Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith

September 28, 2017 4:26 pm by Crocodile

By Cordwainer Smith

There’s a few things notable about sci fi novelist Cordwainer Smith- the first is that he helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare section, and literally wrote the book on psychological warfare (“Psychological Warfare”, 1948). the second is that many of his stories are set in the same universe at different points in the timeline, though not necessarily with overlapping characters. The third and most unusual thing is that he might be the real “Kirk Allen”, a psychiatric patient mentioned in Robert M Lindner’s essay for Harpers, “the Jet-Propelled Couch“. Here’s a summary of the relevant parts of the essay, via wikipedia:

[he] became obsessed with a series of novels, the protagonist of which shared his name.

“Allen” attended University, and became a scientist, working with the United States Military on a classified research project during World War II, which helped to bring about the war’s end. Meanwhile, convinced that the novels were his personal biography, he “filled in” many omitted details from the novels, from his own “recollection”. He was incredibly thorough, creating full-color maps, sketches, a glossary of names and terms, socio-economic data, etcetera. In his own words:

“My first effort, then, was to remember. I started by fixing in my mind, and later on paper in the forms of maps, genealogical tables, and so on, what the author of my biography had put down. When I had this mastered, by remembering I was able to correct his errors, fill in many details, and close gaps between one volume of the biography and the next.”

Eventually, he reached the outer limits of the scope of the novels, and began to “recall” his/the character’s further adventures. He even began to hallucinate being in the various settings of his stories, physically experiencing them. Soon, his employers became aware of his psychotic condition, and demanded that he get psychiatric treatment. Reluctantly, he conceded. His psychoanalyst was Lindner, who would eventually write a popular case-study of Allen. Lindner eventually cured Allen, by immersing himself in the fantasy world, but in the process became himself obsessed.

the argument that Smith is Allen is not perfect but strong (links are at the end of the post). If it’s true, then there’s further speculation as to whether this book, “Norstrilia” is a story he remembered/hallucinated or one he invented willfully. It’s also possible that the world, or some aspect of it, was fully formed in his head, and then he invented a simple character to move through it. Honestly, that’s probably how most genre fiction works.

I didn’t finish this one, and in fact I didn’t get far, because it suffers the fate of too many stories I’m picking up nowadays, in that it relies on one of its characters being extremely rich to advance the plot. I understand why you write a wealthy protagonist- they have the means to support a narrative. They don’t have to work, and they have nearly infinite resources at their disposal. But it’s a pretty lazy move on the writer’s part, and it increases empathy for a set of people who are among the worst on earth. I don’t want to hear about a cool rich person! Rich people are why human life on earth (right now) is miserable for so many people!

Nova by Samuel Delaney had this problem. Batman has this problem. Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sort of had that problem but they solved it by making the rich guy an idiotic charismatic psychopath. I’m not going to make an exhaustive list of stories that have this problem, that’s not useful. But I’d like to say to any writers out there reading me: stop doing this! It sucks.

This book is the first press (!) from 1975, although it’s composed of two stories that were previously published, in 1964 and 1968. Cordwainer Smith died in 1966 so there’s no way to fact check the cover- if that’s what the monkey doctor really looked like, we’ll never know. The cover says $1.50, that’s $6.86 in 2017. I don’t really remember where I got this or what I paid, but I think it came from Chris Cooper’s yard sale. Or maybe we just talked about it?

Also, to be clear: even though this novel had what to me is a fatal flaw, I was enjoying it, and I bet I would like some of his other stuff. And although the Kirk Allen stuff is interesting, the rest of Cordwainer Smith’s life is very interesting too! His IRL name (or what I’d call his “walking around name”) was Paul Linebarger, and other AKAs included Lin Bai-lo and Felix C Forrest. Lin Bai-lo is a name he received from his Chinese godfather Sun Yat-Sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China (!). Lin Bai-Lo translates as “Forest of Incandescent Bliss”- Felix C Forrest is an approximate translation into American namespace, “felix” being Latin for “happy” (as in “felicity”). “Cordwainer Smith” was his sci-fi name- a cordwainer is a leatherworker, a smith is a blacksmith. A feeling of handiwork, and things made on purpose. For deeper info see the Cordwainer Smith Scholarly Corner.

You can read the original Harper’s essay “the Jet Propelled Couch” here: [link]

For more about the connection between Allen and Smith, see “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch“.

Here’s a video of Chris Cooper, he’s the best!!!!



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