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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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R. A. Lafferty

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of R. A. Lafferty and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Lafferty.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Lafferty: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Lafferty tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Lafferty worthy; in sum, to help you rank R. A. Lafferty (and the works by Lafferty listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About R. A. Lafferty

Lafferty’s Style

Raphael Aloysius “Ray” Lafferty, the self-described “cranky old man from Tulsa, Oklahoma”. is a genius: I state that flatly. He is one of the eminent English-language writers of, at the very least, the twentieth century—yet he remains little known, little read, and much misunderstood and underappreciated. Indeed, much of his oeuvre exists only in very limited print runs of cheap paper chapbooks.

As the thoughtful will deduce, the problem is that Lafferty is not an easy writer. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that under superficial consideration he looks easy; were he as obviously complex as, for example, James Joyce (and, of course, were he not “just” an SF&F author), readers and critics would likely have made some effort to look beneath the hood to see what was what; but because his works can, by the careless, be taken for ordinary stuff, his complexities—of both language and meaning—end up dismissed as just nonsensically bad ordinary writing. As a thirsty drinker expecting the taste of a soda pop might well spit out in disgust a mouthful of vintage brut champagne, so might an SF reader expecting typical SF reject vintage Lafferty.

Even experienced readers of SF&F, accustomed to unusual and complicated tales and worlds, can find Lafferty puzzling or worse at first blush. So, before I attempt to set out some of Lafferty’s excellences, let me say a bit about what one needs to know to even begin to grasp his work.

Lafferty is never “realistic”. However ordinary his settings may seem when first we start one of his tales, we must remember that for a certainty they are surreal fantasies in the truest sense of those words. I think the most apt analogy for Lafferty’s works is animated cartoons. Things in Lafferty tales happen at the breathless, breakneck pace—and with the madcap ad hoc paralogic—of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. We believe none of it because we are never for a second expected to believe any of it, any more than we are expected to “believe” what happens to Bugs and Elmer; we do not participate to behold “slices of life” but to behold madcap exaggerations and distortions of it. The single worst error a reader new to Lafferty can make is to think that a world Lafferty introduces in apparently ordinary science-fiction terms actually is (even by science-fiction standards) ordinary.

Well, look here:

The ichthyans or Queer Fish are the oddest species to be found in any of the worlds. They are pseudo-human, perhaps, but not android. The sign of the fish is not easily seen on them, and they pass as human whenever they wish: a peculiarity of them is that they often do not wish to pass as human even when their lives depend on it. They have blood in their veins, but an additional serum as well. It is only when the organizational sickness is upon them (for these organizing and building proclivities they are sometimes known as the Queer Builders or the Ants of God), that they can really be told from humans.…Their threat to us is more real than apparent and we tend to minimize it. This we must not do. In our unstructured, destructed, destroyed society, they must be counted as the enemies to be exterminated. It’s a double danger they offer to us: to fight them on their own grounds, or to neglect to fight them. They’d almost trick us into organizing to hunt down their organization.

You are forewarned that there must be some sort of twist here, but a casual reader, ignorant of Lafferty, skimming that in a bookstore, might take it for a particularly sloppy routine s.f. tale of aliens. Instead, we come to find, the “Queer Fish” (think “fish” bumper stickers) are the few Godly folk remaining in the modernist “unstructured, destructed, destroyed society” that Lafferty continually maintains we are rapidly becoming (or perhaps have already become). It’s just Lafferty’s way of speaking.

To know that all of Lafferty’s works are surreal is necessary but not sufficient for understanding those works: we need to consider the ways in which that surrealism commonly manifests itself. The commonest way is a disdain for time, which is almost always highly telescoped down in Lafferty tales (as in animated cartoons) so as to keep the focus tightly on the wild action going on in the main ring:

“When are your friends going to arrive, Epikt?” Valery Mok asked that creative machine who was presently in his modified alligator mobile extension. “Not that I greatly look forward to their arrival, but there’s a lot of spooky literature arriving here in care of them. That little magazine Okkult, ugh!”

