Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith (real name Paul Anthony Myron Linebarger) was an unusual man; an expert on the Far East and on psychological warfare, who served in US Army Intelligence in both World War 2 and the Korean War, he also left behind a series of linked stories set some 15 millennia in the future. These envisage a strange universe in which man has developed in various forms on different planets and has in addition changed animals into "underpeople"; mainly human but retaining some characteristics of their animal origins. The whole is ruled by the Instrumentality of Mankind, a self-perpetuating and self-governing group of Lords and Ladies who have absolute power.

Norstrilia is the one full-length novel in the sequence. It follows the adventures of Rod McBan, born heir to a farm on the planet Old North Australia (Norstrilia for short) which maintains the way of life of the long-lost Earth original. Despite the simple life of the people, they are fabulously rich because the planet is the only source of stroon, a life-perpetuating drug extracted from diseased sheep. At the start of the book McBan is in serious trouble as he has a handicap – his telepathic ability is unreliable – and Norstrilia has a rigorous screening policy to keep the population in check by very pleasantly killing off anyone who doesn't measure up. With the aid of an old computer, programmed long ago in the science of economic warfare, he protects himself with a sustained assault on humanity's economic system, which leads to him buying Old Earth, to which he escapes. The rest of the story tells of his adventures there among the Lords of the Instrumentality and the underpeople.

If the plot sounds strange, the writing style is even stranger. Cordwainer Smith had a unique, unmistakeable style with which to express his truly bizarre genius. While just about qualifying as SF, it has more of the feel of fantasy. However, it isn't all smoke and mirrors created by an imagination careering away with itself; there is thinking and writing of real substance here, passages to make the reader stop, and think, and re-read them.

It is quite possible that some people will really dislike the result; I suspect that you either love or hate his work. Personally I love it, and believe that the author has earned a special niche in science fiction's wall of honour. Everyone with a real interest in the genre should read at least one of these stories, and will then most likely not rest until finishing the lot.

(An extract from my SFF blog)