TT: Rule Breaker

JANE: I’ve spent the better part of the last week trying to figure out what makes Cordwainer Smith’s work so special.  Finally, today, as I glanced at the opening of Norstrilia I had it.

Longer Works

He breaks all the rules and somehow makes it work.

Let me quote the first paragraph of Norstrilia since not everyone may have a copy at hand.  (I am happy to report, however, that Norstrilia appears to be available in a variety of forms, including an e-book.)

“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 not 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.”

And then having broken the rule that people read books because they want to find out “how it ends,” and so need to be teased and tantalized, Cordwainer Smith launches into his remarkable tale.

ALAN: And the very next thing he talks about is “stroon”. I’ve no idea what the derivation of the word is, but it’s a vital element within the universe in which his stories are set. Stroon is a drug that indefinitely postpones aging in humans. It’s sometimes referred to as the santaclara drug, and I don’t know the derivation of that word either…

JANE: “Stroon” sounds very Australian and since Norstrilia is a shortened form of the planet’s original name – Old North Australia – this is probably not accidental.  You are married to an Australian.  Can Robin help out with this puzzle?

ALAN: I reminded Robin that in the novel, stroon is extracted from the gigantic sick sheep of Old North Australia and she thought for a moment, then she informed me that in her experience real North Australians don’t understand numbers – when they count their sheep they are only able to count “One, two, a mob.” (She may be showing her West Australian bias here…) So therefore it would seem that the most likely reason for the name of the drug is because, wherever you look, you will find a mob of sick sheep strewn all over the landscape… (Stroon, when you use the proper, lazy North Australian accent of course).

JANE: Ouch!

Let’s see what I can come up with that might help with why it’s called the santaclara drug.

Santa Clara translates into English as “Saint Clara” or “Saint Clare.”  Saint Clara was a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Although wealthy, she was so inspired by his preaching that she asked him for guidelines as to how to live a good life.  She then founded a monastic order that still exists today and is commonly called the “Poor Clares” because of their devotion to a life of quiet contemplation and renunciation of Earthly possessions.

Since the Nostrilians effectively take a vow of poverty in order to preserve their society in the face of what would otherwise be astonishing wealth, this seems to fit.  Nor is it out of line with the setting, since Christianity – alluded to as “the sign of the Fish” – provides an important undercurrent in the stories dealing with the underpeople.

So, what do you think?  Does Saint Clara provide a possible reason why stroon is called the santaclara drug?

ALAN: Absolutely it does. It’s very easy to imagine the lazy North Australian accent blurring those words together so that the space disappears and Santa Clara becomes the “santaclara” drug…

If this was an SF novel by anyone else, we’d expect that stroon would be synthesised in a lab or extracted from a plant; something quite mundane and scientific (or at least scientifically fictional). But this is a Cordwainer Smith novel and we quickly learn that stroon is impossible to synthesise. So the only source of the drug is from the mobs of gigantic and very sick Norstrilian sheep.

That’s a very surreal image. I’m not a very visual reader and I seldom make pictures in my mind from the words that I read. But I find that a large part of Cordwainer Smith’s attraction is that, unlike almost every other author, he always manages to conjure up very visual images for me, generally strangely attractive ones. And here I can so easily picture bare brown landscapes festooned with huge, diseased sheep, panting in the heat, perhaps baaa-ing plaintively and maybe with a soft Salvador Dali watch draped over them to give them some shade. I’ve no idea where the watches come in – Smith never mentions them, but to me they are always there…

JANE: I don’t need to add watches, in part because Cordwainer Smith always balances the surreal with the extremely real.  A good example is how he deals with water.  Norstrilia is a very dry planet, so canals are covered to reduce water loss from evaporation.  This very science fictional touch makes it possible for me to believe in a landscape dotted with enormous, nearly immortal, diseased sheep.

ALAN: But there’s much more to the story than just bizarre imagery. Images need to have a purpose and here, with the introduction of stroon, Smith is definitely not a rule breaker. He asks a genuinely SF question: “What if there was a drug that granted immortality and it could only be made on one planet?”   He pursues the economic, political and cultural implications of the answer to that question quite rigorously.

Stroon sells for astronomical prices and consequently Norstrilia is fabulously wealthy by the standards of every other planet. But (isn’t there always a “but”?) the Norstrilian way of life is simple, pastoral and rather archaic, and the Norstrilians are concerned to keep it that way. Consequently imports are taxed at something in excess of twenty million percent which means, of course, that even the fabulously wealthy Norstrilians are too poor to purchase much in the way of luxury, thus maintaining the status quo.

Linebarger (“Smith”) was an economic and political advisor to governments and the knowledge and experience he gained by doing that job is used to great effect in his stories. The surreal and complex imagery always has a firm foundation to stand on.

JANE: Another place where Smith breaks the rules and somehow makes it work in defiance of all logic is in the concept of the underpeople.  The underpeople have a major role to play in Norstrilia, as well as in many of his short stories.  Maybe we can talk about them and the mysterious Instrumentality of Mankind, next time.

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