From Canberra to Norstrilia: The Australian Adventures of Cordwainer Smith

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”.

Alan C. Elms

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.1

Norstrilia takes place fifteen thousand years from now, on a distant planet named Old North Australia because that’s where its settlers originated. Over the centuries the planet’s name has elided into “Norstrilia”, but otherwise the Norstrilians have attempted to live much like their Australian ancestors. Their task hasn’t been easy—at first because of Norstrilia’s dry harsh environment, then because the Norstrilians have by sheer accident become fabulously wealthy. Most Norstrilians are sheep farmers, but they no longer deal in wool and mutton. Their sheep have become giant, misshapen, virus-infected beasts, worthless except for their production of a viral essence called stroon.2 Stroon in tiny amounts can extend a human life by several hundred years, perhaps indefinitely. Humans all over the inhabited galaxy barter huge amounts of their own resources for stroon, or expend those resources in trying to steal it. The Norstrilians face a dilemma: how do they maintain their traditional subsistence-farmer Australian way of life, after they have become the richest and most envied populace in the known universe?

George Miller is Australian and his first Mad Max films were locally made on minimal budgets, so it’s not surprising that their post-apocalyptic world is recognisably Australian. But the author of Norstrilia was an American, whose second home for much of his life had been China. Where did Cordwainer Smith ever get the idea to create a planet full of hereditary Australians, and why did he find them so much more admirable than most of the far-flung human race? What did he see as the essence of Australianness that might survive for fifteen thousand years, and that might be worth keeping? Did his vision of those future Australians remain constant, or did it evolve as his experience of Australia broadened and deepened? Those are some of the questions addressed in this paper. Other sf scholars may choose to ask other questions, about Norstrilia specifically or about Cordwainer Smith’s thematic choices more broadly—perhaps from a postmodern or a post-colonial theoretical perspective. I’d like to hear their answers. But I’m a psychologist and a biographer, so my questions usually concern how a writer’s life history and psychological development shape his or her fiction. Such questions are especially salient for Cordwainer Smith, whose fiction is to an unusual degree a kind of mythicised autobiography. Smith deliberately and consciously transformed various aspects of his personal history into sf, for several reasons. Sometimes he did it playfully; sometimes he did it to reward his friends and punish his enemies, much as Dante did in consigning individuals to particular circles of Hell or Paradise. Sometimes Cordwainer Smith mythicised elements of his life to help him work through personal issues that he also confronted directly in psychotherapy. And sometimes, I think, he reworked his life into mythic fiction because he knew his life included the stuff of myth: his own passionate participation in events of worldwide significance, and his close acquaintance with an array of world leaders and behind-the-scenes movers and shakers.

From China to Canberra

As many science fiction readers now know, Cordwainer Smith’s real name was Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger. His father had devoted his life to Sun Yat-sen’s Chinese revolution, so young Paul Linebarger headed in the same direction— partly out of conviction, partly because supporting Chinese Nationalism was already established as a family tradition. Paul spent years of his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood living in China or doing research and writing about China. By the time he was 30, he was established as an expert on modern Chinese history and politics. Much of the science fiction he later wrote bears the imprint, in one way or another, of this deep immersion in things Chinese.

Linebarger had been a world traveler from an early age, living not only in China but in France, Germany, and England, and making more than casual visits to countries ranging from Russia to Japan to India. When he was assigned to the China-Burma-India Theatre as a US Army officer in World War Two, he went via Australia, stopping at Melbourne and Perth just long enough to get the impression that Australia was “so much like California that it was hard to believe that we had gone thousands of miles”.3 He was stationed mainly in Chungking, the wartime capital of Nationalist China, where he worked as a liaison between US Army Intelligence, Chinese Nationalist Intelligence, and Chinese Communist Intelligence. At the time, all these forces were working to defeat the Japanese, who occupied a large part of China. Linebarger had known Chiang Kai-shek for many years, and in Chungking he met often with Chou En-lai as well.

Toward the end of 1944, Linebarger was invited to visit Chinese Communist headquarters in Yenan, a rather primitive area of northern China well behind Japanese lines. He spent several weeks in Yenan, meeting Mao Tse-tung and other Communist leaders. He also met an Englishman named Michael Lindsay, who had been working with the Chinese Communist forces for six years. Lindsay was chiefly responsible for constructing and maintaining the Red Army’s radio equipment; he also smuggled essential medical supplies through the Japanese lines. Though Linebarger was publicly a strong supporter of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and Lindsay overtly supported Mao Tse-tung’s Communist revolutionaries, the two men soon discovered that their private views about the Chinese situation were surprisingly similar. Linebarger saw the Nationalist government as badly weakened by corruption, while Lindsay was already concerned with the Communist leadership’s increasing emphasis on Marxist ideological purity. Both Linebarger and Lindsay were worried that these developments would weaken the Chinese struggle against Japanese domination, and would have long-term pernicious effects on the Chinese people even if Japan lost the war. So a friendship developed in Yenan between these two unlikely comrades.