“They will arrive within minutes or seconds,” Epikt conveyed in a cavernous sort of voice. “That little magazine Okkult, ugh! contains an article of my own, ‘The Gravity of Hollow Spheres’, made up entirely of anomalies. I’m proud of it.”

“Epikt, do you know what happened to the water in Lake Yahola Reservoir?” Gregory Smirnov the Director of the Institute for Impure Science asked sharply. “The early morning report has it that all the water disappeared with a great sucking sound within two minutes. That was only half an hour ago.”

“All the water in the reservoir went down a big hole in the ground,” Epikt uttered. “I hate it when things go wrong like that. They were about five miles off.”

“Epikt, do you know what’s making all the big holes in Donner’s Pasture?” Aloysius Shiplap asked. “Half a dozen houses have already slipped into them, and there’s consternation among the people of the neighborhood.”

“They’re coming closer,” Epikt said. “They’ll be here pretty quick now. Tell the people that no harm was intended, that they can have their houses back again if they want to go down in the holes and get them. My friends are trying to navigate by themselves, and a trip like this is a first.”

We don’t believe any of that is happening or could happen or might happen in any version of the world we know, but who cares? We watch for much the same reasons we watch the obviously unreal, surreal antics of Bugs and Elmer (and Porky and Daffy and Sylvester)—because those antics are stupendously amusing:

“Epikt, what is that awful roaring and clanking right under our feet?”

“It’s probably the roots of the rose bushes showing a little vigor,” Epikt uttered. “You recall that I mixed a batch of my own ‘Never-Fail’ rose fertilizer for you to use last night. It works, it works! There is nothing more poetic than a veritable explosion of roses such as we are about to see.”

But what exploded out of the ground in the middle of the rose garden that bordered the sun patio of the Institute was not a cascade of red roses. It was a fourteen-wheel-drive, hang-on-anywhere, climb-the-cliffs Cavern-Buggy of unknown manufacture. There were two creatures (mechanical) in it who were covered with rock-dust and trash. The two creatures were wearing Australian digger hats, and they were quickly recognized as:

“Proaisth!” Gregory Smirnov cried out with something near loathing, and it was indeed that British speculative machine in its wrinkled Noel Coward extension that looked grotesque under the huge digger hat. And the other one was—

“Chresmoeidy!” Valery cried out in total contempt. It was in truth the French thesis-making machine in its French navvie extension with striped sweater and small artist’s moustache, but with the digger hat instead of a beret.

“Finally we hit it just right,” Proaisth chuckled and he put a third digger hat onto the mottled head of Epikt. “We went in from Australia this morning, just so we couldn’t be accused of taking short cuts. It’s a good thing you have a big rose garden to make such a big hole in. If we’d overshot it just a little, the whole Institute of Impure Science would have fallen into our hole. Ah, I’m sure you won’t mind if we have a few of our associates in for a meeting this morning, Director Smirnov. There’ll be about three hundred of them for a start. We’ll entertain them simply right out here, cocktail party then a plush banquet. The big hole won’t matter to them. They’re partisans of big holes in the ground anyway.”

“Just who are these three hundred or so ‘associates’ of yours that you have invited to our Institute, Proaisth?” Gregory Smirnov asked. “Ah, will Austro be here, Epikt?”

“Oh, they’re all members of the ‘Hollow Earth Society’, both from within and on the surface of the earth,” the British machine said. “Austro? I thought he was just a character in the Rocky McCrocky comic strip. Soon everybody both within and on the earth will be members of the ‘Hollow Earth Society’. There has been division between people for too long.”

That is more than just Looney Tunes (and Merrie Melodies): it’s the Marx Brothers stateroom scene.

