the Little Red Reviewer

The Planet Buyer, by Cordwainer Smith

Posted on: January 11, 2013

SAM_2423The Planet Buyer, by Cordwainer Smith

published in 1964

where I got it: purchased used

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Rod McBan the hundred and fifty first is the last of his illustrious line, so the law of Norstrilia allows him to have children. But he can’t control or properly develop his telepathy and is therefore considered flawed and handicapped, and no amount of therapy seems to help.  Rod will either pass the tests and be allowed to breed, or be given euthanasia drugs. On pastoral Norstrilia, only the strongest are allowed to survive. They may be the farmers of the immortality drug Stroon, but the Norstrilians are a strict, traditional, and pragmatic people.

It’s fascinating how the richest planet in the universe ended up  being sparsely populated by a bunch of farmers and their disease ridden mutant sheep. The narrative offers quite a bit of helpful background on how Norstrilia came to be. It borders on infodumping, but Smith’s easy going  and conversational style prose makes it easy to dive right in and feel like you are right there.

At the last minute, Rod is saved from the grueling tests by Lord Redlady, a representative of The Instrumentality (the governing body of the galaxy), and given the opportunity to visit  Manhome (Earth).  Not sure what decision to make, Rod consults with the family computer, which has been hidden away under ground. The computer’s response is basically “leave it to me”, and the computer begins playing the stock market with Rod’s family fortune. Before dawn, Rod is the richest man in the galaxy, richer than the Stroon markets, possibly richer than The Instrumentality. If there was a time to escape to Manhome, now is that time!

Escape plan in motion, Rod starts his journey.  But the secret is out that he’s suddenly the richest person the galaxy has ever seen. Governments are after him, criminals are after him, everyone wants Rod McBan, or wants him dead. And the one group that conspires to save and protect him is the one group that has eyes and ears everywhere, but no rights anywhere.  But what do they want him for? Why did they save him? certainly not pure altruism. When Rod eventually arrives on Earth, he finds that he owns just about everything.

The story ends rather abruptly, to be continued in the Smith novel The Underpeople, which was written in 1968. The two short novels were eventually published in a single volume in  1975 titled Norstrilia.

One of my favorite things about The Planet Buyer was Smith’s worldbuilding for Norstrilia. At first blush, their customs regarding population control sounded awful. However, they are not overly cruel or inhumane about it, and the reasons for the strict population control is presented in a logical manner. Or at least, logical to them.  Individuals that do not pass the tests are  treated respectfully until their death (well, unless you consider killing them!) and aren’t seen as an embarrassment to their families. The drugs allow the person to die in a pain-free state of bliss.  It’s the strength of Smith’s power with words, that he can take something so awful, so horrific, and make it sound like just another local tradition.

Smith’s writing style isn’t for everyone, readers seem to really like him, or really really dislike him.  Granted, I have not read much of his work, but what I have read I really enjoyed to the point that if I see a Smith at a usedbookstore, I grab it!  I appreciate that he doesn’t shy away from telling it how it is, and for pulp science fiction his short stories are very emotional and evocative, sometimes with more the feeling of mythology than a far future scifi story. Often, we meet members of the genetically modified servant class, the Underpeople, who know their lot in life, but dream of better things.  Most of his science fiction works take place in the same universe (that of Norstrilia, Stroon, and The Instrumentality),with recurring characters and locales. Smith stories don’t always have a happy ending, but I always get a soothing feeling from reading them.

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16 Responses to "The Planet Buyer, by Cordwainer Smith"

It’s funny how these older books keep popping up for me. The science behind them is so vintage as well. I can relate to this just like watching an old Star Trek episode. The knobs are huge, the computers beep and whir, and the overall story is more relaxed. Today’s books start abrupt and finish with a bang. I remember reading an old John Grisham book from the early 90’s. I remember how the story grabbed my attention right from page one. I never read anything like it. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, the stories were more liberal with they way they were written. Slow intros, long character descriptions and a heavy build. Anyway, just thought I’d throw that in there ’cause this book is something I’d probably enjoy reading!

