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Sunday 15 February 2015

The Lafferty Paradox

Ever heard of Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? Not many people have, despite the fact that he was one of the most intelligent and prolific writers of Fortean fiction in the 1960s and 70s. That’s one of the lesser paradoxes surrounding R.A. Lafferty. Another is the fact that, around the time I started reading science fiction in the early seventies, he was one of the most ubiquitous contributors to magazines and anthologies – often appearing on the cover and being nominated for numerous awards – yet even in those days publishers were strangely reluctant to put out single-author works by Lafferty, in the form of novels and short-story collections (here in the UK, they were only ever issued as hardbacks for the library market). The 1984 paperback collection pictured above, Ringing Changes, proved incredibly difficult to track down – I eventually acquired it from an online US-based seller a couple of weeks ago.

The biggest Lafferty paradox, however, is in the stories themselves. Most of them are very short, and at first sight they appear to be whimsical, offbeat fantasies that can read quickly and forgotten quickly. His characters are often bizarrely cartoonish, with bizarre cartoonish names. His settings are surreal and his plots are outrageous. His writing style is chatty and filled with laugh-out-loud humour. This all goes to support the view that Lafferty’s stories are lightweight and ephemeral. But nothing could be further from the truth – which is that Lafferty was one of the most serious, deep-thinking writers of his generation. Almost all his stories have a carefully thought-through philosophical subtext, often on issues he felt strongly about.

When you think about deep-thinking SF writers of the 60s and 70s, the name that springs most obviously to mind is Philip K. Dick. Probably every SF fan in the world has heard of him, and academics write dissertations about his work. So why isn’t the same true of R. A. Lafferty?

One difference is in the medium they chose. Most of Dick’s important works are 70,000 word novels, while Lafferty’s tend to be 5,000 word short stories – a form whose popularity has plummeted since the 1970s. But a bigger difference is in the accessibility of their ideas. Dick’s idée fixe was essentially Gnostic – that the so-called “reality” we perceive around us is in some sense fake or substandard. That resonates perfectly with the uncertainty and paranoia of the modern world, and most readers can relate to it. There’s something screwy about reality in Lafferty’s stories too – but in a far more complex way, which even a Lafferty fan like myself often has difficulty getting to grips with.

In Wild Talents, Charles Fort wrote: “I conceive of nothing in religion, science or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” Does this mean that while reality itself is fixed and self-consistent, human attempts to understand it are constantly changing perspective over the generations? Or is it that reality itself is always shifting into new configurations? Lafferty seems to have believed the latter. His stories tell of times in the past – often the not-very-distant past – when the laws of physics were different, or human abilities were different, or animal species were different, or time itself was different. But the differences quickly get forgotten, because history reshapes itself to cover up the changes.

By my count, more than half the 20 stories in the Ringing Changes collection deal with one variation or another on this theme (the other stories deal with other, equally philosophical, ideas). I will get hopelessly muddled if I try to describe all of them, so I’ll just focus on the two most obviously Fortean stories.

The longest story in the collection, “The Rivers of Damascus”, is one of half a dozen that I’d already read (in this case, in the issue of Galaxy magazine in which it first appeared). Longest is a relative term, though – it’s still only 27 pages, although it could easily have been expanded into a novel ten times that length. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the original plan, since the story reads like the outline of a novel in places. For example, the backstories of the two main characters go into far more biographical detail than you would expect in a novelette of this length. One of them is a skilled dowser, who is capable of dowsing not just underground water but the past as well (this is explained with some first-rate technobabble about the heterodyning of brain waves – Lafferty was an electrical engineer by profession).

The other character has a psychic talent of a different kind – he can tune into mental impressions and turn them into solid reality. So between them, acting as a team, they can help academic researchers recreate the past in the form of a “para-archaeological probe”. But this is a Lafferty story, so it’s the wrong underground river they tap into... and the past thus revealed is completely different from the one in the history books. They become a laughing-stock of the scientific establishment, paraded before a billion-strong TV audience on an ultra-skeptical documentary show called “Science Supreme, the End of the Crackpots”. But the story has a happy ending – the entrenched academics are revealed as the true crackpots, while the world gives the para-archaeologists an open-door welcome!