Lafferty has many excellences. To touch on one in passing, one you have already seen a bit of, there’s his genius with character names: the names he gives out in his tales make it clear that we are in strange territory. Here’s a most abbreviated roll call, as if what you have already read weren’t enough!: Anthony Longarm; Caspar O’Malley; Andrew Giro; Basil Cubic; Theophile Marzials; Fairbridge O’Boyle; Benny B-Flat; Dirk Stroeve; Ester Jack; Bruno Starlight; Adrian Mansion; Shalimar McGuire; Arsine Braveheart; Alfred Freck; Catherine Klutz; Jimpson Ginseng; Johnny Greeneyes; Darius Parsee; Jack Bang; Dr. Velikov Vonk; Flip O’Grady (a chimpanzee); George Meropen; Griggles Swing; Abel Riordan; Belinda Greenglow; Victor Hornspoon; Honest Schzhoultsko; Henry Sounder; Diamant Harp; Joe Greatglobe; Rambo Touchstone; Karl Effigy; Clement Stringtown; Crowley Headcooper; Hildebrand Oakley; Robert Straitroad; Redman Newbreeze; Culpepper Geier; George Artless; Lemuel Windfall; Ronald Kolibri; Bonta Chrysalis; Michael Goodgrind; Ignace Wolff; Joseph Waterwitch; Vincent Rue; Adrian Durchbruch; and, as the King reputedly said, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The lot sound like names from Jackie Gleason’s old “Joe the Bartender” stories—remember Gaylord Farquhart? Many of those delightfully named persons recur throughout Lafferty’s tales, sometimes as major players and sometimes as “cameos”; among the “regulars”—and if that sounds like a neighborhood bar, perhaps that is not coincidental—are the members of the Institute for Impure Science, most of whom you have now already met; Austro, a twelve-year-old “general-purpose genius of the species australopithecus” and co-author of the Rocky McCrocky comic strip; the eminent scientist Willy McGilly; Roy Mega; Audifax O’Hanlon; Mary Mondo (a ghost); Diogenes Pontifex; et, as one says, alia. There will be a quiz in the morning; as a study key, consider the preponderant nature of the surnames. There are some further notes below at the heading Lafferty’s Universes.

A telescoping of time is but one of Lafferty’s characteristic surrealities. Another is simple, but hard to describe simply. It is the trick of having all the characters in a tale understand each other perfectly, without question, despite the zany and impossible nature of most everything each is saying and doing, just as in—yet again—a Bugs Bunny cartoon. They, like Bugs, live in their peculiar world, not ours, however much it may look like our world. Lafferty is by no means the only writer ever to use this mannerism: Charles Finney uses it in several tales; Flann O’Brien used it; others have too. (Do we see a pattern here? Do you recall your study key?)

About midnight, Barnaby Sheen clumped down to the little work-shop of Austro and Roy Mega. Well, both the young geniuses worked for Barnaby Sheen.

“Ah there, old mule-skinner, what is amiss?” Austro asked with nervous heartiness. “Is it making any real noise in the world yet, Mr. Sheen? Is it having real effect?”

“Austro, the effect has reached ‘G’ on the world-is-coming-to-an-end scale,” Barnaby said ponderously. “That means that there will be a very-high-ranking officer, a ‘G’ officer, here in just a bit. It’s only super-glycerine with some targeting substance added to it, isn’t it, Austro?”

“Yeah, with a targeting juice added, but I’ll say no more about that.”

“Yes, you will too Austro. What targeting juice?”

“Aw, it’s people-juice, Mr. Sheen,” Austro said nervously.

“People is the last ones I would have suspected. Why should you have sicked this ravening slickness monster on people, Austro?”

“Who’s as well-heeled as people? How are you going to blackmail dogs or trees or insects or things like that? What would they pay off with?”

“Well, back it off for a couple of hours, boys,” Barnaby ordered. “Let’s have no more harassment till the ‘G’ Grade General gets here and we see how much damage has been done.”

“How come you don’t slip and slide and fall down like the rest of the people do, Mr. Sheen?” Austro asked, worried.

“Because I’m smarter than you are,” Barnaby Sheen said.

Just keep reciting your personal mantram: Lafferty. It makes no more—and no less—sense than the one-reelers that keep children and adults both in stitches.

