This must be old news to serious fans, but I am constantly amazed at all the articles that turn up about Cordwainer Smith. I discover some of them through using Google Alerts, but today’s post is about an ezine that one of the writers told me about.

It’s a downloadable pdf, available at no cost: I’ve set that PDF link to open in a new window or tab. There are two CS articles in this fanzine, both about Norstrilia. Harry Buerkett, who is the writer who emailed me, explores the similarities between Norstrilia and George Herbert’s Dune in his “Of Haggis and Hagiography:The uncanny provenance of Norstrilia and Dune.”

The two books came out around the same time, and they are amazing similar… Buerkett goes into great detail in this article, much as Biblical scholars use the same approach in examining New Testament books.

Here’s his abstract:

The texts of Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia
and Frank Herbert’s Dune, composed
and published concurrently, show
a marked similarity of structure, setting
and plot — to such a degree that one can
demonstrate, through a close intertextual
reading, an extraordinary positive correlation
between the works. Parallels in
plot elements, details of poetics and
imagery, and nearly identical dialogue
strongly suggest a common precursor.

And here’s a bit from the article:

My experience has been that
generally readers tend to disbelieve the
thesis unless given all the cognate material
and comparisons. There is a general
propensity to say, ‘Oh, no, it can’t be so!’
I wrote the paper to give as detailed and
closely read an analysis and comparison
of the salient features of the two texts as
can be presented in a readily accessible
form, so that a knowledgeable reader will
be persuaded that the two novels do in
fact tell the same story (essentially). That
revelation represents only the first half of
the battle: convincing the reader that it is

And an extrordinary claim requires
extraordinary evidence.
As to finding a source or quelle, a common
precursor, that must be left to others
more versed in the literatures of the
world, as the resolution to the problem is
exponentially more involved than its
statement. My own twelve-year search of
mythology, medieval tales and fables,
Middle Eastern and Indian national epic,
Chinese literature in translation, science
fiction from the nineteenth century on,
has uncovered many resonances and
diverse instances of detail, but no

It’s a quick download to browse through the several pages of his comparisons. If you do, come back and post a comment about it here. Harry and I have emailed about this topic off and on.

The other Norstrilia article in that fanzine, “Cordwainer Smith: Reflections on some of his themes” is by Gillian Pollack, and I found it specially interesting because it compares Norstrilia with the Canberra that my father lived in. I didn’t go along on that trip, but I remember my father talking a lot about Canberra and Australia after his return. Here are some bits from the beginning of this article:

The Australia Smith saw was very
much the cultural blueprint for Norstilia,
with its responsibility towards remem-
bering the British Empire and preserving
certain cultural values.

Canberra and Norstrilia
Canberra in the 1960s was a mere kernel
of the Canberra of 2005. It was small and
green, mostly buildings and public
parkland, surrounded by the enormous
brown of rural Australia. This was the
Canberra that Cordwainer Smith knew.
Not the small internationalist city of to-
day, with its sprawl of suburbs and its
café culture, but an overgrown country
town that just happened to be the seat of
government for a whole country. You
can see a sense of this Canberra in Smith’s
work, the idea that Norstrilian govern-
ment is more a set of social compacts than
a formal hierarchy, the idea that family
and inheritance counts (the earliest set-
tlers in the area still farmed sheep on
what are today mere suburbs.

But it’s not just a geographical meandering. Here is her wrap-up.

This is the brilliance of Cordwainer
Smith. He refers to his Old Strong Reli-
gion. He uses his Old Strong Religion. He
shapes the whole story of D’Joan and the
quest of Casher O’Neil around a particu-
larly archaic version of Protestant belief.
All the traditional allegory and the Bibli-
cal and religious knowledge that was
commonplace in his youth appears in his
writing, from the land of Mizraim (Misr)
to the need to forego the quest in order to
achieve the true goal.

Yet all the while he uses these pat-
terns, he mocks them. He makes it clear
that his is an invented universe. He has
his heroes play with space and time like
gods, while indicating that they can’t
possibly be gods. He creates his Vomact
family in such a way that the ambi-
valence between good and evil is peren-
nially pointed out: we don’t know until
we read a given story whether the
Vomact will be hero or villain. In show-
ing the hand of the creator so very, very
clearly, Cordwainer Smith casts doubt on
his own allegories. He leaves it to the
reader to think it through.
— Gillian Polack, 2005