Saturday, March 8, 2014

Serpent's Egg (1987) - 'That wonderful, that blessed, that hope-of-the-world thing'

Meet the Twelve Children of the Experiments, each one hyper-intelligent, each one a Mega-Person, each one under suspicion and surveillance as a potential Serpent's Egg to be crushed in the shell:

The Lynn-Randal Experiment:  Ruddy Lord Randall, the young male human; Inneall, the young female ambulatory computer; Axel, the young male Golden Ape (or Blue-Eyed Ape or Gargoyle, a member of the Unfallen People or Second Humanity).

The Wintergreen-Luna Experiment:  Marino the young male seal ('his mind and his personality and his outgoing spirit gleamed as his hide gleamed with its wetness in the sun when he came out of the water'); Luas the young male angel (who wouldn't be greatly missed in heaven - 'he was of one of the lower classes of the highest of creatures'); Henryetta, the young female human (flame-haired, flame-tempered, and flame-powered, gifted with pyro-kinesis).

The Dorantes-Saleh Experiment:  Lutin, the young female python (a prophetess); Dubu, the young female bear (whom all the other children called Little Mother); Schimp, the young male chimpanzee (erudite, degreed with a doctorate, he regularly wore an academic cap and gown).

The Gruenbaum-McGregor Experiment:  Gajah the unborn female Indian elephant (in the tenth and final year of her gestation in the womb of her mother, an Empress elephant; she communicates by telepathy as well as by means of a percussion language on a tiny drum inside her mother's belly); Carcajou, the young male wolverine (half animal, half devil); Popugai, the young male parrot (from New Zealand, big enough to kill and eat a sheep; with perfect recall and understanding and pronunciation, 'he knew the basic vocabularies of six hundred human languages, and of many thousands of insect, reptile, animal, and bird languages').

The location is only barely named, but this is one of Lafferty's many Oklahoma stories.  It is the end of summer in the year 2035, specifically the Last Three Days of Summerset.

Each set of three 'children' grew up together and now all twelve have been brought together as each approaches his or her tenth birthday.  Their project has been to find 'new ways of looking at the world, but not too cockeyed new'. But it looks like they have indeed been 'too cockeyed new' in their shining intelligence and vision and thus the Dolophonoi, the knife-wielding assassins, are drawing near to put an end to it before it really gets started.
Serpent's Egg is another of Lafferty's many apocalypses and shares themes (e.g. 'is this world an Egg that will shortly birth a new world?') strongly in common with Past Master (1968), Arrive At Easterwine (1971), and Annals of Klepsis (1983).  The novel also shares, in a more minor key, the theme of 'is any of this real or are we just dreaming?' with Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney (these two short novels are collected together in Apocalypses, 1977) and East of Laughter (1988).  The novel's satiric dystopian quality (e.g. a Kangaroo Court rules the Global Village) resonates with works like Lafferty's novella Ishmael Into the Barrens (1971) and his short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' (1972).  The characters are said to be living on the Floating World and this critique of modern society's lack of depth frequently recurs in Lafferty's fiction - e.g. Fourth Mansions (1969), 'Encased in Ancient Rind' (1971), From the Thunder Colt's Mouth, (1975),  and 'Bequest of Wings' (1978).

From the above thematically associative list it's easy to believe Lafferty's own claim that his body of work really added up to one long unfinished novel (which he called A Ghost Story).

The prose in Serpent's Egg is perhaps not as dense or as lyrical as the likes of Fourth Mansions, Past Master, Annals of Klepsis, or The Devil Is Dead (1971) or indeed of many of Lafferty's most famous short stories (the 1970 collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers contains many prime examples).  The poetry seems to mostly have been externalised into the very characters and events of the novel more than in the language that describes them.  The above cast is a shining example and various scenes in the novel sing out in sheer conveyance of the happenings.  Examples of the latter are that Inneall the little girl computer is making a New Ocean right there in the town and Heart's Desire Cove springs up round it as a local carnival or fair, the description of which is classic Lafferty 'high time' fun, full of outrageously oddball activities and elements:

Hearts Desire had become a great entertainment center, all within a week... A feature there was 'Computer Enhanced Music', and all sorts of music lovers came there.  The birds also were faithful listeners and participants.  Human music alone had never touched them much, but the enhanced music struck a chord with them.  Sometimes there were whole choruses of larks and catbirds and mockingbirds and of the multi-songed cardinals.  There was even the mightiness of ten-thousand voice crow-calls.  And the swifts and swallows and even the evil shrikes did air dances when the people and the 'people' danced.

And the fast-lunch and fast-drink places were attractions for old and young... Where else could one get Hot Coon Sandwiches?  Where else Ocean Catfish garnished with Crayfish tails?   Where else Persimmon Wine?  Where else Choc Beer as Mother Used to Make It?