But so far I may be giving you the impression that Lafferty is some sort of American Tom Holt or Terry Pratchett, a master comedian. Well, Lafferty, like those two fine writers, is indeed at times largely a comic (none of them are ever “entirely” comic—there’s always a bite in that comedy); but were that the limit of Lafferty, he’d not be on my five-star list. No, much of the time—most of the time—Lafferty is a very great deal more than “merely” funny. While his house brand of manic humor permeates all of his work, the bulk of that work is far more complex and freighted than, for example, the cavortings of Austro and Roy Mega.

That brings us to the next key a reader needs to unlock Lafferty’s code: Lafferty is a devout, conservative Roman Catholic, and his strongly held beliefs pervade and indeed power all his major works. Moreover, while Lafferty’s encyclopedic knowledge of Catholic lore (and lore in general, for that matter) is spread throughout his tales, those tales invariably focus on what Lafferty clearly sees as the central malady of our time: the collapse of values—a problem that goes beyond any one particular religion or even philosophy, and so gives a powerful vitality and universality to Lafferty’s curiously coded visions.

Mind, Lafferty does not spin grim morality plays: he tells stories, very zany stories with a lot of fun juice in them. A quotation from Navarth the mad poet (creation of Lafferty’s contemporary Jack Vance) is strikingly apposite to Lafferty and his works:

I sought to express truth in all its vehemence. This is a danger. A meaning must be uttered idly, without emphasis. The listener is under no compulsion to react; his customary defenses are not in place, the meaning enters his mind.

To repeat: while Lafferty’s tellings occasionally include ideas specific to Roman Catholic doctrine (as in Tales of Midnight, for example), those tales nonetheless have essentially universal applicability, in that Lafferty is much more concerned with matters so fundamental that exactly what values one may have are far less important than that one have values. The catastrophe of modern times (in his essays, Lafferty makes plain his belief that this disease exploded into virulence in the mid to late twentieth century, a thought with which many would concur) is the degrading of the very concept of values, of the very idea of any thing or things being worth more than any other thing or things, being worth anything at all. He does not “deplore” the “Whatever…” era: he despises it with a hatred fathoms deep.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that while my metaphysics and Lafferty’s are pretty far apart, his and my ethics are very close. I agree with him that this bleaching to gray of everything important—the world-view that I sum up in the phrase No Values—is the crucial problem of our time.)

Lafferty is passionate and is crying out in a poet’s tongue, but we can see on all sides of us what he means: just pick up any daily newspaper. However insane you think something, if it isn’t in today’s news, it’ll be in tomorrow’s. It is the outlook so aptly expressed near the beginning of the last century by Aleister Crowley, the self-styled “Great Beast”: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. We see it everywhere: in “grammar manuals” that tell us that “good English” is whatever the most people say; in movies and television series where vicious gangsters are the “heroes”; in the continual “dumbing-down” of schooling; and on and on—pick up that newspaper and read. Lafferty is—as am I—sick of that horrid flattening-out process, that steam-rollering of all human values in the name of “the higher value.”

Let us look again at that passage about the “Queer Fish.” It comes from And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire, a work from Lafferty’s earlier days—what we might call his Portrait of the Artist phase—when he was (like Joyce in that period) relatively clear, at least compared to what came later. The world of that tale (as always, painted by Lafferty with wild surrealism) is the post-modern “unstructured, destructed, destroyed society” that its correspondingly “unstructured, destructed, destroyed” members think is wonderful, having lost the ability to see that they cannot see, realize that they cannot realize, understand that they cannot understand. Everything Lafferty says in that tale is heavily freighted with overtones that are invisible if one does not have the key, plain—almost obvious—if one does.

“How is a person or a world unmade or unformed? First, by being deformed. And following the deforming is the collapsing. The tenuous balance is broken. Insanity is induced easily under the name of the higher sanity. Then the little candle that is in each head is blown out on the pretext that the great cosmic light can better be seen without it.”

