Somewhere I’ve said that I think most loners are on the ASD spectrum. Enough has been written about famous loners who, in ‘real life’, have or probably have or had Asperger’s syndrome/ASD – Bill Gates, Michael Jackson, Vladimir Putin, Abraham Lincoln, etc, etc – in this series, I’m going to look at forgotten ones, in particular a special kind – the autistic loners in fiction.
The least known of these might be Rod McBan in Cordwainer Smith’s 1964 novel Norstrilia, a book I consider the greatest SF novel ever.
Rod was born on the planet Norstrilia (short for Old North Australia), on the farm known as the Station of Doom. At the beginning of the story he is waiting for an oral examination where it will be determined whether he will be allowed to inherit his family’s estate, or if he will be put to death because of his telepathic deafness. Unlike most Norstrilians who conduct their conversations mostly via telepathy, Rod cannot do this. He doesn’t ‘fit in’. But it turns out that he just has a different, non verbal, form of telepathy.
Unknown to Rod, almost everyone is convinced he is doomed to die, which will be done in the ‘Garden of Death’. Rod himself is only slightly more optimistic that he has a future.
That difference in his telepathic power doesn’t put Rod on the Spectrum. But look at this conversation he has with his young cousin Lavinia, who is secretly in love with him. She is helping her aunt groom Rod for the fatal day’s ceremony:
He looked directly into her eyes, and she into his.
“I want you,” she said, very clearly, very quietly, and with a smile which seemed inexplicable to him.
“What for?” he said, equally quietly.
“Just you.” she said. “I want you for myself. You’re going to live.”
“You’re Lavinia, my cousin,” said he, as though discovering it for the first time.
There it is. Only someone on the spectrum could produce an answer like “What for?” Later in the story Rod’s this lack of understanding of people and their intentions is repeated again and again, confirming my diagnosis.
For Rod is one of the great innocents of literature. Like Candide in Voltaire’s famous story of that name, he is about to enter an odyssey that will test his wits and his luck to an extreme.
He also has the extreme focus of ASD people, the so-called ‘restricted interest’. Though on Earth he is offered the attention of uncountable beautiful women and other temptations, throughout his adventure he seeks only one thing – Cape of Good Hope triangular postage stamps for his collection.
How does he buy the Earth? Well, to keep it short, in celebration of his unexpected survival of the testing in the Garden of Death, his family’s hidden illegal computer (sentient computers are forbidden on Norstrilia), during a few hours in the Galactic stock exchanges and 7-8 unforgettable pages, engineers a set of ‘futures’ buyouts that lead to Rod acquiring ownership of Earth, the home and ruling world of the galactic empire. It wasn’t Rod’s idea.
Then he innocently sets out to see what he has bought.
More than anything else, it is the scene of Rod’s arrival on Earth that I have longed all my life to see in a Hollywood movie.
He is accompanied by little Dr A’gentur, a monkey ‘supplementary surgeon’ who supervised Rod’s dismantling into molecules to allow his transfer across space, and accompanies him to Earth to enable reassembly there.
They are met on the ‘landing roof’ of Earthport (said to look like a giant upside down wine glass) by the beautiful cat woman, C’Mell, Cordwainer Smith’s most famous character (she is the chief protagonist in many of his stories). C’mell has been assigned to be Rod’s guide and principal bodyguard.
The three stand there on the edge of the roof, miles up in the sky, looking across the north and south Atlantic at the continents of Europe and Africa on the horizon, while C’Mell explains to Rod that, now owner of Earth, he is in great danger from people who will want to kill him.
“Why would anyone want to kill me?”, Rod asks.
Little doctor A’gentur, Smith wrote, “shook his monkey head sadly, as though he knew full well, but found the telling of it inexpressibly wearisome and sad.”
That is a scene that, if done properly (Stephen Spielberg, I hope you read this one day), would be one of the greatest scenes ever shown in a film.
No one, in SF or in mainstream literature, has ever written like Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym for history professor and World War II intelligence agent Paul Linebarger). Many have tried to copy Hemingway, and a very few have come close, but no one, as far as I know, has even tried to copy Cordwainer Smith.
Yes, Rod is one of the famous innocents in literature (think of Candide, Don Quixote, David Copperfield, etc. ) someone who wanders through a world they don’t understand, whose dangers they cannot anticipate. Through their uncomprehending eyes, we comprehend better the duplicitous enigmatic human world.
Adventure after adventure follow as this hauntingly beautiful satire unfolds. With Rod we not only get to know the cat people, dog people, birdmen, etc., as they descend deeper and deeper into the underground levels of the future civilization. With him we witness the bewildering outcome of Mankind’s long history. As fantastic as it all still looks after six decades in print on and off, a gigantic version of Alice’s Wonderland, the story is simultaneously realistic and hauntingly poetic. Just look at the titles of some of the chapters:
- At the Gate of the Garden of Death
- The Palace of the Governor of Night
- The High Sky Flying
- The Road to the Catmaster
- The Department Store of Heart’s Desires
Smith was criticized for those half human cat people, bull men, etc, because he never explained the science that would allow it. But now, at the beginning of the 21st century, when we have pigs and mice running around with human genes in them, plants with animal genes inside, etc, Smith’s universe no longer looks so farfetched.
He may not have been thinking about autism when he created Rod McBan, but he obviously understood the Asperger/Aspie type. That Rod’s personality remains unchanged from that of aspies/ASD people today, while the world he inhabits is so profoundly changed, says much, I think, about something that is not often talked about – the unusual mental strength of high functioning autistic people.
Before I’m gone, I long to watch Rod McBan come to life in the movie version of Norstrilia. Whoever eventually does it, they better hurry up.
If you are interested in Cordwainer Smith, here is the site maintained for him by his loyal daughter, where, among other things, you will see a photo of the house cat who inspired the creation of C’Mell.