The collection includes three stories that hadn’t previously seen print. One of them is burdened with the rather longwinded title “Oh Whatta You Do When the Well Runs Dry?” (I guess that’s what happens when an author makes up his own title, without editorial intervention). It’s an excellent story, though. It features the same protagonist, Miss Phosphor McCabe, as “Nor Limestone Islands” which I mentioned in Charles Fort in Fiction. This story isn’t a direct sequel, but it’s equally Fortean and it has a stronger philosophical subtext.

The “well” of the title is the Collective Unconscious – a concept taken from Jungian psychology, though given a Lafferty-esque twist. This is the place people get their ideas and creative inspirations from, and one day it suddenly runs dry. Or does it? A group of Forteans knows better. They know the Collective Unconscious consists of countless sub-wells, and what has run dry is just the conventional-thinking one. There are plenty of others to choose from – but only if everyone in the world becomes as open-minded as the Forteans! Again, the story has a happy ending:
You know what rough and shouting people the Forteans had always been? You remember what rude strutters the Boschites were? You know the loud and glittering insanity of the Dalikites, and the perversity and perfidy of the Albionians? These shabby, crude, delirious dregs of humanity had always lived on rocks in the lower skies and in shanties on the outskirts of our towns. But now we all drank their water, we thought their thoughts (thoughts? some of their ghouly notions were enough to rot the flesh off your bones), and now we became indistinguishable from them.


Kandinsky said...

Hello Andrew, your article has persuaded me to read some Lafferty. It's also made me wonder if I've read him before and forgotten the name?

The books attract too high a price to justify curiosity so a search for free copies seemed the way to go.

There's a Lafferty book, The Six Fingers of Time, at Project Gutenberg. They have most of the popular formats apart from pdf. I've just downloaded the Kindle version and look forward to reading it.

Just trying to recall his name has prompted memories of reading all the SF and fantasy books in the local library in the early 80s when I was a kid.

A sigh for nostalgia...

Wouldn't it be interesting to have a list of all the books and short stories we've ever read?

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kandinsky. "The Six Fingers of Time" was one of Lafferty's earliest short stories, and I see that Gutenberg also has "Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas", which was another early story. The first isn't typical of Lafferty's later work, and I've never read the second -- I will have to do so ASAP, since it's free! If these are the only two on Gutenberg, I guess that means they are the only two in the public domain.

Having said that, I'm aware that a group of Lafferty aficionados have put ALL his stories online - motivated mainly by frustration at the ridiculously inflated prices you mentioned. I won't give a link because I'm not sure of its legal status in the UK, but if you do a Google search for "the man who talled tales" you'll see what I'm talking about.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, do you ever look at those things on the internet with titles like "20 spookiest photos ever" or "10 greatest unexplained mysteries" - they are great fun but the content of the lists obviously depend on who's compiling them and some of the images were already denounced as fakes when I first saw them in the '70s.

Andrew May said...

No Colin, I tend to refrain from clicking on anything which has the look of "click-bait" about it! That's partly because in my paranoid imaginings such sites are always laden with spyware and adware and other undesirable stuff - but also for the perfectly good reason that, as you rightly say, many of these endlessly regurgitated "mysteries" were debunked decades ago!

Kandinsky said...

Hello Andrew, your oblique suggestion was duly noted and carried out. Thanks.

I find that the PC-Kindle app will entertain whatever Kindle-file is downloaded and the android-Kindle app refuses to even acknowledge anything that isn't paid for through Amazon.

This means that even free-on-Amazon books like Treasure Island and Aesop's Fables don't show up on the phone despite numerous synchs.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kandinsky. I have an iPhone and iPad, and Aesop's Fables and Treasure Island do show up on them as well as Kindle for PC. However, other free mobi files that are not downloaded from Amazon won't sync between devices via Whispersync. I have some perfectly legitimate Kindle ebooks that were not obtained from Amazon for the very good reason I wrote them myself! The publisher sent them to me directly by email. The trick I use there is to copy the file into Dropbox, then on the iPad say "open in Kindle". That usually works in the end (though not always first time).

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