The process is not some great uprising of evil, easy to see, to rally against: it is insidious, it creeps, it overtakes the unwary:

The persons and the worlds were never highly stable. A cross-member is removed here on the pretext of added freedom. Foundation blocks are taken away on the pretext of change. Supporting studs are pulled down on the pretext of new experience. And none of the entities had ever been supported more strongly than was necessary. What happens then? A man collapses, a town, a city, a nation, a world. And it is hardly noticed.

That, to Lafferty, is how evil triumphs: it erases, it reduces, it boils down; it destroys intellect, individuality; it depersonalizes. The monsters it creates do not slaver and torture and rend flesh: they trade stock options and take three weeks in Bermuda and swap wives and starve the poor and blow up cities with jaunty gaiety, literal mindlessness. They have the desires, and the morals, and the minds, of small children. They pull the wings off flies and the heads off people because it is so amusing. The one crime, the one sin, left available, is to fail to pursue gaiety with sufficient force—to assert values or individual personality, individual thoughts; and if you do that, gray faceless men come and take you away, and no one cares because you were just an old wet blanket anyway. Recall the phrase Kraft durch Freude; recall other cautionary tales, Brave New World, That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis).

But there now, I have been putting the cart before the horse: I have gotten from Lafferty prerequisites into the ways in which Lafferty—himself a mad poet if ever there was one—stimulates the reader’s mental processes. Let us backtrack to the four basic elements of pleasing readers.

Lafferty’s language you have seen a bit of. His is not the pastel elegance of a Lord Dunsany, not the mordant irony of a Jack Vance; his is the smooth, flowing Blarney of a poet drunk on (at the least) words. Several observers have likened his style to that of traditional folk “tall tales,” and there is a clear resemblance. A couple of further samples:

The dread visitors burst the front door open and came up the stairs with a clatter. They burst the door of our room open and came in.

“All is lost,” the sawdusty Loretta Sheen moaned. “It’s Paracelsus.”

“Destruction and damnation!” Mary Mondo howled. “It’s Morgana.”

“Fate worse than death.” Austro cringed. “It’s the Unnameable One.”

Well, the three visitors did look a little bit gaudy. One of them, the one Austro called the Unnameable, poured a bowl of clotted kiboko blood over the head of the victim, Austro. It was like pouring a bowl of death over him. And Austro fainted dead away and fell over on the floor.

He turned blue. He quivered a little bit, and then he stopped quivering. He stopped breathing too. Doctor George Drakos gave him a poke in the solar plexus and he started to breathe again.

“Happy birthday, Austro!” the three fearsome visitors called. And Austro regained himself and sat up on the floor.

“I knew you all the time,” he said. “I wasn’t fooled.” But he had been.

Flip O’Grady was a chimpanzee of mature years and unusual intelligence. He stood a full four feet tall. He was employed as a penny-flipper at the Probability Division: it was under the direction of Doctor Velikov Vonk, and so was Flip…

The flipping was dogged hard work as Flip O’Grady did it, steep psychic stuff with preternatural aspects, and he sweat a lot on the assignments. He wore a T shirt and boxer shorts when he flipped pennies. After every flipping session he took a brisk five-minute shower. Then he put on horn-pipe pants and sports jacket for a forty minute coffee-and-doughnuts break. He took most of his breaks in the International House of Doughnuts, but also in Speedster’s Cafe and in Zabotski’s Bagelrees. The flipping, the shower, and the break constituted a cycle.

Flip lived in a little cottage that was eight feet by eight feet square. It was really a ‘Garden Giant Little Gem Prefabricated Tool Shed’, the deluxe or two-window model. Flip had fixed it up according to his own exceptional taste, painted in three tones, and with red simulated tiles on the roof. It was heaped and overgrown with flowers.

“Lorica is a donkey,” Fairbrow said with that easy urbanity that is part of the equipment of all deeply evil men. “In the underlay, the pit that is under the worlds and under the minds, is to be found all power and influence. The gold-symbol demon Aurelion is pushing your application for membership in this always exciting and evernew cartel that creates. You have the chance to become the substance that men and minds and worlds are made out of. Dare to create!”

