Cordwainer Smith’s 1975 Norstrilia was originally published as two shorter novels: 1964’s Hugo-nominated The Planet Buyer (AKA The Boy who Bought Old Earth) and The Underpeople (AKA The Store of Heart’s Desire). The setting for both is Smith’s Instrumentality Universe. The books were later combined in one novel, as indeed Smith had originally intended. Believe it or not, but at one point SFF publishers thought long books didn’t sell.
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.
Norstrilia would be an unremarkable, unattractive armpit of a world save for one thing: it is the sole source of stroon, the immortality drug. Selling stroon makes Norstrilia unimaginably rich. Not that this does Norstrilian teen Rod McBan any good: he’ll die soon unless he passes the Adulthood Test, which he knows he cannot do.
The Norstrilians would rather not deal with the rest of the universe; their affluence, they feel, is potentially corrupting. To protect their ancient way of life, they have passed strict laws: a twenty million percent import duty on all luxury goods, social conventions against birth control (obviously immoral), and eugenic laws (to prevent overpopulation and preserve racial fitness). The unfit (as defined by the government) are killed at age sixteen.
Rod is unfit because he is sporadically telepathic. When his psychic powers are functioning, he can read thoughts and emotions to a remarkable degree. His response to the onslaught: a loud, incoherent telepathic scream.
So far, he’s been given three reprieves. But … he’s the last of the McBans. Sole remaining heirs are given four chances to pass. The first three times they fail, they are regressed to the mind of a child and allowed to mature again (this time properly, it is hoped). The fourth failure means death. Rod has failed three times and shows no signs that he will pass the fourth time.
But … some government functionaries think that Rod’s telepathic scream might be weaponized. They argue that he should live, Alas, Rod’s old school chum the Honorable Secretary Houghton Syme has decided that Rod must die.
The Honorable Secretary (the Onsec) is one of the unfortunate few who cannot take life-extending stroon; they are doomed to die in a mere one hundred and sixty years. Impending mortality appears to have driven the Onsec mad. He’s determined to rid his world of Rod.
Rod has a secret asset: an ancient computer. It was designed to wage war and has capabilities unmatched on the planet. It’s a McBan secret. It may offer Rod a means to escape the Onsec. The machine advises:
“You can bankrupt Norstrilia temporarily, buy Old Earth itself, and then negotiate on human terms for anything you want.”
Four hours and seventeen minutes later, Rod McBan is the richest person in the galaxy. He’s a prime target for kidnappers and endangers his homeworld by his very presence. The Norstrilian government tries to strip Rod of his wealth, a plan that the computer balks.
In short order, Rod is on his way to Earth, home of humanity, centre of the supergovernment Instrumentality. Also the home the enslaved Underpeople, who see Rod as chance to gain their freedom.
Life is not going to get easier for the bewildered farm boy.
Smith’s universe doesn’t seem to care all that much for the disabled or the disadvantaged. On Norstrilia, they’re killed. On Old Earth, the Underpeople are allowed to live … at the cost of unending labour and draconian laws. Minor transgressions are punishable by death. I am pretty sure that Smith is on the side of the Underpeople. I am not so sure that I would agree with his attitudes toward eugenics and birth control. As for his views of women; um, the best I can say of them is that they’re quaint.
“An uninviting planet of pugnacious rustics with a monopoly on the means of immortality” may sound familiar. Reminded of Dune? I thought so.
Both novels are set in a far future1. Like Norstrilia, Arrakis is the sole world where a life-extending drug can be harvested. Both the Norstrilians and Dune’s fremen are tough and unforgiving, forged by millennia of misfortune. Both are determined to preserve their way of life, come what may. Both novels follow young men who reshape their worlds. Both date from the same period in the early 1960s. In fact, the original publication dates (late 1963 – early 1964 for the Herbert and 1964 for the two Norstrilia novels) suggests to me that … this is just another one of those weird coincidences SF experiences from time to time.
Pursuing my compare and contrast into the ground: Herbert based his fremen on the Bedouin of the Middle Eastern deserts, whereas Smith based his setting on China (which he knew personally). The senior functionaries of Smith’s Instrumentality are far more adept at managing history’s little setbacks than is Herbert’s Empire. As a result, where Paul Atriedes manages to set off a horrific interstellar jihad while merely trying to survive, Rod McBan’s long-term effect on the universe is surprisingly small. The Instrumentality has survived an absurdly long time by the standards of human institutions; they don’t allow ignorant country boys to disrupt their rule.
Perhaps due to its publishing history, Norstrilia is highly episodic, Rod is oddly passive2; he provides little of the novel’s forward momentum. Things happen and he observes. Still, the novel is filled with colourful episodes and enigmatic hints of a vaster universe. I’m glad it was eventually published in the author’s intended form.
1: Despite which, Norstrilia is still nominally ruled by Queen Elizabeth II on the grounds that her body was never found.
2: The passive Rod is the utter opposite of Dune’s Paul Atreides, which (given the long-term consequences of Paul’s proactive ways) is probably in the best interests of the other inhabitants of the Instrumentality.