Keep up the great work :)

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Yeah, I love in these old stories that computers are the size of a room, telephones have wires (tell that to a kid today, and they just don’t believe you!) photography isn’t instant, and characters don’t have the universe, or twitter, at their fingertips.

communication took much longer,computational stuff took longer, the pace of life was slower. maybe that accounts for the gentler pace of a lot of this older stuff?

and thanks! :)

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I’m one of those who love…LOVE…Cordwainer Smith, as you well know. I often describe his writing as “lyrical” because for me there is something about it that has its own melody and it just sings. I feel this electricity when I read his work, even with the short stories that I don’t particularly love. As a whole his works do something special for me as a reader and when I read The Planet Buyer followed up immediately by The Underpeople last year I was just blown away. I devoured them both in hardly anytime and all. I couldn’t bear to be away from Rod and C’Mell (who is possibly my favorite Smith character). There is a beauty to the world he has created, even in its cruelty and unfairness and I think that is because he doesn’t shy away from showing the “slaves” of his universe as people with real feelings and emotions, with dreams and desires of a better situation. I like that he doesn’t make everything triumphant nor does he make everything tragic. And he is just so darn creative.

I mentioned elsewhere that my recommendation is to read at least a good handful of Smith’s short stories before reading this just because you then “get” all the little references to those stories as you read this. He wrote this novel later and did a great job of weaving in parts and characters from those shorter stories.

At any rate, I cannot recommend Smith strongly enough and while I fully understand when people don’t like his work (it is the oddest stuff that I like) I also feel sad because of that connection that they are missing out on.

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the only other Cordwainer Smith I’ve read is Space Lords (which I fell head over heels for), so I was able pick up a few of the references, while I’m sure there were others that I missed. Poor C’mell, I remember her story in Space Lords being very tragic.

there’s just nothing for it – I’ve got to find a copy of The Underpeople!

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Yes you do! And if you can’t track down The Rediscovery of Man which has all his short fiction, snag You Will Never Be the Same. It is another great collection of his stories.

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I’ve got You Will Never Be The Same, and it was a toss up between that and the Planet Buyer to read for Vintage month. even if I can’t get to You Will Never Be the Same before the end of this month, I do want to read it sooner rather than later.

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I read a collection of Cordwainer Smith’s short stories last year for Vintage SF Month and was impressed by his works. I should see if the library has this one as I am already a little familiar with stroon from some of the short stories.

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I hope these get done into e-books soon, the copies I’ve seen at stores are falling apart. or if not e-books, then something with plasticized pages so the library can loan it out a million times without the book getting damaged.

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I have both NESFA collection of Smith, and the contents – what I’ve read so far, anyway – are excellent.

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I’m happy to hear you are enjoying him!

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I have that same edition, Richard. It is a really nice book.

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Cordwainder Smith is one of my weaknesses. From the contents list of his stories — the plots (particularly), the settings, the characters — past evidence suggests I should be indifferent, and yet, I just can’t ignore a word of his. The lyricism is probably the best way to put what he’s got, even though I’m largely lyric-deaf. Smith’s just that good, is all.

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he’s quickly becoming a weakness of mine as well, and it all comes down to the prose style and all that lyrical-ness!

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And, yet another author that I haven’t read! No doubt you won’t be surprised. I feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up after 100 years of sleep and being totally out of place with everything and everyone!
Lynn :D

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Hmm… I’ve never heard of Smith. Sounds like he is much loved!

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Fun to see how my dad’s work continues to touch people. The best editions of his work are the NESFA ones mentioned above — they put a lot of work into getting small typos and other errors corrected.

And for the readers wanting to read online, clicking on my name here will take you to the page on my site cordwainer-smith.com with links to several free stories and more that you can buy.

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