“Fairbrow is right,” the Putty Dwarf stated. “All things in all worlds are putty in our hands when we become part of the great creative ocean. Dare to be exciting!”

“Faugh!” Lorica snorted. It sounded like an umbrella being let down.

“Lorica is common. He is in trade,” the Putty Dwarf said. “He really does sell umbrellas. Has an umbrella peddler the key to the power of the universes?”

“Pay no mind to these mangy mice, Palgrave,” the man Lorica said; but the damage was already done to Lorica.

“It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for that intrepid woman to drive a car down into that narrow ditch,” the eminent scientist Dr. Velikof Vonk said.

“You know how that camel does it?” Clarence Little-Saddle offered, appearing of a sudden from nowhere. “He just closes one of his own eyes and flops back his ears and plunges right through. A camel is mighty narrow when he closes one eye and flops back his ears. Besides, they use a big-eyed needle in the act.”

With some writers, and Lafferty is one, small samples do not work well, for much of such writers’ effect is by the sustaining of a tone: a snapshot of someone standing on a wire is necessarily less astounding than seeing that person walking that long tightwire in perfect balance. But length is, as always, a limitation here.

Having done as much as anything less than reading Lafferty at one or more books’ length can do to display his wondrous and delightful language (or so I hope), I turn to the other three elements of pleasing readers: plot, settings, and characterization. And here are difficulties.

Lafferty’s plots, his settings, his characterizations are as bizarrely jumbled as his language. The tale you are reading is never the tale he is telling. (The more I reflect on Lafferty, the more significant that statement seems.) Lafferty tells tales of the timeless things, the things of enduring—of eternal—value, the ways of the worlds visible and invisible, the human psyche and (unfashionable thought in our increasingly “unstructured, destructed, destroyed” society) the human soul. But he does not tell his real tales in the way a C. S. Lewis (for example) would, straightforwardly and covered only with a fictive gauze so sheer as to plainly have been selected so as to not chance the weakest eye not penetrating it (much less in the flashing-neon-illuminated style of so many who have not made these lists at all); Lafferty presents his real tales as what we may perhaps consider parables—sometimes as obvious as most of the things we are used to encountering under that rubric and sometimes, to put it mildly, arcane—almost opaque.

In a Lafferty tale—a Lafferty hyperparable—the plot, the settings, the characters are a swirling snowstorm of symbology, sometimes naively plain and sometimes hauled up from deep in the Jungian racial memory or the collective unconscious (Lafferty disdains such notions but is nevertheless fluent in both their formal terminology and their actual content). To shift metaphor, Lafferty fires these symbols at us like a manic machine-gunner; they interweave, they burn the air; they hit their targets, they miss wildly; but the gunner keeps his finger locked to the trigger. It is hard to read a sentence of Lafferty, impossible to read a paragraph, without being hit by one or more symbolic names or acts, sometimes large, sometimes small.

Understand that while Lafferty’s works are woven almost wholly of symbol-thread, they are not allegories. In allegory, the tale you are reading is comprehensible, a simplified playing out of the tale the author wants to tell. Lafferty is telling the tales he wants to tell in a waving of symbols akin to the frantic waving of arms of a mute pregnant with vital news. Lafferty waves, he dances, he plays intellectual charades with us; but he does not deal in allegory.

To close the circle: Lafferty’s core message is invariable—the good must resist the mindbreakers, must not yield to the pleasures of mindless pleasure, must do what is often hard and painful.

(Lafferty is often quite casually quite gruesome in describing what the wicked do to the good. Folk are, in almost jolly descriptions, disemboweled, throat-slit, pulled to pieces, burned to ash, or sent to any number of other curious but repellent fates. Sometimes they are killed, but more often they are translated to some peculiar status in the tale, a ghostly or, on occasion, even solid (if decidedly unusual) presence, or entombed awaiting some future event, which may come within the tale or only be implied.)

