, there are numerous references and homages, and the final book in my Darwinverse series is heavily affected. I can’t help it.
Smith’s real name was Paul M.A. Linebarger, at birth he was godson of Sun Yat Sen as his father worked with Sun Yat Sen’s Chinese revolutionaries. He grew up in China and spoke Chinese and other languages fluently. This led him into academia and then military intelligence in the Far East during World War II and Korea, all while writing sci-fi and getting it published under his nom de plume. In addition, he published numerous books on China, Sun Yat Sen, and his best known work outside of his sci-fi. That is Psychological Warfare, a textbook for the US Army. He’s one of the few authors I shell out serious money for (when I have it) to get 1st or 2nd editions of any of his work.
But this career in psychology influenced his work as much as his inclusion of Chinese myth. This made his body of work a forerunner to the nascent New Wave of science fiction, which was less about great adventures and worldbuilding and more about psychology (and ultimately immorality.) He was not the cause, but certainly had outsized influence on New Wave authors. See, Smith had grand adventures, speculative tech, worldbuilding and pathos in his stories, but the authors who were influenced by him began glossing over the best of the genre he represented.
So, what about the book itself? Norstrilia is part of Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind universe, and is about Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan the 151st, a teenage boy from the planet of Norstrilia. Norstrilia is the wealthiest planet in the galaxy because it is the only planet which produces the longevity-extending Santaclara Drug (Stroon). His family is among the wealthiest on the wealthiest planet. The story begins with Rod McBan failing a rite of passage three times due to his poor telepathic abilities, after which he should have been culled, but is saved by one of the Lords of the Instrumentality–the governing body which rules the known galaxy.
McBan then survives an assassination attempt by a jealous rival and, with help, devises a plan to manipulate the Stroon market using an illicit military-grade AI computer to the extent that he becomes the wealthiest person ever and purchases an entire planet (won’t spoil it!) Then he escapes further threats on his life, in disguise, and the adventure continues from there.
The book explores numerous themes, including Civil Rights, Christianity (The Old Strong Religion as it is called–Smith was himself a Christian), rites of passage, and numerous moral questions. It is a weird story by most standards, but makes more sense as you read his other works which explain the history, technology, and culture of the Instrumentality universe. More about that in future posts. This will be a multipart thing, and we’ll circle back to Norstrilia later. After all, Smith used nonlinear storytelling at times. Why not?
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