Cordwainer Smith
Norstrilia Cover

Norstrilia -- More Odyssey than well-crafted story

Tar Daddoo

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

Norstrilia is a Space Opera about a galactic civilization in which the planet Old North Australia -- Norstrilia, for short -- controls a substance, stroon, that allows one to live indefinitely. Consequently, the Old North Australians are very rich, which is fortunate, since they live on a difficult planet and are very far from Earth or anywhere else with manufactured goods.

Given this foundation, one might expect Norstrilia to be about stroon, immortality, or space travel. Those ideas are all present, but the novel does not focus on them. Frankly, the novel is a bit difficult to analyze because it doesn't really focus well on anything. Nevertheless, there is a persistent theme that humans require some degree of conflict and struggle to be at their best. I'll take that as the Science Fiction Premise.

Is the science of the premise explored?

There are three ways in which we see the importance of struggle to humanity. First, on Norstrilia the society must remain vigilant for interlopers who might rob them of their riches. Moreover, as the immediate beneficiaries of longevity, they must come to grips with its implications for their population. As a consequence the Old North Australians have adopted rather draconian measures to preserve the strength and limit the size of their population.

Second, throughout the galactic empire, but most notably on Earth, a class of underpeople has emerged through genetic manipulation of familiar animals, e.g., cats, dogs, eagles, snakes, etc. These underpeople have been developed to do the tasks people don't want to do. They are understood as a blend of human and animal characteristics and presented as being mostly human-like in that they stand, talk, and look like humans. Notably, the cat version is considered very attractive in a romantic and erotic sense. Since the underpeople are treated as an underclass and must struggle through life, they are acquiring human virtues that their masters might be losing.

Third, the intergalactic society is ruled by a group known as the Instrumentality. (This organization is never adequately introduced or explained, possibly because it appears in earlier short stories by the author.) The Instrumentality is engaged in a program called The Rediscovery of Man, which involves reintroducing crime and other inconveniences to human existence. Apparently, humans have become complacent and flabby in the absence of everyday life challenges.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

Norstrilia follows a series of events in the life of Rod McBan, a Norstrilian landowner in the making. When we meet him at the beginning of the story, he is finishing his fourth childhood and not quite ready to be pronounced a man. Since a childhood lasts sixteen years, this means he is actually sixty-four years old, which is not particularly important to someone with access to stroon. But he is only sixteen mentally and emotionally, since each childhood involves a resetting of his maturation, giving him another chance to prove his worthiness to Old North Australia. While it is difficult to disentangle Rod's subsequent challenges from those that might drive any story, the facts of his backstory are an exploration of the Science Fiction Premise.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

In some sense the Science Fiction Premise is too large to explore in one adventure story. Norstrilia, the underpeople, and the Rediscovery of Man are all manifestations of the premise, but we only understand how the premise affects society through assertion about what has happened, what needs to happen, and what might happen.

How well written is the story?

The story is fairly readable. Some ideas, like the Instrumentality, are not adequately introduced, but it is easy to figure out what's going on.

Often, the story drops into poetry, which I found rather annoying. I freely confess that I am not particularly attuned to poetry, so judge my remaining comments accordingly. From my perspective, the poetry was neither necessary, nor particularly relevant. Sometimes, insofar as I could tell, it did not seem particularly good. And, at all times it seemed rather self-indulgent.

Can I recommend the book?

I'm not sure.

The only reason I read this book is that it is considered a classic and shows up on a number of "best-of" lists at Worlds Without End. My immediate reaction upon reading the book was that it felt strange, rather rambling and without much of a point. I didn't feel like I wasted my time. Some of the familiar tropes were permuted in interesting ways, especially mental telepathy and the underclass. And although the protagonist was as much victim as hero, his journey was entertaining.

Fortunately, my copy of the book (NESFA, 1994) had an introduction that helped explain some of the rough aspects of the book. Apparently, this was Cordwainer Smith's only true novel. He was unable to publish it as a novel on his first try because it was considered too long. (It is definitely not too long by modern standards.) Instead, he broke it into two novels, wrote some extra material, and published them separately: one in 1964 and the other in 1968 (two years after his death.) Norstrilia was published as a novel in 1975, nine years after the author's death. Smith was more prolific as a short story writer with thirty-two stories collected in the anthology The Rediscovery of Man (1993). The introduction suggests to me that Smith was less tested as a novelist and that Norstrilia relied on ideas developed in the short stories.

So, what about that recommendation?

I have not read the short stories, but I would guess they are a better path into Smith's work. I could see where his light handling of an idea would be more effective in a short story. As it is, I feel compelled to agree with an unnamed critic mentioned in the introduction; the story is "just one damned thing after another." If you like lots of Science Fiction ideas thrown together in one place, you might like Norstrilia. That's not my preference.

Tar Daddoo