At night there were the bonfires on Ocean Shore.  They were built out of folk memory... Oh the Campfire Songs that the people and the 'people' sang and entoned [sic] on the rocky shores of the Cove on those chilly End-of-Summer-Nights!  They sang 'Star People' and 'Skokemchuck Rag', 'Bandicot Blues' and 'World Village Medley', 'Ambulatory Ambles' and 'The Socsollabcomdem Party Potlatch', 'New Directions Ramble', 'Charisma Concerto', 'The We-Owe-A-Lot-To-Otto-Wotto Hootnanny', 'The Sixth Dream of Molly Mechanicus', 'New Entity Rock', 'Oh New Rice Feeds the Far-flung World!', 'Interspecies Intermezzo', 'Inneall's Ocean Hallelujah'.


Every night, some of the Computers sang 'Moon People Vaunt', a song that always caused at least a small amount of friction.  Only computers lived in the Moon Colonies.  Humans couldn't live on the Moon without elaborate support systems.  But Computers could live anywhere, even on the blistering hot surface of Venus or on the killingly cold surface of Jupiter... But everybody could enjoy such sing-a-longs as the 'Excitements Hot and Cold Suite' and 'It's the Crustacean in Me', a song of aeons-spanning nostalgia; and 'Going Home Over The Star Bridge'.

(pp. 57-60)

Or take the antic images that fizz and sparkle in your mind after hearing a series of little wisdom tall tales related by Dubu:

"I have a notion," said the young female bear Dubu, "that the answer to all the hard questions are written on the inside of one single Acorn somewhere.  This particular acorn, if placed in lye-water, will swell to a billion times its original size, and then it will burst open.  And whole mountains-full of writing will come tumbling out of it.  Then everyone can come and read it and enjoy it and know everything.  The only difficulty is knowing which acorn in the world is the right one.  I believe that there are clues pointing directly to the right acorn, but we do not notice them because they are so big and so plain and so close to our noses."


"Many bears in their natural state know everything.  Go down into the Winding Stair Mountains and walk out on the bear tracks.  When you meet another bear, if he is one of the bears who know everything, he will give you the 'All-Knowing Wink'.  No animal except the bear can give the 'All-Knowing Wink'.  The face muscles of other animals simply aren't adequate for it."


"I have a notion that turtles have uncanny and cryptic information written in the groove on the bottom side of their tongues.  The turtles themselves do not know about this, nor do the chelonologists.  But the people who work in turtle-soup factories are so very smart because they know about this hiding place.  They  read the turtles' tongues like Chinese fortune cookies, and what they read is total knowledge."

(pp. 74-75)

Lafferty's weaving together of folkloric, anthropological, and ecological tropes is both bewildering and awe-inspiring.  That, I suppose is part of the point of this novel.  It is a search (as is most of his work in one way or another) for how we can obtain an adequate view of the world that doesn't leave anything out and also Ties It All Together in some satisfactory and even salvific coherence - a coherence, we may be assured from the above quotes, that is comedic and carnival, not static and 'tidy'.  Indeed, it was the putting forward of two contrary views about this vision-casting that prompted Dubu's reflections:

"As to why we are here, Satrap, and what we are supposed to be doing here," Felix Snake-and-Dove got on the track again, "we are here to weave the seamless garment of our individual lives, and of the lives of those around us, of the neighborhood, of the countryside, of all the creatures down to the smallest, of all realms and continents and oceans. We are here to weave the seamless garment that will be highly detailed from the subatomic particles to the galaxy clusters. It must include all minds and ideas and inklings, all joys and all immediacies. There can never be enough weavers, there can never be enough brilliant details in the seamless garment known as 'The Life Affair'. And we can never be finished with it, for it continues to grow seamlessly."

"Weaving is outmoded, Felix," said Livius Secundus the history-writing Computer.  "Fabrics are no longer woven.  Now they are extruded by extruding machines.  Personal groups, landscapes, worlds, galaxies, all are extruded by a simple extruding machine which you could make yourself."

(pp. 73-74)

As always in Lafferty, there is a deadly urgency to these philosophical debates, as the presence of the aforementioned assassins attests (reminding one of the mechanical killers in Past Master and the nothoi-hunters in Ishmael Into the Barrens).  The Powers That Be in this tale are not only perpetrating socio-massive thought-control (another theme dear to Lafferty who repeatedly bemoaned catch-phrases and slogans and how the masses were made into 'sheep' by being 'fed' on them), but also death-dealing population control.