After the war’s end, Linebarger became the US Army’s top expert on psychological warfare, then resumed his academic career as a Professor of Asiatic Politics at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. During the same period, Michael Lindsay developed an academic career of his own, writing several scholarly books on China and becoming the acting head of the International Relations Department at the Australian National University in Canberra. In 1955, Lindsay wrote to Linebarger, inviting him to spend a sabbatical half-year in Canberra. Lindsay felt that Linebarger would be a stimulating addition to the small Canberra faculty. He was also looking toward his own future, when he might have reason to leave Canberra and would therefore need friendly contacts in American academia.4

Linebarger had his own reasons for wanting to spend a sabbatical leave in Canberra. He was struggling with a book-length manuscript, The Overseas Chinese and the Kuomintang, based on his extensive visits to locations all over the world where communities of Chinese emigrants had developed. He needed time away from his academic obligations at home to update this manuscript for publication by revisiting several overseas Chinese communities. Further, the trip would give Linebarger and his wife Genevieve the academic cover to do some quiet intelligence-gathering on the side. He continued to hold a reserve commission in US Army Intelligence, and worked for at least a month every summer in its propaganda branch to fulfill the obligations of his commission. Genevieve had worked in US Government intelligence operations as well; indeed, she had met Paul when she was a student in his somewhat secretive graduate seminar in psychological warfare. Paul also did occasional assignments as a paid consultant to the Central Intelligence Agency. I have so far been unable to obtain records from the intelligence agencies concerning the Linebargers’ trip to Australia, and most of the relevant documents are missing from the various archives that hold Linebarger’s papers. But it is reasonable to assume that gathering intelligence in the island nations near Australia was at least a subsidiary objective of that trip.

Perhaps even more important to him, Paul Linebarger wanted to learn about the Australian people. A year before he arrived, he wrote to the Dean at ANU, “The invitation… to come to Canberra offers me one of the most pleasant opportunities of my life. I glimpsed your country during the war; I have read a lot about it; I consider myself already an Australophile and am quite prepared to risk the manic phase of Australomania.”5 He wrote to Michael Lindsay,

… I would consider it a treat to get to some of the Australian cities and towns, lecturing before various kinds of groups or speaking on radio and television. Naturally, I would attempt to observe the decencies of being a guest of Australia and would seek to avoid anything which would amount to the unfair or loaded presentation of a private case. I would not want, on such a trip, to serve American propaganda; USIS is doing that already, I hope. What I would enjoy trying, in my spare time from the university, would be to make American Pacific policy perhaps a little more intelligible to the Australian public. Further, I would like to talk in order to meet people, to meet people in order to understand them, to understand them in order to have a more nearly operational idea of how a real Australia fits into the real world in which we all live… I suppose that I am by temperament a rather inquisitive and talkative person, and learn much better in association with other people than I do by reading things in books.6

And shortly before he left for Australia, Linebarger wrote to Christian Herter, a friend who later became US Secretary of State, “I hope to tell the Australians a few things about America’s Pacific and Far Eastern policy which will make them understand us better, and for my own part I hope to learn as much as I can from teachers, political spokesmen, labor leaders, and journalists.”7

Linebarger was as good as his word. The Australian National University was at that time entirely a graduate institution, with very few students in international relations. Linebarger was quite willing to teach a course or two as part of his sabbatical activities, but he was assured when he got there that such would be unnecessary—that all he really needed to do was his own research and writing, with perhaps a lecture now and then and some interaction with local faculty. Interact he did—not only giving a series of lectures at ANU itself, but racing around the Canberra area and then more widely afield in Australia, giving talks at various campuses as well as at gatherings of community groups and social organizations. I use the word “racing” advisedly; Michael Lindsay loaned Linebarger a Triumph TR-2, and he used it to cover much of the continent, delighting in the car’s handling and speed.

Not all of his interactions as he toured the country were totally positive. In at least one instance, some members of his audience got so argumentative that he was later sent an official apology. This is from the Secretary of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, New South Wales Branch, in Sydney:

… I should like to thank you very much indeed for your kindness in addressing the Institute last week. Unfortunately some of the discussion lacked the impartiality and restraint usually shown at Institute meetings, and I should like to stress that the Institute as an organisation does not adopt a particular point of view on questions of international relations, the views expressed being solely those of the individuals concerned. I think the liveliness of the discussion indicated the very great interest in the matters raised by you…8

Linebarger enjoyed such controversy, and indeed courted it. Another member of the ANU International Relations faculty, Arthur Burns, later recalled how Linebarger deliberately provoked other academics with “his cheerful derision of all forms of Communism”, as well as “his support for Eisenhower, his military commitments, the black humour of his lectures on psychological warfare, his academically unorthodox prose style, but above all, I think, by his uninhibited, unbridled intellectual imagination… “9 Michael Lindsay’s daughter Erica told me of another kind of provocation: the one-eyed Linebarger sometimes replaced his standard glass eye with one that displayed the Stars and Stripes, “for special occasions”.10

