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Jo Walton Recommends: Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith (review)

I recently read Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos. Her enthusiasm led me to make new Goodreads shelf titled “Jo Walton recommends”, consisting entirely of old Hugo winners, nominees and books Walton thinks should have been nominated, in addition to some short story collections by frequent winners/nominees in the short fiction categories. I am absolutely not going to read all the Hugo winners, let alone all nominees. Instead, this is an attempt to become more well read in the genre and try some old masters with Jo Walton as my guide. This week:Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith What is it? Pretty weird, that’s what. Old North Australia, or Norstrilia, is a planet full of gigantic sheep who are kept unhealthy in order to produce a drug that grants immortality to humans – stroon. Stroon can only be produced on this planet. The inhabitants make enormous amounts of money, but can’t actually spend much of it without renouncing their home world and going somewhere else, because of some rules. Main character Rod McBan manipulates the market, becomes the richest man ever and buys Old Earth and everyone on it. There is also telepathy, eugenics and created races of underpeople of different animal stock, but maybe those catpeople are more human than actual humans now that we are pretty much immortal, and frankly, summarising this book is a nightmare. Why I read it: The first half of this book was nominated for the best novel Hugo in 1965. It was published in two parts, because the publishers thought it was too long to be one novel. I’ll just note that the whole thing is about 265 pages, so clearly standards are different now. Jo Walton writes that she can’t believe it didn’t win, and that is a brilliant classic. Is it any good? I’m going to be honest – I have no idea. This book is so full of ideas that it almost collapses under the weight of them. Almost. There is a story underneath it all, but it is sometimes told in an incoherent way. The writing veers between brilliant and impenetrable. Interesting ideas are thrown about much faster than I could digest them. Some are explored, some are not. And just when you think you know what's going on, Smith devotes two pages to quoting poetry. Did I mention that this is a weird book? Because it is super weird. It demands the reader’s attention, and therefore took me way longer to read than I expected for such a short book. I sometimes loved it and sometimes did not like it at all. The only constant feeling throughout was bafflement. Is it horribly outdated? Not really. There are female characters who are not only window dressing. Mostly bit parts, but they are there. Some weirdness in the way he writes about what is essentially a sex worker, but then again, everything here is weird. There is even a trans character, and they are regarded as valid. This is not bad at all for a book from the 1960’s. Is it a classic? I think so. It’s certainly not run of the mill, oldtimey sci-fi. I didn’t necessarily like it, and would only recommend it to people looking for specific things, but I think it deserves to be remembered and read by a new audience. Sequels? This is Smith’s only novel. He died before he could write more. There are a lot of short stories set in the same universe, though. Bingo Squares: Chapter Titles (HM), trans/NB (minor character), New to you (HM for me) Previous post