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:
I 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