Friday, November 27, 2009

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 2: Closing in on the Mad Man Riding (Raucously) the Crest of the New Wave

In my early 20s I discovered science fiction as literature through C. S. Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ (‘Cosmic Trilogy’ in UK) and in my nerdish obsessive tendency proceeded to read s.f. non-stop for 2 or 3 years.
Now I had grown up on sci-fi films and TV and loved the genre, but books-wise had only read fantasy and horror as a child and teen. Furthermore, I was ‘singing’ in a ‘sci-fi/horror’ punk rock band at the time (Blaster the Rocket Boy, later Blaster the Rocket Man). My childhood imagination had readily poured out in my lyrics along with my young-adulthood faith, so that our songs were a strange and heady mix of the spiritual experiences of monsters and robots and aliens. I was a huge C. S. Lewis fan (reading his Mere Christianity at age 18 genuinely changed my whole life, especially by finally fully switching on my intellect and effectively and thrillingly meshing it with my imagination and faith) and I was writing science-fictional lyrics from a Christian worldview but still hadn’t read his science fiction books! A dear friend finally posted me the books in the mail and prompted me to read them, which yet again changed my life.

I must admit, though, I look back on those 2 or 3 years of slavish voracious s.f. reading with some nausea. It was mostly tripe, sadly (I wasted some precious hours of my life on the revered Asimov – but bless him, he’s a classic in his way and is still highly pleasurable in the rare story—reading ‘The Bicentennial Man’ aloud to my children was a fine moment).

However, I think what I mostly identified with then (and still do sometimes) was a phase in s.f. history called the ‘new wave’ in the 1960s and 70s. The hotties of this loose grouping were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Harlan Ellison in America (gotta love those names!). Apparently it was Brits like Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard that started the literary trend in this experimental direction. Philip K. Dick would go here as well and I’m sure there are others I’m glaringly overlooking. It was particularly some of the feel from Ellison and Zelazny that grabbed me, and even more so Aldiss drew me into his flame for a period. There was a quirkiness and ‘coolness’ and ‘science fantasy’ (in the good way) feel to the Americans. Aldiss had their oddity but with the much more articulate and patently intellectual tone usually ingrained in British writing (which for most of my life I by far preferred – I’ve now come to appreciate quite acutely the American style of intelligent prose as well).

In this period (the 60s/70s, as well as my phase of reading this work, which was the mid-90s) there emerged another American author that surely by default of name had to align with this grouping: one R. A. Lafferty. Initially he has the same quirky feel (not as ‘cool’ though, the first thing to set him apart), the oddity, the wry wit and wisdom. Indeed, all of the aforementioned authors praised Lafferty without exception or qualification. Here’s what they were saying about his first (and most well known) novel, Past Master, in 1968 (a novel I didn’t read until much later in my Lafferty experience).

You can hear the genuine admiration mixed with bemusement about how to praise a genius even stranger than themselves who had popped up in their midst:

I read it in one sitting; I couldn’t put it down. Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs. There is warmth, illumination, and a certain joy attendant upon the experience. He’s good. [Roger Zelazny]

This is a great galloping madman of a novel, drenched in sound and color… As with everything the man writes, the wind of imagination blows strongly… and we can settle back to appreciate the special magic proffered by the madman Lafferty. [Harlan Ellison]

The Lafferty madness… is peppered with nightmare: witches, lazarus-lions, hydras, porsche’s-panthers, programmed killers that never fail, and a burlesqued black mass. One hears of black comedy? There are places in PAST MASTER where humor goes positively ultraviolet. [Samuel R. Delany]

…wild, subtle, demonic, angelic, hilarious, tragic, poetic, a thundering melodrama and a quest into the depths of the human spirit… R. A. Lafferty has always been uniquely his own man. [Poul Anderson]

It’s a minor miracle that a serious philosophical and speculative work should be written so colorfully and so lyrically. There is, happily, no way to categorize the book: it has elements of science fiction, of pure fantasy, of poetry, of historical fiction; it is sharply critical and marvellously gentle; very serious and irrepressibly funny; profoundly symbolic and gutsy-realistic by (unexpected) turns. A first rate speculative work. [Judith Merril]

Yet he transcends his peers, he transcends. I don’t mean to be patronizing to clearly great writers who went on to much more renown than Lafferty ever knew. But I think even they knew they were in the presence of someone truly in a league of his own, even if that distinction pushed him into the realm of the ‘mad’ and ‘wild’ like an animal-skinned prophet in the desert.

I first happened upon one or two of his stories in old s.f. mags I had collected second hand and certainly the name stuck if no other impression was made. (I do remember the ending of a story I was otherwise not impressed with, something about a witch making a chilli recipe, that totally made my heart thud against its cage with painful yearning – it utterly surprised me, but it didn’t yet shock me out of my stupidity for I didn’t at that time take up the quest for more Lafferty.) Then I came across the entry on Lafferty in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by the brilliant scholar John Clute). Yes, I know, it’s utterly geeky to own such a tome, but honestly it’s actually high quality lit. crit.! I bought the encyclopaedia in the heat and height of an obsession for ‘Inklings’ style imaginative literature when I noticed it had interesting lengthy entries on all three (Williams, Lewis, Tolkien as well as predecessors Chesterton and MacDonald)! Anyway, it mentioned that Lafferty’s Roman Catholicism infused all his writing and I was intrigued on that count. Theologically driven s.f. is rare indeed (particularly by Christians), but is perhaps the most precious jewel worth digging up and collecting. And if you’re gonna dig, dig Lafferty!

Next: I properly encounter my first Lafferty story. It takes a minute to say, so please forgive the long entry…

No comments:

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)