One thing Linebarger did not like about Australia was its academic politics. He arrived to find himself in the midst of a bitter battle between the ANU administration and several members of the International Relations Department. In appointing Michael Lindsay to the faculty, the administration had apparently made promises that they failed to keep; Lindsay felt they were more interested in saving face for administrators than in fair treatment of faculty. The administration in turn found Lindsay’s leadership of the department less than satisfactory, and had lingering concerns about his wartime Communist affiliations.n Linebarger’s appointment as a visiting professor was not endangered, but he was greatly distressed by the administration’s mistreatment of his friend Michael. He acknowledged that he did not fully understand Australian faculty politics, but said they made him appreciate “the responsible and honorable leadership” in the International Relations division of Johns Hopkins.12

Linebarger’s criticism of academic politics was nearly the only negative thing he had to say about Australia—that and “coffee which would have nauseated a musk-ox”,13 and the bitter cold of the Australian winter. (In another letter, he made a point of thanking Michael Lindsay’s wife Hsiao-li for “her desperate efforts to keep her fretful Americans warm.”)14 He found Australians on the whole to be generous and direct—”so nice to us that even the political fights were good fun”.15

Linebarger was concerned about what he saw as a “Pleasure Revolution” in America, and was pleased that Australia had so far resisted it.16 As with many other visitors from America, he saw much of Australian life in the 1950s as resembling his nostalgic recollections of small-town America during his early-twentieth-century childhood. Linebarger was especially appreciative of the “excellent welcome” and “great good fellowship” he and Genevieve encountered at St John the Baptist, the Anglican church in Canberra, where his helpful stockbroker Mr Greenish was a member of the congregation.17

As Linebarger ended his first sabbatical in Australia, he felt well pleased with his activities there. He wrote to a Chinese colleague in Taiwan, “In four days my wife and I leave Australia, where I have made about 75 speeches in 5 months, upholding the Taipei-Washington alliance, and where (despite political differences) we have made many friends.”18 With a bit more restraint in some regards, he wrote to his literary agent, “I sent off three book manuscripts in the Chinese and international affairs field from Canberra and I gave more than sixty lectures in 5 1/2 months. Outside of that I loafed.”19

From Canberra to Norstrilia

When Paul Linebarger arrived in Australia in February 1957, his career as a science fiction writer had barely begun. His first mature sf story, “Scanners Live in Vain”, had been written in 1945 but published only in 1950, and it did not receive wide attention until it was anthologised in 1952. His next published story, “The Game of Rat and Dragon”, did not appear until 1955. It was an immediate success with Galaxy magazine readers, and it was soon chosen for “Best Science Fiction” anthologies in the US and England. Its enthusiastic reception encouraged Linebarger to write several more stories in 1955, but they were weaker than those first stories and did not find immediate publication markets. He wrote no sf at all in 1956. In Australia in 1957, he only thought about it.

What Linebarger began to think about in 1957 was a novel, at first titled Star-Craving Mad—a punning title that had nothing to do with the novel’s contents. He seems to have been too busy with other matters in Canberra and elsewhere in Australia to put any of the novel down on paper. The first pages of Star-Craving Mad were not written until nearly a year after he returned to Washington. But Chapter I of what he labeled “First Draft”, dated 22 April 1958, was already firmly located on the planet called Old North Australia.20

Old North Australia, or Norstrilia for short, was described as “an earth-size planet not far from the North Star,” whose people, “like their earth ancestors… had a simple, wholesome, ruggedly agricultural life”—a planet that was “pleasant, backwoodsy, and so unimportant, so harmless, that it was almost entirely forgotten,” until the life-extending drug stroon was discovered there. Such locations as New Melbourne, New Canberra, and New Queensland are mentioned in that first chapter of the first draft. But the focus is on a backwoods sheep farmer named Arthur MacArthur CLI, a direct descendant of the John MacArthur who first brought sheep to the original Australia on Old Old Earth. Arthur MacArthur’s father has manipulated land leases and stroon futures to become the wealthiest man in the universe; then he has promptly dropped dead, leaving his incredible fortune to his none-too-bright son, Arthur CLI. Arthur CLI is described as representative of Old North Australians in general, who “prided themselves as a race on not being too bright, but they also prided themselves on honesty, manliness and above all else on individual obstinacy.” Arthur’s own individual obstinacy takes the form of wanting to spend a good deal of his fortune to visit Earth: “Earth the Enchantress, the Old, the Wicked, the Undying Babylon among the planets, the undefeated Carthage of the stars, the port of all calls, the transshipment [point] of all wisdom and vice, the mother of passions, the home of corruption and the festival of human thought”—and also, among other things, the location of “the Chinese pleasure cities in Nanbien, which had once been his ancestral homeland of Australia.”21

