The Planet Buyer (The Boy Who Bought Old Earth) (1964) by Cordwainer Smith

ThePlanetBuyer

The story is simple. There was a boy who bought the planet Earth… That’s the story. (p. 7)

Except, the story happens in a land of infected, overgrown sheep that sprout drugs on their hides. Sheep that are raised by silent telepaths who reincarnate into the same body to achieve peak maturation of skills. A place where judicial court is held in a trailer van by a secret society of anonymous neighbors, and punitive measures are carried out by a snake alien.

This. Is. North. Australia.

Norstrilia! (NorstrAlia, though. Bugs my head off.)

(It’s actually a planet far across the galaxy from Old Earth.)

Where, in the wake of enormous drug profit, “they taxed themselves back to simplicity” (17). Where they “did not like posh and they thought that ‘vice-chairman’ was high enough for any one man to go” (p. 20). Where Hamlet is just a talking picture in a drama cube (48-50), and computers are vilified because they have dead people in them (59).

“What’s a personality room?”
“That,” said the doctor, “is a little room where we do things that we don’t want our own families to watch.”
“We call that a bathroom,” said Rod.
(121)

Not a single page goes by that doesn’t introduce some wild concept or fresh twist of the mundane. It’s weird fiction, very weird fiction, where the story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the atmosphere. That part about buying Earth? Forget about that. Norstrilia? Half of the omnibus doesn’t even take place there. Seriously, let go of the story, because it’s just a loose framework for the absurdity (and a bit of philosophizing).

At the same time, it feels very… fannish. SF Encyclopedia calls Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, “garrulous” and I agree. (I’m going to assume that’s a John Clute entry because “garrulous.” And let’s take a moment to giggle at Clute calling someone else “garrulous.”) Almost childlike, Linebarger is very, very excited about science fiction, and spews his ideas without much development. (Though his very early death, and some say the loss of his treasured notebook, likely interrupted future cultivation of these ideas.) Had he lived longer, I strongly suspect The Planet Buyer would be ignored over the more sophisticated Cordwainer Smith novels that we never got. The Planet Buyer feels like the work of a budding author in need of refinement.

Or… maybe Linebarger was an alien:

ThePlanetBuyer2I don’t often look into the biographies of SF authors, but Linebarger’s history is interesting. An east Asian scholar, a polyglot, an expert on psychological warfare, but more fascinating is this speculation regarding the famous psychological case study of “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” of which some scholars have theorized that Linebarger is the actual subject. There is no direct evidence, but it still makes for an absorbing sci-fi read. Whereas The Planet Buyer was easy to put down, I actually postponed bedtime to take in this article. Think of it as an X-file. My gift to you.

Though Linebarger’s (I have a hard time calling him Cordwainer Smith now) rhythmic, dancy style doesn’t spare readers from the kind of old and boring feel, it feels fresher to go back and pick at it. Best recommended as a double-read.

Also, maybe check out the audiobook version of “Scanners Live in Vain” (orig. pub. 1950) narrated by Jeremiah Costello, because it is incredibly bizarre, even by today’s standards, and the scanner voice is just. so. much. cyber.

Coming tomorrow: Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan saga #8) (1994) by Lois McMaster Bujold

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21 thoughts on “The Planet Buyer (The Boy Who Bought Old Earth) (1964) by Cordwainer Smith

  1. sjhigbee says:

    This sounds seriously bizarre.

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  2. wildbilbo says:

    I can guarantee that SOUTH AUSTRALIA is nowhere near this weird. I promise.

    Murders yes.

    Weirdness? No.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I thought you would get a kick out of that. I think I read somewhere that Linebarger had never visited Australia, even though he worked and lived in several countries in Asia.

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  3. Randolph says:

    I’d say his shorter pieces are better. BTW, if you imagine Smith’s works as anime, they make all kinds of sense; these are bicultural works.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It seems to be the consensus that his short works are better,and that’s why I followed this with the “prequel” “The Ballad of Los C’mell” and his later “Scanners Live in Vain.”