So that’s R. A. Lafferty: profound parables of things eternal presented as manic animated cartoons written down in the language of a mad poet. If you cannot readily imagine such a thing, I have two comments: one, I’d be a little worried if you could; and two, go read a few Lafferty books. You will be changed, and possibly improved, by the experience.

Lafferty’s Universes

As I remarked somewhere above, Lafferty commonly shoves many curious names at us in his tales, often as a long list not needful to the tale itself (“Some of the persons who made up that golden age were….”) and so plainly included for humor or other value; moreover, many of those names surface repeatedly. The attentive and patient reader going through the entire corpus of Lafferty’s works could use those repeating names to thread together otherwise unrelated tales into a larger montage or universe. I have never undertaken the task (it’s the “patient” quality I lack), but I wouldn’t be surprised if most or even all of his novels, as well as a large fraction of his short stories, could be so tied together.

All that said, Lafferty’s works seem to revolve around three chief foci. The first of those foci is The Institute For Impure Science, and orbiting it are the novel Arrive at Easterwine and a large number of short stories, notably those in Through Elegant Eyes: Stories of Austro and the Men Who Know Everything but going back to some of Lafferty’s earliest work. In these tales we encounter—among many—Gregory Smirnov, Valery Mok, Charles Cogsworth, Aloysius Shiplap, and of course Epikt, the Ktistec machine, chief figure of Arrive at Easterwine, and whom you have seen in action in some of the quotations above; this focus also centers the Austro stories, which you have also tasted above.

Another node of Lafferty’s tales is what I suppose we might call the “future outer space" focus. This includes reference to the worlds of Astrobe and Klepsis and many more, and orbiting it are such novels as Past Master, Space Chantey, The Annals of Klepsis, and possibly others, plus many, many of his short stories.

The third focus is the Argo mythos, centered on the idea of the ship Argo—yes, the one Jason sailed—as a mystic and eternal craft (symbolic, to Lafferty, of the Catholic Church) sailing in and out of space, time, and history. Most of the books orbiting this focus are so labelled in the book list farther below, but very possibly others of Lafferty’s tales also feel its gravitational pull.

As I said, the fanatic, with patience, could probably link all of Lafferty’s works. There is, for instance, in one of the Argo books, the bare mention—in one of those laundry lists of names—of one Aloysius Shiplap, which could justify tying the Institute tales to the world of the Argo tales; and there are doubtless other such fragile connects. (For example, Enniscorthy Sweeney’s name also appears.)

But none of that is really important. I mention the foci only because the reader new to Lafferty needs as many assists as possible, just as one first learning trapeze work needs safety lines and nets till enough skill is acquired to sail fearlessly through the air with trust that the next trapeze bar will be where its needed when it’s needed—and so it is with reading Lafferty. Knowing a little about the foci of his work just helps keep everything a little less disorganized.

A Side Note

Though it is outside our scope here, I will mention that Lafferty also wrote an excellent non-fiction book, The Fall of Rome, an insightful history of the events leading up to that fall; Lafferty’s thesis is that had just any one of a number of chancey events or personalities been only a little different, the person (Alaric) and the tribe (the Goths) that “sacked” Rome might well have ended up instead as its ruler, infusing new energy and leadership into the moribund Empire at a crucial moment, and so allowing it to endure for who knows how many centuries more. It is a book easy to read and follow, which many history books are not, and though written as a serious study still manifests Lafferty’s snappy literary style. I recommend it even to those not normally interested in history. (The same book was later republished under the title Alaric: The Day the World Ended, presumably to make it sound enticingly like more Lafferty fiction; the reference to the world “ending” the day Rome definitively fell is indicative of Lafferty’s attitude, that it was a catastrophe, a needless catastrophe, for civilization.)

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Other R. A. Lafferty Resources

R. A. Lafferty Resources on the Web

It is pleasant to now be able to say that there are several dedicated Lafferty web sites, besides numerous relevant individual web pages. It’s about time.