That sounds like a promising beginning for an sf novel: an innocent but fabulously wealthy sheep farmer loose in the pleasure dens of Old Earth. Linebarger worked on that premise intensely for six weeks, from 22 April to 30 May, 1958. But the premise remained sketchily developed. Arthur MacArthur is little more than a strong and slow-witted farm boy. He gets to Earth, where people try to rob him. He escapes into the bowels of Earthport with the beautiful cat-girl C’mell. MacArthur and C’mell become lovers, and hatch a plan to help a shipload of cat-people “to planoform into the unknown”, forcing “mankind to face a dangerous earth-begotten humanoid rival among the stars.”22 In an additional chapter, a strong but slow-witted bull-man named B’gench (a sort of underperson equivalent to Arthur MacArthur) is persuaded by a misshapen eagle-man to become the underpeople’s one-man army against the humans of Earth. After that chapter, Star-Craving Mad abruptly lost its priority in Linebarger’s life. Over the next two years he tried a page or so now and then, but nothing pulled him out of the not very original fictional hole in which he had left MacArthur and B’gench.

Then Australia saved him—or rather, Australia and China and a psychotherapist or two. Linebarger had maintained his contacts with Australia, mainly through his correspondence with his ANU friend Michael Lindsay and with his stockbroker Mr Greenish. Lindsay’s battle with the ANU administration, especially with the university’s vice-chancellor, became more and more heated. After the vice-chancellor folded International Relations into another department, apparently to avoid appointing Lindsay as its head, Lindsay angrily announced his resignation from the ANU faculty. Linebarger was initially incensed by the vice-chancellor’s actions, which he described as “utter gibbering nonsense… he is a man caught up in the play of events and personalities larger than himself and he is doomed to perpetual frustration as long as he, with the capacities of a custodian, tries to handle the job of an entrepreneur.”23 In a later letter, Paul tried to be more kind about the man: “THE VC. Poor guy! He sounds as though he is flipping his lid on the matter of the international relations department. The more I think of his situation, the sorrier I am for him. He is certainly not the kind of mad genius whom the ANU needs for the next decades of vital and exploratory growth.”24 Meanwhile, Linebarger helped Lindsay find an academic position in America.

Linebarger’s frequent correspondence with Mr Greenish mostly dealt with more pleasant topics: small but complicated stock transactions, occasional donations of a few pounds to St John’s Church in Canberra, and reminiscences about Linebarger’s life in Australia: “My wife and I think often of the cookaberra [sic] birds outside our windows in the morning, and of the hearty Australian welcomes we received throughout your wonderful country. Perhaps leaving some money there will help us to come back sooner or later. Give our best wishes to our friends at the church.”25 Three years after the Australian sabbatical, however, Linebarger’s letters to Mr Greenish told of personal crisis:

You almost lost a client. My appendix burst in Saltillo [Mexico] on 4 August and they had to clean me up and do a good job of opening and closing my abdominal wall to get rid of the peritonitis. On the way home from Mexico I developed one abscess which they were able to drain from the outside; three days ago I got out of the local hospital where they were treating another intra-abdominal abscess in an effort to avoid surgery. You may imagine that I have gotten behind in my correspondence, but I think I am now on the road to recovery.26

Not very far along that road, however, as Linebarger wrote to Mr Greenish a month later: “My health is only fair; they are still making x-rays—jolly painful, too, with the barium stuff—for some unlocated malformation of my gastrointestinal system. I remain cheerful, however, and hope that it will all be finished within a few more weeks.”27 Linebarger’s stated optimism hardly offset his realisation that he had nearly died in Mexico or on the long road back into the US. His recovery from this almost fatal experience was slow, sporadic, and partial. Seven months later he wrote to Mr Greenish that he was in “convalescence from spinal surgery.”28

During this period of serious illness and convalescence, Linebarger had time to rethink his approaches both to the underpeople and to Norstrilia. He wrote such key stories as “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” developing the sensual cat-girl into a much more serious heroine of the underpeople; and he began a new version of Star-Craving Mad, now titled Old North Australia. He wrote a final draft of that new version in early 1962, and with minor modifications, that is what has come down to us under its ultimate title, Norstrilia.