      Imagining his work as anime– wow, now that is something I need to keep in mind when I read him again. That really does put his work in a different category. As soon as I picked up on the odd rhythms of his story, that’s when I decided to look him up, so I was aware of his background, but most compared his work to Chinese narrative. Viewing his work as anime add another dimension to his strange stories.

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  4. Holy weird. I do like the sound of that.

    But I admit to finding myself more drawn by the weird bio details you mentioned than the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, that case study is really long, but basically the subject thinks he is living a double life and spends part of his time working on another planet. Of course the psychologist has skewed the details to protect the subject’s privacy, but several people have speculated that Linebarger is the subject. Brian Aldiss publicized the rumor in BILLION YEAR SPREE.

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      • Though it does ring of “potential publicity stunt” it does sound very PK Dick. That’s a good reminder that I wanted to get a copy of Billion Year Spree too.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Hmm, I like your thinking. It’s certainly possible. Published psych scholars often come under fire for sensationalizing their case studies. It’s easy to do since they have to false report so much, in order to protect their subjects’ identities. If the rumor was already rumbling, and the doc “just happened” to slip confirmation to Aldiss at a party, and the poor guy isn’t even alive to defend himself… sounds plausible. Scientists and scholars who publish commercially can be dirty like that.

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  5. I agree with Randolph above, as fascinating as his novel is, his best work is found among his stories. There really isn’t anybody quite like Cordwainer Smith whether in Science Fiction or literary fiction, and you don’t really read him for character or plot but for imagination, atmosphere and general stylishness. I’m a huge fan of his work myself and still can’t believe how relatively unknown he seems to be; personally I’d give the whole oeuvre of the likes of Heinlein or Asimov for just a handful more Cordwainer Smith stories.

    Liked by 2 people

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I was listening to Coode Street Podcast a month or two ago and the hosts said basically the same thing: that Cordwainer Smith doesn’t really attract newer readers of vintage SF the way Heinlein and Asimov do. I wonder if part of that has to do with his early death. His career was really short in comparison to Asimov and Heinlein, who were major fan favorites year after year, even into the eighties.

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      • Randolph says:

        I think he hasn’t found his audience, even now. I wonder, for instance, how “Scanners” (astonishingly, Smith’s first published story) would do as manga? Would it bring Smith to a wider audience?

        The other group that might like him is Roman Catholics; Smith is very Christian.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Cordwainer Smith wrote damn weird stuff, and that’s okay. (He’s not a top fave of mine, but I would also take a handful more of his stories over a thousand Asimovs or Heinleins.) I read somewhere that this one was inspired by the Chinese classic Journey to the West, but I never could see much of it between the craziness and style… and that craziness and mad style are the main reasons to read Cordwainer Smith, he excels at both of them.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I don’t think he’ll be a top fave of mine. Though I enjoyed the ideas, my first readthrough was pretty shrug-worthy. It wasn’t until I went back and skimmed through it again that I noticed more of the vibrancy and thought behind it. (Sort of a Book of the New Sun experience. Sort of.) The story really doesn’t matter, yet this book is a treasure chest of ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The story really doesn’t matter, yet this book is a treasure chest of ideas.
        And that pretty much sums up why he’s not a top fave of mine, but why I read his stuff on occasion. That and the trippin’-balls psychedelia.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. unsubscriber says:

    Sounds like a different kind of read, must look out for a copy. I love both covers too this time.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. […] colorful Hugo shortlist full of imaginative, vibrant, yet structurally flawed stories. The Planet Buyer‘s lack of story requires a reread to be fully appreciated, but it’s more […]

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  9. […] buttered moonbeams! From The Planet Buyer by Cordwainer Smith (ex. Hot buttered moonbeams, this story is the craziest thing you’ll […]

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