I didn’t like this old-school sci-fi book as I was reading it, and as I’ve been thinking about it in preparation for writing this review, I like it even less. Pull one or two plotlines and the whole thing unravels.
Rod McBan is 16, and lives on North Australia (Norstrilia), a phenomenally wealthy planet (due to the discovery of a drug that extends life indefinitely). The people on the planet like their quiet, simple, rural lifestyle, so they take drastic measures to make sure their wealth doesn’t change them. Goods are taxed at an astronomical rate, and teenagers are routinely killed if they fail some telepathic test in the Garden of Death. Yeah. They limit lifespans to 400 years, but to avoid overpopulation, they randomly kill off 16-year-olds. Rod McBan is one of the lucky ones, and is judged to be useful enough to society that he gets to live.
Except that he finds out that somebody wants to kill him for very, VERY flimsy reasons (Rod called him names when they were both children). Rather than do anything sensible about this problem, Rod decides to buy Earth, and then go there. There’s a huge amount of explanation about HOW he was able to do this (reads like an economics lesson, Earth money vs. space money, blah blah), but absolutely no mention of WHY. If he wants to run away to Earth rather than, I don’t know, call the cops, can’t he just do that? Why does he need to buy it? Then once he gets there, everybody’s trying to kill or sweet-talk or marry him, since he’s the richest person in the universe. He learns some life lessons, forgives the guy who’s trying to kill him, and goes on home.
A very simple story, if you strip out all the weird unnecessary sideplots (a near-sentient computer that was his great-grandfather’s, histories of various other planets and aliens that are never mentioned again, etc.). It’s just that nothing in the book really needed to happen! It’s like on Lost, when nobody would ask any sensible questions. And lots of it stops making sense if you look at it sideways.
Also, the (four) lady characters are embarrassing. Two are servants (who spend a lot of time bathing Rod), one is the daughter of a cult leader who just prays a lot and says “Yes, Father,” and one is a genetically engineered cat person, designed to be a voluptuous ‘girlygirl,’ aka space hooker, and assigned to Rod as his wife on Earth. Girlygirls are “shaped and trained to serve as hostess to offworld visitors, required by law and custom to invite their love.”
Yeah. She is definitely the prize at the end of the videogame, there to give Rod confusing hormonal feelings and show him the way around town. And flashing him her “delicate chest and her young, pear-shaped breasts” in elevator shafts. Oh, and also, when Rod buys Earth, the Powers That Be throw in a million women, with dowries included. Isn’t that nice of them? Isn’t it comforting to know that in the distant future, where humankind has conquered the stars and made friends with aliens and settled many planets, that we still have dowries and use women as a reward system?
Cordwainer Smith might be tremendous at choosing pseudonyms, but that does not get him enough points for me to try another of his books.