The best of the Cordwainer Smith stories do not embody a single autobiographical element, political/philosophical issue, or literary trope, but combine or overlay several of them. “The Game of Rat and Dragon”, for instance, incorporates aspects of Linebarger’s Army Intelligence role in World War Two; his difficulties in relationships, especially with women; and his progress in psychotherapy.29 “On the Storm Planet” incorporates his personal observations of (and involvement in) the Nasser intrigues in Egypt in the early 1950s; his early childhood adventures in Mississippi; and his love and loss of a young nursemaid during those Mississippi years.30 Similarly, Linebarger’s development of Star-Craving Mad into the novel Norstrilia moved well beyond the original narrative arc of Arthur MacArthur’s inheriting his father’s wealth, going to Earth out of sheer curiosity, evading a robbery plot, and helping his lover C’mell and her cat-people escape their enslavement by humans. In its new incarnation, the novel became a much more complex and emotionally sophisticated story. The renamed protagonist Rod McBan and his fellow Norstrilians became more complex as well. In Star-Craving Mad, Linebarger had described the Norstrilians as tough, honest, obstinate, and not too bright. In Norstrilia, all those words still applied except the final phrase. Now he said, “When people met them in outports, they always thought that Norstrilians looked simple; the looks were a snare and a delusion… They looked as simple as sheep but their minds were as subtle as serpents.”31

In my introduction to the NESFA edition of Norstrilia, I identified several of the overlapping elements in the novel’s finished version, but by no means all of them. Though I noted that the novel is not fully integrated, I did not point out how certain elements predominate in one section of the novel but not in others. Linebarger’s observations of Australian national character, for instance, are significantly expressed mainly in the first third of the novel. His reworking of mythic elements from the classic Chinese epic Journey to the West occurs mainly in the second third. His consideration of religious issues is not really prominent until the final third. Rod McBan’s difficulty in telepathic hiering and spieking, inspired by Linebarger’s problems in relating to both peers and adults during his childhood, recur in various forms throughout the book. So do concerns about death and resurrection, salient to Linebarger’s nearly fatal Mexican trip shortly before he resumed work on the novel.

Certain additions and changes between Star-Craving Mad and Norstrilia appear to have been influenced by Linebarger’s continuing contacts with Australia in the years after the 1957 sabbatical. Lord Redlady and the Onseck, important characters in Norstrilia who in their different ways motivate Rod McBan’s journey to Old Earth, were not present at all in Star-Craving Mad. Lord Redlady is clearly inspired by Linebarger’s friend Michael Lindsay, who was a British lord and who, with his Chinese wife Lady Lindsay, had worked for the Reds. Lord Redlady is an offworlder representing the Instrumentality, as Lindsay was a non-Australian with a seat in the House of Lords. In his attempts to assist Rod McBan, Lord Redlady is opposed by a local official, the Onseck (short for Honorable Secretary), who bears envious grudges against both Redlady and Rod, and who tries to kill Rod before the escape to Earth. The Onseck sounds suspiciously like the ANU vice-chancellor who tried to kill the International Relations program and who, in Linebarger’s perspective, was a small-minded administrator envious of the internationally famous Lord Lindsay. Linebarger’s subsequent effort to see the VC simply as a “Poor guy” who is “flipping his lid” sounds like Rod McBan under psychotherapeutic treatment in Hate Hall, forgiving his last enemy the Onseck, and thereby becoming able to forgive himself.32

Linebarger’s other frequent correspondent in Australia was his stockbroker, Mr Greenish. Mr Greenish modestly kept personal remarks at a minimum in his letters, but he was so helpful in his support of Linebarger’s small stock-trading account that when Greenish moved to another firm, Paul insisted that his account follow to that firm.33 In Star-Craving Mad, Arthur MacArthur’s fabulous wealth comes from his father’s trading in real estate and sheep futures, much as the Linebarger family’s more modest wealth came from long-term family real estate holdings and from additional real estate trading by Paul’s father. By the time Linebarger wrote Norstrilia, Rod McBan’s fabulous wealth comes not from real estate deals but from his ancient family computer’s manipulation of the galactic stock exchange—a small revision, but one that reflects Linebarger’s appreciation of Mr Greenish in the intervening years.

One further change from early draft to later, remarked upon by other scholars as well,34 is the addition of a strong religious element to the final third of the novel. In Star-Craving Mad, the leader of the underpeople is a badly modified eagle-man with no religious convictions or connotations. By the time of Norstrilia, this eagle-man is leading a revival of long-suppressed Christianity, and he inspires intense religious devotion in his followers, who come to include Rod. Earlier in Linebarger’s life, he had not been much concerned with religion, and indeed was regarded by some family members as an agnostic. A year or so before he began Star-Craving Mad, he was greatly impressed by his mother-in-law’s sustained religious faith in the face of death.35 Even then, there is no clear indication in his papers that he became especially religious until he went to Australia and began regular attendance at the Anglican church in Canberra. St John’s is a small church but not an ordinary one; it is the oldest building in Canberra, far antedating the construction of the nation’s capital city around it.36 Regular participation in the services there may have given Linebarger not only a greater sense of community (evident in his letters to Mr Greenish) but a feeling for the power and persistence of religious belief over time. His close confrontation with death in 1960 may have made his own newly revived religious beliefs especially meaningful to him, with the result that faith in the “Old Strong Religion” became an essential part of the underpeople’s cause in Norstrilia.

