“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” is a tale about origins, about How It All Began, and as such serves well both as introduction to the anthology of the same name, and to our investigation of Lafferty’s short fiction.
The story is about as straightforwardly science fiction as Ray ever gets. It doesn’t blur genre boundaries. It makes no formal innovations. It doesn’t even have an apocalypse, rather something more like an epiphany in one of Joyce’s Dubliners tales.
And yet it was one of his more daring stories. In “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” Lafferty takes on the colonial SF tale, a subgenre wildly popular in the previous generation, and still with advocates among the editors of the early ’60s. This type of story, the descendant of Victorian adventure fiction, usually takes place on a commercially promising territory; here, Proavitus is “a sphere tinkling with the profit that could be shaken from it.”
So a hypermasculine expeditionary force, the pride of vintage sf, is sent to shake it. Led by Manbreaker Crag, and with a cast including Heave Huckle, Blast Berg, and George Blood among others, it is a group that is “supposed to be tough, [so] they had taken tough names at the naming”—all except their cultural officer, Ceran Swicegood, who keeps his original name. This disgusts Manbreaker: “Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood! Why don’t you take Storm Shannon? That’s good. Or Gutboy Barrelhouse or Slash Slagle or Nevel Knife? You barely glanced at the suggested list.”
Lafferty here suggests the sort of list a novice writer might consult when trying to prove that his characters are tough enough for the genre—or even when trying to find something for himself that will look good on a magazine cover. Ceran, however, resists this renaming, and is as yet an imperfect fit for the colonial sf story: the narrator notes that, “Had [he] assumed the heroic name of Gutboy Barrelhouse he might have been capable of rousing endeavors and man-sized angers rather than his tittering indecisions and flouncy furies.” This imperfect masculinity resigns him to the role of cultural officer, leaving him to consult with the natives; his counterpart among the Proavitoi is “likely feminine”—there is a “certain softness about both the sexes” there that bodes ill for an expedition member who has not firmly established his manhood before touching down.
Ceran Swicegood’s primary failing is his concern with time. Stories about aliens and astronauts rarely bother much with time: they take place in the future, and their heroes act in the present. But Ceran, with his “irritating habit [of] forever asking the question: How Did It All Begin?”, is inexplicably concerned with the past, to the point of even refusing to give up his own in the naming. So when he is put on the tip that the Proavitoi do not die, and moreover that they have a Ritual that passes along from the very oldest the origin story of the universe, he believes he is finally near to answering his burning question. But this viewpoint is unsuited for an expedition man, who should already have had his orientation toward time fixed in the Ritual of the naming. As Manbreaker Crag tells him, “It don’t make a damn how it began. What is important is that it may not have to end.” For Crag, this is a Fountain of Youth story, a chance to gain an immortality that will allow for neverending conquest and plunder, delivered in regular monthly installments.
But Ceran, perversely, seeks to get beneath the surface of this pulp standard fare, and he ventures into the caverns underneath Proavitoi in search of the eldest of them all. The title “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” refers to the regression of ancestors, as Ceran goes ever deeper into their memory of the past. When he reaches bottom, he is confronted with the one thing the hypermasculinized sf narrative cannot abide: laughter. “Oh, it was so funny a joke the way things began that you would not believe it,” says the ultimate grandmother, and Ceran’s exasperation grows as they all seem too caught up in laughter to actually answer him.
But the laughter is their answer: as Mikhael Bakhtin notes in his study Rabelais and His World, “the characteristic trait of laughter was precisely the recognition of its positive, regenerating, creative meaning … in an Egyptian alchemist’s papyrus … the creation of the world is attributed to divine laughter.” During the time of Ritual, that primal laughter still echoes in the caverns. “How good to wake up and laugh and go to sleep again,” the grandmother says; for her, and for all Proavitoi, laughter is both carnival and “the expression of [their] historical consciousness.” It is a consciousness alien to the astronaut: Ceran flees, “we[eping] and laugh[ing] together.” Having failed at Ritual, unable to discern the answer to his question even as it rang out all around him, he undertakes instead the ritual of the naming, adapting himself to a serialized, dehistoricized existence: “On his next voyage he changed his name to Blaze Bolt and ruled for ninety-seven days as king of a sweet sea island in M-81, but that is another and much more unpleasant story.”
Ceran Swicegood/Blaze Bolt is in some ways, then, like those ’60s pulp-SF writers or editors, seeing the changes at work in the field, but ultimately refusing to take part, fleeing into the thrilling, threadbare comforts of pulp SF convention. When he goes, we do too: the asteroid Proavitus (Latin for ancestral) is closed off to us forever, with Lafferty never returning to it again.
In this there is, possibly, a rebuke for the newer generation of science fiction just then emerging. Only four years before “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” was published—two years before Lafferty typed the manuscript—J.G. Ballard was issuing his famous call for the exploration of “inner space.” That is exactly what Lafferty provides here: an early example of his obsessions with two- and three-dimensional spaces. The Manbreaker Crags live for the surface alone, for what can be shaken out of a place; the Ceran Swicegoods, though, are Ballard’s explorers, delving into the depths in search of their own beginnings. And in many of Ballard’s stories, these explorers come to the very same end: after some sort of epiphany, they suicide, or are changed beyond even the persistence of a name.
Lafferty supports this venture into ourselves, into our own stories, but differs in his insistence that we then bring back some of that cosmic laughter to carry out with us into the stars. Otherwise when we flip the page, we will become all so many Blaze Bolts, filling more pages, shaking more worlds, heroes of a much more unpleasant story.
[Andrew Ferguson has written the first academic paper on R. A. Lafferty: ‘Lafferty and His World’. It is a lengthy, learned, and thoroughly thrilling read. (If you find some of the technical, academic language too much to swallow initially, I personally would recommend skimming through to the next mention of a story or novel. There are as many accessible insightful moments in the paper as there are more difficult passages. It’s full of gold.) Andrew also manages the Lafferty wikidot page: The Institute of Impure Science, Online. This is a work-in-progress that is attempting to state the summary, setting, and characters of every single one of Lafferty’s short stories, thus demonstrating the overlapping, ‘hypertext’ quality of the worlds Lafferty created.]