Lafferty’s Time-Travelling Spacefaring Dreamworld Arabian Nights

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Having thoroughly enjoyed a short story collection of his, I was quite keen to read the novels of R.A. Lafferty, but The Devil Is Dead just ended up annoying me. So it’s with some trepidation that I came to Sindbad: the Thirteenth Voyage, another volume of Lafferty’s that I obtained on the cheap when Blackwell’s sold off most of their stock of imported SF and fantasy.

As is frequently the case with Lafferty, The Thirteenth Voyage takes a fantasy concept (the world of the Arabian Nights), dresses it up in fancy SF clothes (Lafferty posits a medieval Arabia regularly visited by spacemen and time travellers) and then treats it as a fantasy anyway. Essindibad Copperbottom is the original Sindbad, a starfarer from the blissful planet of Kentauron Mikron who is sent to track down Harun, the Boy-King of frequent reincarnations, but soon realises that the Boy-King’s nature is far more sinister than he remembers. John Scarlatti Thunderson is a boy genius who, at the tender age of 16, invents Open-Ended Analytical Geometry, allowing him to construct an Almost-Anything machine to transport him to the medieval Arabia he is so fond of, and who soon enough supplants Essindibad as the True Sindbad. Scheherazade, the story-teller of the Arabian Nights, is a struggling writer from Chicago who was taken back in time to magical Baghdad by Harun, who has become Caliph of the Muslim world. Mamun the Great is a Caliph who comes to the throne after the abdication of his father, Harun, and the death of his brother.

These four share the duties of narration, Essindibad taking care of most of it (and framing the others’ stories), John’s diaries accounting for about a quarter of the book, Scheherazade only being permitted to directly narrate one portion, and Mamun getting only a short speech at the end. Based on the prelude, I get the impression that Lafferty may have originally planned to give more prominant roles to Scheherazade and Mamun, but didn’t have space to in the less than 160 pages the novel unfolds over. This isn’t too much of a problem though – the two Sindbads are quite capable of holding a story on their own. The differing narrative viewpoints allow Lafferty to introduce interesting contraditions to proceedings, as well as letting him gloss over certain areas which none of the narrators seem inclined to discuss. Like the early, superior segment of The Devil Is Dead, the plot unfolds according to a sort of dream-logic. By the end, it makes intuitive sense that the escape of the devils from Hell and their dispersal to all the worlds of the universe isn’t such a terrible thing, and a happy ending may be had after all, but I can’t put my finger on why.

While this book is prime Lafferty, I do have to take issue with one thing: its unsympathetic treatment of Islam. Lafferty depicts an Arabia where the installation of a new Caliph entails the use of a hundred gallons of Christian blood (peacefully donated, but still), and three hundred severed heads (not peacefully donated, obviously). Scheherazade speculates at one point that she lives in an alternate timeline, and that in the “real” world there was never any such thing as Islam at all, and the world ended in the year 1000 AD with the Second Coming of Christ unfolding according to plan. It is possible to overlook or excuse much of this – Lafferty may be depicting an alternate, fantasy Islam of the sort imagined by Westerners reading translations of the Arabian Nights, or indicating the corruption of the Caliphate under the influence of the sinister Harun – but one man’s exotic foreign culture is another man’s cultural background. I imagine that Lafferty, a devout Catholic, would be made decidedly uncomfortable by a book in which the investiture of a new Pope involved mass bloodshed, or in which Catholicism is written off as a historical accident. I hope I’m not being too sensitive about this – in every other respect the book is excellent – but while I would recommend it to everyone, I can’t recommend it entirely without reservation. It’s kind of like the older Tintin stories in that way…

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Strike One, Lafferty

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

A while ago, some enterprising store clerk at Blackwell’s (Oxford’s most Oxfordy book shop) convinced the management that it would be a good idea to devote some of the shelf space in the SF and fantasy section to American imports and rare reprints of books which otherwise would not see the light of day in a British bookshop. The experiment appears to have died, or at least been significantly cut back – at least partially because of the high prices demanded for some of the books (presumably due to shipping costs). 15 for a 300-page book that you can buy for half the price online simply isn’t worth it. An additional problem, of course, is that since many of the authors in question were quite obscure it was obviously difficult to tell the gems from the duds.

The upshot of this downscaling was that a lot of the stock in question was sold off for one or two pounds per book, and as a consequence I found myself in the possession of a large chunk of Wildside Press’s reprints of the works of R.A. Lafferty, whose Nine Hundred Grandmothers I have previously reviewed on Ferretbrain. Sadly, not all of these books are up to the standards of that collection; Lafferty’s 1971 effort, The Devil Is Dead, despite a very strong beginning, does not quite come up to scratch.

Continue reading “Strike One, Lafferty”

Twenty-One Excellent Stories

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

God bless Wildside Press. Were it not for their tireless efforts keeping long-lost SF classics in print, the books of R.A. Lafferty would still be languishing in obscurity. As it is, I’ve just finished devouring his 1970 collection of short stories, Nine Hundred Grandmothers, and wondering why I haven’t heard of the man before. All the right names – Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and the like – rave about his work and compare him to the likes of Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance, and yet his work has remained in the shadows.

Perhaps Lafferty’s grim sense of humour is to blame. Certainly, many of the situations he explores are ridiculous, and many of them are terrifying, and sometimes the ones which look funny at first turn out to be horrific and the ones which begin frighteningly end up funny. The title story, for example, is all about the secret wisdom kept by the immortal ancestors of an alien race, who are kept neatly stored on shelves in their descendants’ basements. And what to make of Snuffles, the blood-soaked tale of the bear-god of a distant planet? The prose style is distinctive, and reminds me mainly of Jack Vance – the dialogue tends to be very stylised and carefully-crafted, and the characterisation is occasionally weak (often necessary in a short story). Dialogue is often used to comic effect: characters will engage in monologues while being eaten by monsters, punctuated with “Shriek! Shriek!” as they scream for mercy.

Lafferty makes frequent use of recurring characters and concepts. Gregory Smirnov’s Institute is the setting for a good number of stories; Willy McGilly, the magician-scientist, turns up frequently and always understands what is going on (but nobody ever listens to him), as does the sarcastic supercomputer Epiktistes. The magical properties of the Slippery Elm and nonsense words are often important, too, and twice we go on visits to the insane utopia of the Camiroi, who operate their society on the principle that every citizen must be able to undertake any job at a moment’s notice. At the same time, a good number of stories are apparently untouched by this mythos of the Slippery Elm. Take, for example, The Six Fingers of Time, one of the funny stories which turns frightening, which exists in its own world of time-shifted immortal fallen angels.

Ever-avoiding cliche, perpetually original, Nine Hundred Grandmothers is essential reading if you care at all about innovative SF and fantasy.