A reader doesn’t need to know any of this in order to enjoy Norstrilia. But the sources of a writer’s creativity are a legitimate topic for scholarly study, and in the case of Cordwainer Smith, even the nonscholarly fan may at times wonder, “How the hell did he come up with this idea?”, or “Why on earth—or off it—did he toss this character into that already messy mixture?” Paul Linebarger had multiple reasons for doing such things, ranging from his eclectic accretion of admired literary models to his mythicising of his own personal history and the lives of others close to him. In the changes between Star-Craving Mad and Norstrilia within a three- or four-year period, we can see such mythicising in action.

Back to Canberra

The early 1960s were good years for Cordwainer Smith. He not only finished Norstrilia but produced most of the stories we now consider to be Cordwainer Smith classics: “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, “The Ballad of Lost C’mell”, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town”, and others. But his career as Professor Paul Linebarger was not going so well. In terms of original scholarly research, little reached print. His book manuscript on the Overseas Chinese had been rejected even by his own university’s press, and the political biases that he saw as forcing its failure were not diminishing in academia. He developed ideas for several other scholarly projects and began work on some of them, but they have come down to us only as incomplete or unpublished manuscripts in the Hoover Institution Archives.

Linebarger’s thoughts began turning again to an Australian sabbatical. It would permit him to complete another textbook, this time in collaboration with his wife, and it would allow him to develop a scholarly monograph on North Korea. Perhaps he also thought of Australia as a place that would reinvigorate his science fiction. In his two longest sf works, Norstrilia and the story-cycle published as Quest of the Three Worlds, his heroes had reached a peaceful resolution to their quests that did not point toward sequels. The vast temporal and spatial range of the Cordwainer Smith future history left plenty of room to explore other ideas, but there appears to have been no overarching scheme to guide him in a particular direction. Australia had stirred his science fictional imagination once, and might do so again.

During this time Linebarger was thinking not only about taking another sabbatical in Australia, but about retiring from his university position and moving to Australia permanently.37 His health had always been precarious, from the time he was a small child; now it was often worse than that. The operations following the disastrous summer in Mexico left him so exhausted at times that even death seemed a tempting alternative. His story “A Planet Named Shayol”, dating from this time and incorporating his experience of several powerful pain-killing drugs, was first titled “People Never Live Forever”—a phrase that characters in the story repeat hopefully rather than despairingly. The story he began writing in 1965, not long before he left for Australia again, features a “most ancient” man, so physically exhausted that he must artificially summon his last reserves of strength in order to take one final trip into the world down under (“Under Old Earth”). The tone of exhaustion in this story expresses at least some of Linebarger’s own feelings when he asked, at age 51, whether his university would let him retire on a modest pension. They would not, so he went off on his second Australian sabbatical instead.

Linebarger’s old friend Michael Lindsay and family were no longer in Australia; they were now well set up in Washington, DC, with Linebarger’s help. But another good friend at ANU, Arthur Burns, was still there; likewise his stockbroker Mr Greenish, and the friendly congregation of St John’s Church, and plenty of other warm and forthright Aussies. Academic politics at ANU had apparently quieted down; at least there is no mention of it in Linebarger’s correspondence from that time. The university’s vice-chancellor remained unaware that he had been immortalised in science fiction literature as the bitter and homicidal Onseck, who drove Rod McBan far from Norstrilia.

In spite of his physical deterioration, Linebarger again pursued a busy course of multiple actions while on this sabbatical. He engaged in a heavy schedule of lectures at ANU and throughout Australia (Arthur Burns has described one memorable scene where Paul “took time off from a dinner party at Melbourne for a long drink of hydrochloric acid”, presumably to deal with his ulcers).38 He and his wife completed their textbook on Southeast Asia to their satisfaction, though apparently not to that of the publishers’ anonymous consultants; the book was never published. In the final two months of the sabbatical, Linebarger and his wife visited New Guinea and Indonesia, political flashpoints where they had both academic and political intelligence interests. Then they continued on, as Linebarger later listed their itinerary, through “Singapore, Manila…, Taipei, Seoul, Hongkong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Tehran, Doba, Bahrein, Aden, Mogadishu, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Jerusalem, Beirut, Athens, Constantinople, Zurich, Amsterdam, London and home. A few of the places we visited seemed like the cloacas of all creation, but the total results in notes, correspondence, and contacts were good.”39

On the science fiction side of the 1965 sabbatical, Linebarger completed the story “Under Old Earth,” and saw publication of the first half of Norstrilia. The publishers had insisted upon bifurcating Norstrilia so that each of its separately published halves would not exceed the assumed attention span of the typical sf reader. At the publishers’ request, Linebarger had written a quick wrap-up to the first half, to make it appear as a complete novel, titled The Planet Buyer. Even in that severely truncated form and published as a cheap paperback original, the book made waves. Theodore Sturgeon reviewed it in glowing terms, proclaiming that “The Next Great Name [in science fiction] Is Smith.”40 Sturgeon’s review caught up with Linebarger while he was visiting Alice Springs; he immediately responded with a happy though pseudonymous note to Sturgeon, who was one of his favourite authors. At about this time Linebarger was also writing the front matter for the second half of Norstrilia, retitled The Uttderpeople, so that readers who picked it up without having seen the first half could still make some sense of it. Thus the book that had begun to occupy his thinking while he was in Canberra in 1957 was finally wrapped up while he was in Canberra in 1965. In his own notes he lists Canberra as first and last in the string of places where Norstrilia was written.41

Other things were nearing an end as well. Paul made one more long trip in late 1965, back to Taiwan to receive an honorary degree. When the Linebargers returned to America, Paul tried to pick up his academic work again. But as he reported to a foundation executive in a request for more travel funds, “From these trips we returned exhausted and on 19 December [1965] I had a stroke—what is now called a cardio-vascular accident, somewhere in the right hemisphere of my brain. My blood pressure is still 180/120. My left side is numb, scalp to fingers to toes, but I still have my eyesight—thanks be to the Lord!—and I have motor control… Though I tire easily and am often dizzy, this letter, typed by myself, is evidence (I hope) that I am trying to make a recovery and am to a great extent doing so.”42

During previous periods of illness and recovery, Linebarger had made use of his enforced inaction to develop new science fiction ideas. He tried to do so this time as well, writing to his agent about “the things which go through my head while I am waiting here convalescent! How the Instrumentality first came up… How Brain Gibraltar finally died… A runaway planet which maintained total radio silence in order to survive but which was picked up by telepaths and occasionally called ‘the house of the dark magician’…”43 That letter ended, “Wish me luck. I need it.” Seven months later, a year after he returned from his second Australian sabbatical, Paul Linebarger underwent an experimental operation that he had been told might clear up all his health problems. But at age 53, his luck had run out; the dark magician’s house went dark for the last time; and Brain Gibraltar died forever.


  1. Quotations and citations to Norstrilia in this paper refer to the “First Revised Edition” (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1994). Norstrilians also appear in several short stories (especially “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons”), which may be found in The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordivainer Smith, ed. James A. Mann (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1993).
  2. Diane Standley has suggested to me that “stroon” is a simple modification of “strine”, the word “Australian” as currently spoken in Australia. This is a good time to note that Australians (and presumably Norstrilians) would pronounce the first “i” in “Norstrilia” as a long rather than a short “i.”
  3. Letter of 13 September 1945 to Uncle Isaac and Aunt Adelaide; Paul M. A. Linebarger Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, Box 3. Linebarger’s ocean voyage took place in June-July 1943. All subsequent citations to the Hoover Institution Archives refer to the Paul M.A. Linebarger Papers. I would like to thank Elena Danielson and the staff of the Hoover Institution Archives for their assistance. I wish also to thank Rosana Hart, the executrix of the Paul M.A. Linebarger estate, for allowing me to quote from the Linebarger manuscripts.
  4.  Letter from Lindsay to Linebarger, 29 November 1955; letter from Linebarger to Lindsay, 2 January 1956; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  5. Letter of 2 January 1956 to S.F. Nadel; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  6. Letter of 15 February 1956 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  7. Letter of 31 December 1956 to Governor Christian Herter; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  8. Letter of 28 June 1957 from Marcia Barron; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  9. Arthur Bums, “Paul Linebarger”, originally published in Australian Science Fiction Review No. 11, August 1967; reprinted in Andrew Porter, ed., Exploring Cordwainer Smith (NY: Algol Press, 1975), pp. 5-10, at pp. 6 and 8.
  10. Interview with Erica and Michael Lindsay, Washington, DC, December 3,1988.
  11. Differing perspectives on this dispute are summarised in Lindsay’s article, “Why I Am Resigning”, in the Australian magazine The Observer, 25 July, 1959, pp. 451-453, and in The Making of the Australian National University, by S. G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese (St Leonards, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 1996), pp. 108-109, 121, and 132-133. I am grateful to Sigrid McCausland, Archivist, and to Colin Steele, Librarian, both of the Australian National University, for their assistance in locating this and other information on Paul Linebarger’s stays at the ANU.
  12. Undated letter to Priscilla Mason [probably mid-1957]; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  13. Letter of 16 June 1957 to Phil Thayer; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  14. Letter of 21 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  15. Letter of 12 September 1957 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  16. Cited in “John Foyster Talks with Arthur Bums”, originally published as “Extracts from a Conversation between John Foyster and Doctor Bums” in Australian Science Fiction Revieiv No. 11, August 1967; reprinted in Porter, Exploring Cordwainer Smith, pp. 18-24, at p. 20.1 would like to thank John Foyster both for initiating the first efforts to collect information about Paul Linebarger’s Australian connections, shortly after Linebarger’s death, and for recently interviewing Arthur Burns’s son, Jonathan Bums, to obtain further background information.
  17. Letter of 29 December 1957 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  18. Letter of 10 July 1957 to Professor Tao; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 7.
  19. Letter of 19 July 1957 to Harry Altshuler; Paul Linebarger Collection, Department of Special Collections, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. I would like to thank Alexandra Mason and the staff of the Department of Special Collections for their assistance.
  20. This manuscript and other portions of Star-Craving Mad are located in the Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  21. All the quotations in this paragraph are from Chapter I of the Star-Craving Mad manuscript at the University of Kansas.
  22. “What has happened in the middle of the book”, one-page typescript dated 30 May 1958, in Star-Craving Mad manuscript, University of Kansas.
  23. Letter of 9 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  24. Letter of 21 September 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  25. Letter of 13 November 1959 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  26. Letter of 26 September 1960 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  27. Letter of 20 October 1960 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  28. Letter of 19 May 1961 to Mr Greenish; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  29. See Alan C. Elms, “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith”, Science-Fiction Studies 34 (November 1984), pp. 264-283.
  30. See Alan C. Elms, “Between Mottile and Ambiloxi: Cordwainer Smith as a Southern Writer”, paper presented at the Science Fiction Research Association Annual Conference, Mobile, Alabama, June 5,1999.
  31. Norstrilia, NESFA edition, p. 11.
  32. Norstrilia, NESFA edition, p. 161.
  33. “Triplicate letter,” 30 March 1959; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 4.
  34. J.J. Pierce, “The Treasure of the Secret Cordwainer”, Science Fiction Review 48 (Fall 1983), pp. 8-14; Johan Heje, “On the Genesis of Norstrilia”, Extrapolation 30 (Summer 1989), pp. 146-155.
  35. Interview with Genevieve Linebarger, September 26,1979.
  36. A detailed history of the church, with many photographs, may be found in Firm Still You Stand, by A.H. Body (Canberra: St John’s Parish Council, 1986). I appreciate the efforts of Adrienne Greenwood and other parishioners of St John’s to locate information about Paul Linebarger’s church involvement.
  37. He had had such thoughts as early as 1957, a few months after returning from his first sabbatical there: “… if I had my two daughters [who lived mostly with his ex-wife] I would be tempted to dream of coming back and staying. The place is so relaxed and healthy, if the human beings [e.g., the VC] would only let one relax.” Letter of 3 November 1957 to Michael Lindsay; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 6.
  38. Arthur Burns, “Paul Linebarger”, p. 5.
  39. Letter of 28 March 1966 to Richard Ware, Relm Foundation; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  40. National Review XVII (1 June 1965), pp. 471-472.
  41. The Underpeople, manuscript of new opening, 5 April 1965; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  42. Letter of 28 March 1966 to Richard Ware, Relm Foundation; Linebarger Collection, University of Kansas.
  43. Letter of 17 January 1966 to Harry Altshuler; Hoover Institution Archives, Box 5.

[This paper was first published in Foundation 78 (Spring, 2000), pp. 44-58.]

3 comments on “From Canberra to Norstrilia: The Australian Adventures of Cordwainer SmithAdd yours →

  1. I’m a Cordwainer Smith fan who grew up in rural Australia (in the 60s and 70s) and I even lived in Canberra for a few years, and hung out at the ANU Bar. So I thought this article was superb.

    Whereas Linebarger seemed enchanted by the outback, it was different living in it. The stifling conservatism of the rural elite didn’t make for a comfortable life. The churchgoing American military man, with his distaste for the “pleasure revolution” might have been charmed. We country kids just wanted to get out.

    But I like to think that being Paul Linebarger was his day job. As a science fiction writer, Cordwainer Smith has qualities I relate to. Rod McBan is an outsider in Old North Australia, whose destiny awaits far away from his ancestral home. And Smith is mocking and appropriately condescending when he satirises the rather quirky elements of Australia – its rural protectionism and seemingly unshakeable devotion to the British monarchy, for example – both of which are hallmarks of the right-wing rural elite. And for all his apparent distaste for some of the post-war cultural shifts the youth of America were leading, Cordwainer Smith could have been a hippie icon, with his underpeople leading a revolution of love.

    How sad Linebarger wasn’t here to see the Australian government forge contacts with China in 1972 (beating the US by a couple of months); or the subsequent boom in relations with Asia under the governments of the 80s and 90s. But the failed republic referendum of 1999 would have him thinking we would still be toasting Her Majesty the Queen 15000 years from now.

    And what a tragedy that Cordwainer Smith died at a time in his life when his SF writing might have taken off. But it makes it a quicker job to read his complete works. I’m in the middle of doing that for the second time right now. Its sheer pleasure.

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Declan. I like to think you’re right that “being Paul Linebarger was his day job.” Certainly much of his science fiction as Cordwainer Smith does not sound as though it was written by the same man who taught and governed as Professor Paul Linebarger.

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