There is a Lafferty site at the R. A. Lafferty Devotional Page. The maintainer obviously enjoys Lafferty—note the site’s name—but I’m not sure how completely he’s grasped Lafferty’s essence. Lafferty is always, at the hard core of almost everything he wrote (a few of the pure-humor short pieces are the exception), dealing out rigorous theological observations. To say, for example, of Fourth Mansions) that “The table of contents is more interesting than the remaining content of the book” suggests that the book was being taken more as a normal novel than as a hard-packed mass of symbol and parable (and zest and humor too, always and zest and humor). But it’s a useful site overall, and includes a Lafferty Forum.

There is also a site called R.A. Lafferty: The Cranky Old Man from Tulsa, which is interesting and useful.

And there’s yet another R. A. Lafferty web site besides those, and it, too, is of value.

Beyond the dedicated sites, foremost is a highly instructive paper on Lafferty, Lafferty and His World, by Andrew Ferguson, a visiting assistant professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland, is much recommended. (Annoyingly, you need to log in to the “Academia” site via Google or Facebook to be able to view or download the PDF file.)

A newer, and also well-done resource, is the long page “Secret Crocodiles and Strange Doings (or Sometimes the Magic Really Works)” by Bud Webster at the Grantville Gazette site [archived copy].

Matt Keely, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, has a nice review of The best of R. A. Lafferty that expands into a decent appreciation of Lafferty.

But that’s far from all. There is a very nice essay on Lafferty from Bryan Cholfin, the editor of Crank!, a regrettably defunct small s.f. magazine that did cutting-edge things (including a good bit of Lafferty). The page R. A. Lafferty: Winner of the 2002 Cordwainer Smith Foundation “Rediscovery” Award (at the Cordwainer Smith site) has several illuminating tributes to Lafferty. The Oklahoma Science Fiction Writers web site did a useful R. A. Lafferty page that includes links to some further essays and comments on RAL, each worth following out. Yet another Lafferty appreciation—this from Michael Swanwick (his introduction to the first edition of Iron Tears)—is charmingly entitled Despair and the Duck Lady (there was a nice echo to Swanwick’s thoughts in Albedo). And there’s an insightful short article on Lafferty’s writing and techniques formerly on the Revolution Science Fiction site [archived copy]. Plus I found this brief but touching reminiscence on Lafferty. And one more: a very brief but, I think, telling description of what it’s like for a reader just discovering Lafferty.

There is a little more on Lafferty here and there on the web, but regrettably little, considering his stature; it is noteworthy that virtually every article or page or site about him describes him as both a unique genius and as sadly under-appreciated.

(A very interesting page not about, but definitely relevant to, the thoughts of Lafferty can be found at “Why I Am Not a Post-Modernist”, a part of Dr. Edward R. Friedlander’s “The Pathology Guy” site; another is How to Deconstruct Almost Anything: My Postmodern Adventure by Chip Morningstar.)

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R. A. Lafferty Resources in Print

Despite all the web activity, there is a marked paucity of printed material about Lafferty. All I can locate is a now-unfindable 25-page booklet titled Cranky old man from Tulsa: interviews with R.A. Lafferty (ISBN 9780921322160). There is also a collection of Lafferty stories, The Best of R. A. Lafferty that includes 22 stories; but the plus value is in the many introductions and essays on Lafferty by a veritable host of famous speculative-fiction authors, each of note. And that’s all I’ve got.

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by R. A. Lafferty *****

(Lafferty, like other prolific yet under-appreciated authors, is hard to sort into a coherent bibliography—this is the best I could do. Anything you find by him&—anything—read and enjoy. The occasional “series” listed below don’t fully convey Lafferty: certain characters (like “the eminent scientist Willy McGilly”) recur, often as “cameos”, throughout all his tales. The world is not always ready for genius: a shockingly high fraction of Lafferty’s published works were never printed in more than a few hundred copies each and remain shamefully rare (and correspondingly expensive); but Centipede Press is now re-issuing all of Lafferty’s short stories, though sad to say the printings are limited and have thus themselves become inordinately expensive.)

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