"Will I die tomorrow?"But for Rod McBan, a frightened yet idealistic teenage boy, the question has strong relevance. He faces a hearing in which his "fitness" will be determined. If he can demonstrate that he is fit, he will be accepted as an adult, and a wealthy land owner at that. But if he cannot, he will be executed via "The Giggle Room." A pleasurable way to die, for sure, but still.
"Question irrelevant. No answer available."
Such are the ways of Norstrilia.
Norstrilia” is an idiom for “Old North Australia” but it isn’t a place on Earth at all. It’s a distant planet in a distant future, settled long after humans have dispersed across the galaxy. Norstilians, and everyone else in the galaxy who can afford it, have achieved near immortality by taking a drug called stroon which is refined from a virus carried by giant sheep which Norstrilians raise. That is, most Norstrilians are nearly immortal. A few don’t respond to stroon and thus are condemned to a “normal” life span of 150 years or so. And, in order to prevent overpopulation, many others are deemed “unfit” and executed.
The most important measure of a Norstrilian's fitness is telepathic ability. Rod's is sketchy at best. When it reveals itself at all it explodes out of Rod's control and he can "hier" hundreds of minds at once scattered over hundreds of miles and "scream" pain into every one of them. Only rarely can he "spiek" with his mind as is common among his people. Usually, he has to simply talk with his voice and listen with his ears, a handicap beyond tolerance on Norstilia.
But thanks to some clever thinking on his part and the mild intervention of an offworld official of the Instrumentality (a loose but vastly powerful government to which all humans in the galaxy answer), Rod is granted his life. By surviving, he instantly becomes something of a celebrity on his home world. There are a jealous few who, because of his fame, want to see him either arrested or dead. To escape the constant threats upon his life, Rod (aided by his family's antique mechanical computer) executes a plan to multiply his already significant fortune until he is literally rich enough to purchase Old Earth--that's the planet you are presumably reading this from--and escape Norstrilia.
That's merely the opening. Once on Earth, Rod will contend with criminals, a woman of literally devastating beauty, more elements of the Instrumentality and animals with enhanced brains who have been enslaved by humanity. Oh, and postage stamps.
If the plot sounds like a mess, that's because it is. But it's a happy mess, a tangle that veers from nightmare to folk tale so often, you just give into it and let it take you where ever it will. Everything is a surprise on multiple levels. Like the 100 ton sheep which produce stroon; you would expect them to be comic material, something from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but here they are twisted and strange and more than a little sad. Elsewhere a character's sudden demise might leave the reader smiling, perhaps guiltily, both at its poetic justice and at the sheer silliness of death.
Despite Smith's bizarre imagery, the most remarkable aspect of his storytelling is his language. Always somewhat distant and eerie, Smith's narrative draws from an array of cultural sources. The telling of a story is both academic and sacred, part science, part fairy tale. The prologue, entitled "Theme and Prologue," bluntly introduces readers to the story:
Story, place and time--these are the essentials.
The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet earth. We know that, to our cost. It only happened once and we have taken pains that it will never happen again. He came to Earth, got what he wanted , and got away alive, in a series of very remarkable adventures. That's the story.
On the one hand, Smith is simply a reporter. On the other hand, he's a shaman, drum-beating a story into existence.
Norstrilia is Cordwainer Smith's only novel, but hardly his only work. He published dozens of short stories, almost all of them set in the same universe, a universe with a long, complex history, and a wide array of characters and lineages. You can read Norstrilia without knowledge of Smith's larger vision--he provides all you need to know and the parts that don't make complete sense just add to the odd and alienating atmosphere of the work--or you can go explore more of the Smith's rich vision. The Rediscovery of Man collects all of Smith's related shorter works. A number are also available online here:
Revel in the oddity.
Crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp