Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia: An Introduction

Alan C. Elms

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. Linebarger worked on it in fits and starts, interrupted for long periods by other work, by psychological crises, and by serious physical illness. Several times he began the manuscript again from the beginning. As he changed psychologically, the book changed too. By the time the novel was essentially done, six years after it was begun, Linebarger confessed to his agent that he was going through “one of those morbidly oversensitive periods in which an author does not know whether he has a pile of blah or a minor classic on his hands” (letter to Harry Altshuler, 11 March 1963; Linebarger Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas).

By now, Norstrilia has achieved the status of at least “minor classic” and maybe more. But Paul Linebarger did not live to see it happen. He tried as best he could to get the entire novel into print, but as he acknowledged at one point, it was regarded as “over-length” by potential publishers—about 25% longer than the 60,000 words considered marketable for a science fiction novel at the time. Most of the manuscript’s first half appeared in Galaxy in early 1964, but Galaxy readers were referred to the magazine’s sister publication, Worlds of If Science Fiction, to find the rest of the story—actually, only pieces of the rest. Pyramid Books bought the whole manuscript for paperback publication, but insisted on publishing it as two apparently self-contained “novels.” The first half appeared as The Planet Buyer in October 1964, with a two-page “Epilogue and Coda” added by Linebarger to give readers a sense of closure. After writing and rewriting a new introductory section to make the novel’s second half stand more or less on its own, Linebarger died in 1966, at age 53. That second half, titled The Underpeople, did not appear in book form until 1968; even then, it did not include substantial segments of the remaining manuscript, and it made no direct mention that it was a sequel to The Planet Buyer. In 1975, nearly a decade after Linebarger’s death, a Ballantine Books paperback reunited the two halves of the manuscript and restored most of the earlier deletions. After another twenty years, this NESFA Press edition finally gives Norstrilia its first hardcover American publication.

Even in the butchered format of the magazine and Pyramid Books versions, even with the numerous typographical errors of the Ballantine edition, Norstrilia has made its mark. In a perceptive early review of The Planet Buyer, Theodore Sturgeon proclaimed, “The Next Great Name Is Smith,” and suggested that “If literary historians of the future make of Cordwainer Smith another Tolkien, it will not be too surprising” (National Review, June 1, 1965; Sturgeon sent a copy of his review to Linebarger with a note apologizing for its understatement). By 1985, the novel was so cherished by some readers that when a scholar/fan wrote about “touchstone” passages in science fiction, she began with the scene in Norstrilia where Rod McBan gets his first sight and smell of the planet Earth (Carol McGuirk, Fantasy Review, December 1985. McGuirk also asked rhetorically, “Smith, like every major s-f writer, has his own cadre of admirers—but has his centrality in the genre been argued?”). Two years later, a poll asking knowledgeable readers to choose the “All-Time Best Science Fiction Novel” placed Norstrilia at number 35, just below Orwell’s 1984 and several notches above major works by two of Linebarger’s favorite writers, H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon (Locus, August 1987). When one of the field’s most active scholars recently listed a dozen basic works of science fiction that he would assign to an undergraduate class, Norstrilia was included along with Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Gibson’s Neuromancer, and other obvious choices (Gary Westfahl, Science Fiction Eye, Spring 1994).

Paul Linebarger had not seen his mission in life as writing the Great American Science Fiction Novel. He held a full-time position as Professor of Asiatic Politics at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, and he took his work there seriously. He carried out frequent assignments on the side (or under cover), doing intelligence work around the world for U. S. Army Intelligence and occasionally for the CIA. At times he engaged in speechwriting, ghostwriting, and other tasks for prominent political figures, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. Though writing science fiction was much more than a hobby for him (he saw it as essential to his psychological health), the brief periods of time Linebarger was able to find for his fiction lent themselves better to writing short stories than novels. But in 1957 he spent a one-semester sabbatical leave at the Australian National University in Canberra. Amid his teaching and scholarly writing in Australia (plus more off-the-record intelligence work in nearby countries), he had the time and the emotional freedom to think about writing a science fiction novel.

Important aspects of the novel were influenced by his experiences in Australia. Linebarger had been a world traveler from age five. He spent much of his childhood in China and Europe, and he revisited those areas often throughout his life, along with trips to many other countries on every major continent. But Australia felt special to him. It combined aspects of the exotic and of frontier America. Its English-origin settlers displayed a tough but honest code of ethics and a friendly independence that he admired. He told his Australian friends that when he retired he wanted to settle there for the rest of his life. He never got old enough to retire (his university wouldn’t consider it until he was at least 55), but he did get back to Australia for one more sabbatical leave a year before he died. In the meantime he returned often to an imagined Australia, in the novel that through most of its gestation was titled Old North Australia, then finally Norstrilia for short. (In case you’re wondering, Norstrilia should probably be pronounced Nor-STRILE-ya with an Australian accent—but Linebarger left no instructions, and who knows what that accent will be 15,000 years from now?)

Norstrilia could have been a fairly simple novel about the settlers of another planet who struggle to reproduce and maintain the culture of twentieth-century North Australia. Fairly good science fiction novels have often been written that way: transpose elements of the Roman Empire or Elizabethan England to another planet or a future Earth, then let the history books and the biographies guide your plot and your characters. Linebarger pretends, in Norstrilia’s first five pages, that he is indeed telling just such a simple story. But before we’ve finished reading page 1, we know the story won’t be all that simple. As we finish page 2, we know the central protagonist is a very unpredictable fellow. By page 3, the planet Norstrilia begins to sound distinctly unlike old North Australia ever was on Earth—indeed, unlike any part of Earth has ever been.

Paul Linebarger wanted to build the character and values of his Australian friends into a science fiction novel, and to some extent he did. But he had other agendas as well. Among them, these are prominent in Norstrilia:

Literary Adaptation

Like other writers before him (e.g., Jack Williamson) and after (e.g., Robert Silverberg), Paul Linebarger often looked to works of great literature for science-fictional ideas. In his short stories he adapted works as diverse as the French romance Paul et Virginie, Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Le bateau ivre, and the traditional Chinese narrative Quest of the Three Kingdoms. Linebarger had been reading classic Chinese literature since childhood, in translation and in the original. As his ideas for Norstrilia were developing, another Chinese classic came to mind: the hundred-chapter epic The Journey to the West. (The most accurate translation now available is Anthony C. Yu’s four-volume University of Chicago Press edition. Arthur Waley’s partial translation, Monkey, is the best-known English version. Another recent adaptation in contemporary terms is Mark Salzman’s The Laughing Sutra.)

The Journey to the West tells the story of a real seventh-century Buddhist monk and his altogether fantastic monkey bodyguard, who travel to India to look for Buddhist scriptures. Before they attain their goal they must endure, as Anthony Yu summarizes, “a long series of captures and releases of the pilgrims by monsters, demons, animal spirits, and gods in disguise.” In Norstrilia, Rod McBan begins his journey to Earth in an ironically similar quest—not for scriptures but for ancient postage stamps. He is accompanied by a monkey-protector, and he encounters various monsters or demons (giant spiders and mutated humans), animal spirits (the underpeople), and gods in disguise (the E’telekeli). One of the underpeople, the cat-woman C’mell, may be partly inspired by Kuan-yin, a female Buddha in The Journey to the West who organizes assistance for the traveling monk. The monk not only hopes to obtain Buddhist scriptures to take back to China, but also seeks self-enlightenment and, as Anthony Yu says, an answer to “the question of whether all men, or only part of humanity, could attain Buddhahood.” Rod McBan does not seek self-enlightenment but he gets it anyway, at the hands of Earth’s last clinical psychologist; and, with the encouragement of C’mell, he lends his assistance to an underground (literally!) movement that will ultimately unite people and underpeople, at least at a spiritual level. There may be even more connections between Norstrilia and The Journey to the West, in both deep structure and detail. But Paul Linebarger was never one to let strict literary parallels spoil a good story, and much of Norstrilia wanders far from The Journey.

Political Values

Paul Linebarger was an academic political scientist by training and by professional identification, but he was a political activist as well, in several arenas. He has been inaccurately characterized (e.g., in the Clute/Nicholls Science Fiction Encyclopedia) as a right-winger, and he did enjoy baiting his more liberal friends with outrageous pronouncements. But in the American context, he usually occupied the ground between moderate Republican and moderate Democrat, with a heavy dose of realpolitik on certain matters of state. In the Chinese context, Linebarger had grown up with a strong belief in the greatness of Sun Yat-sen and with a sustained preference for the rule of Chiang Kai-shek over Mao Tse-tung. Linebarger and his family enjoyed close personal ties with Sun, with Chiang, and with many prominent members of the Kuomintang. But according to his colleagues and former students, he was not blind to the corruptions of the Nationalist Chinese Government of Taiwan. His real emotional commitment was not to that government but to the welfare of the Chinese people. In Norstrilia, Linebarger delights in devising examples of interplanetary realpolitik and displaying his expertise in psychological warfare. But his strongest emotional investment there is in the cause of the underpeople—which for Linebarger did not primarily represent the American civil rights movement, as some have suggested, but the long struggle of the Chinese masses toward political and personal freedom. (Again, Linebarger was not trying to construct an exact parallel to the Chinese struggle in his depiction of the underpeople. He mixes elements of Chinese history with borrowings from Joan of Arc and other inspired leaders and martyrs, and emerges with a mythic struggle far broader and more archetypal than any given political movement on Earth.)

Personal Myth

The name “Rod” may have been chosen as a joking reference to the magical golden rod wielded by Monkey in The Journey to the West. The name “McBan” probably came from Anthony, one of Linebarger’s middle names. Rod McBan’s full name, Roderick Frederick Ronald Arnold William MacArthur McBan the hundred and fifty-first, reflects Linebarger’s ambivalence about his own distended name, Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger, and that of his father, Paul Myron Wentworth Linebarger. That’s only the beginning of. the autobiographical elements built into Norstrilia.

Starting in his peripatetic childhood, Paul Linebarger had suffered for decades from a profound psychological isolation. Rod’s inability to “spiek” and “hier” telepathically like others on his planet reflects Linebarger’s strong sense of missing out on the shared feelings of his peers as he passed often from one country and linguistic context to another. Rod’s eventual confrontation with the psychotherapist Catmaster was mirrored in Linebarger’s own life by encounters with several psychotherapists. Some gave him temporary relief from his isolation; others left him grateful to be able to live with himself. C’mell may be endowed with characteristics of several desired but somehow forbidden women in his life; we know that she was based in part on the qualities of his favorite cat Melanie, and on his yearnings to be as emotionally close to a human woman as he sometimes felt toward Melanie and his other cats. And Rod’s self-effacing cousin Lavinia resembles in certain ways Linebarger’s second wife Genevieve, with whom he was satisfied to live out the final years of his life.

Spiritual Stirrings

In those final years, Linebarger’s previously unfocused religious feelings intensified. He had grown up nominally Methodist, but had felt little interest in the more spiritual aspects of religion until Genevieve’s mother underwent a painful terminal illness. As Linebarger and his wife began to embrace Episcopalianism (a compromise between his Protestant and her Catholic upbringing), the evolving worlds of Norstrilia acquired distinct religious undertones and overtones as well. But although Linebarger welcomed the ceremonial and communal aspects of Episcopalianism, his personal beliefs about salvation and the afterlife remained ambiguously unorthodox—as does the religion of the E’telekeli and his underperson disciples.

Science Fiction Tropes

Paul Linebarger enjoyed orchestrating all these elements in Norstrilia, but he remained quite aware that he needed to tell an entertaining and reader-involving story. He had been a voracious reader of science fiction since the early days of Amazing Stories, building up a major collection of science fiction books in several languages. (He collected stamps, guns, typewriters, and science fiction.) Though he easily pulled elements of world literature into his own work, he was steeped in the science fiction tradition and happily elaborated on it. The accidentally entrepreneurial “Boy Who Bought Old Earth” of Norstrilia is at one level making friendly fun of Heinlein’s “Man Who Sold the Moon.” The underpeople incorporate elements of Dr. Moreau’s beast-people and the Time Traveler’s Morlocks. But those Wellsian elements barely anticipated Linebarger’s far more elaborate development of underpeople society, as well as the society of “true men” on Earth’s surface and beyond.

Packing all these tropes, icons, themes, borrowings, and personal myths into one novel was a tall order. Linebarger didn’t completely pull it off. At several points the novel is missing transitions or clearly developed motivations; at other points there are minor or major inconsistencies. (For the reader unfamiliar with the rest of Linebarger’s science fiction, even more may seem to be missing. See The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, published by NESFA Press in 1993, for explanations in story form of many otherwise obscure references in Norstrilia.) The novel is distinctly episodic—partly as a result of following The Journey to the West as a model, partly because of Linebarger’s own episodic life, which kept getting in the way of producing a totally unified novel.

But few science fiction novels—indeed, few novels in any genre—display the exuberance of imaginative invention that persists from beginning to end of Norstrilia. Sometimes the novel seems to be, as a few critics have complained, “just one damned thing after another.” But that’s part of its charm as well: the charm of encountering the unexpected, and then the even more unexpected, followed shortly by the wildly improbable and the utterly fantastic—all anchored by the struggling hero Rod and his constantly fascinating companion C’mell. And throughout the novel there is the language of Cordwainer Smith, which Theodore Sturgeon (himself a master of language) described as at times “exalted,” at other times “anguished,” at still other times “deadly humorous.” Before and after Paul Linebarger’s early death, many science fiction writers— from Ursula Le Guin to Harlan Ellison to Frederik Pohl, from Algis Budrys to Robert Silverberg to Australia’s own Terry Dowling—have tried to write like Cordwainer Smith. But there was only one real Cordwainer Smith. In Norstrilia his distinctive voice spieks clearly, and it is a joy for the reader’s mind to hier.

[First published in Cordwainer Smith, Norstrilia, corrected edition (Framingham, MA: NESFA Press, 1994, pp. vii-xii.)]

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