In the spring of 1957, Paul Linebarger began to imagine the broad outlines of his first (and, as matters would turn out, his only) science fiction novel. Linebarger’s earlier published fiction had come to him quickly: two mainstream novels had each been written in a few weeks, and a suspense novel had taken months at most. He had also written several shorter pieces of science fiction, published under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith. Though their gestation time is unknown, each had taken Linebarger only a few hours or days to set down on paper. But his science fiction novel was different. Like the giant sick sheep that it would describe in its early pages, it swelled in size and developed in peculiar directions.
Super-intelligent cats populated Paul Linebarger’s fictional worlds even before he acquired the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith. Other essential elements of his science fiction may be found as early as the first Cordwainer Smith story, ‘Scanners Live in Vain’ (1950): strange survivals from various eras of post-nuclear-holocaust civilization; humans physically altered to withstand the rigors of space travel; the time- and space-spanning government known as the Instrumentality of Mankind. But the underpeople did not begin to develop until his career as Cordwainer Smith was half over, and he completed every major underpeople story during a three-year period (1961-63). Why did the underpeople emerge at this time, and what was their significance for their creator?
In America and around the world, the best-known depiction of future Australians is the Mad Max film trilogy. Among science fiction readers in America if not elsewhere, the best-known print depiction of future Australians is probably Cordwainer Smith’s novel “Norstrilia”. You pays your money and you takes your choice, and of course most people have chosen Mad Max. If I were Australian, I’d hope more people would choose “Norstrilia”.