As to the former - thought-control - Lafferty describes a scenario very much like our 21st century internet planet:

It became a world in which everything and nothing was public.  It became a world with very little superstructure.  It became a world in which ideas and notions were transmitted instantly to every part of it.  But could such a world work? (p. 80)

He's asking the question honestly.  It is evident from his body of work that Lafferty loved technology and the sciences and he longed for humanity to truly stretch out and mature in itself, spiritually and intellectually, and in harmony with the natural environment.  Lafferty believed in the 'Fulfilment and Enlargement of the World' (p. 94), but his works dramatise how competing visions of what this is and how to bring it about collide. Wrong-headed utopias, Lafferty averred, would only make the bottom drop out on such maturing processes. The Kangaroo that Rules the World, as the elite social engineers in this tale are called, had backed the 'leveller movement':

One used to thinking of levelling as trimming the top off something into a semblance of evenness. But these 'levellers' trimmed the bottoms off of humanity and computerdom and the world itself. (pp. 80-81)

This was tragically not only the cutting out of our psychological and spiritual depths through reductionist philosophies and worldviews, but also the cutting out of our population depths:

The lower classes of everything were terminated without particular ado, without much apparent suffering, without any great quantity of visible bloodshed.  The bereft families did not ask where their inept members had gone because most of the families that had inept members went with them. Persons seldom asked where their neighbors had disappeared to, because usually it was entire neighborhoods that disappeared. The 'Don't make a big thing out of it' mentality was rife in the world, so a big thing was not made of the disappearance of eighty-seven percent of the persons in the world.  After all, that eighty-seven percent of the persons in the world had made ninety-seven percent of the trouble in the world.  In all logic there was much to be said for the 'removals'.

This is skin-crawling stuff.  The wisdom of Dubu the young female bear had earlier countered this pogrom programme:

"Oh, Oh, Oh, what will we do, Dubu, with all those countless billions of unwashed commoners?  I wonder whether they're necessary at all."

"Yes, they are necessary," Dubu answered in that 'ruf-ruf' voice that bears use for human talk. "We are the tree.  You are only the top leaf on the tree.  It's the one that quakes and moves in the wind as though it were an aspen leaf, the first one to fall when the inclement weather comes.  And I'm unwashed myself.  I don't use water.  I use a curry comb instead.  Curry combs are too good for horses, but they're just right for bears."

(p. 63)

If you read Lafferty long enough, you'll notice what might amount to a paranoia about this possibility of mass extermination of those who don't 'fit in' to certain versions of utopia.  But then again, his was a century that included literal secret police, travesties of trials, public executions, and dicatatorial mass exterminations of millions of people who didn't fit in to certain social visions.  (Not just Hitler and Nazism, of course, but also Stalin and Pol Pot and others.)

At any rate, though Lafferty was self-professedly 'cranky' and certainly had a dark turn of imagination, I can't in good conscience call his body of work pessimistic.  His themes of hope and of new birth on the far side of tragedy persist from the earliest to the latest novels and stories and Serpent's Egg is no exception.  The wonderful later chapters of this novel with their depictions of whales and sea lice building profound monuments on the ocean floor give vivid form to Lafferty's hopeful vision.  Chapter twelve in particular immerses the reader in an 'Oceanic Hyper-Active Dream State', which provides 'new eyes and new ways of looking at the world' full of creativity and possibility.  Our dream guide is a man who is one of the 'metamorphic creatures who can turn into Deep Ocean Denizens'.  Such a man is an 'Ocean Obscenity or Monster' for 'All Ocean Creatures are obscene, in the nicest sense of that word'.  Thus he is 'in his beautiful oceanic-ugliness-monsterness as we saw him and loved him today' (p. 144).  Lafferty is always very comfortable with placing grotesquery and monstrosity in the category of beauty and virtue.  With these phantasmagorical goggles on we see:

And the whales were making giant crypts and cenotaphs and menhirs from the blocks and shafts and trabants of marble.  It was utterly strange down there at Whale Town, and completely homey also.  A sign which the whales had put up proclaimed to all visitors "We're Glad You're Here".


The Temple-City that the Whales were building was certainly prodigious and entirely wonderful.


The beautiful pink, lilac, tan, orange, and mauve-tinted marble of the Whales' Constructions had also on it happy blotches and gouts of the greenest green ever.  It was a color so green that no language of Earth except only Malay has a word for the color.  Malay does have a twelve-syllable name for the color, a name that might be translated as 'The Green of Swarming, Ocean-floor etching, deep-sea lice'.  Yes, that vivid green was a living color, and one beautiful blotch of it, festooning the caput of a pillar, might contain a million of the small ocean-floor sculpturing Lice. They were quite small.

The small ocean-lice were etching figures and faces into the big marble and granite stone-pillars. Though not one, and not ten thousand of the little lice had enough scope and reach to comprehend what they were sculpting, to know what the statuary was all about, yet the lice were receiving and obeying orders from somebody, and likely from the whales.  The portraiture art, cut in high-and-bas relief out of the giant stone pillars and walls and lintels, had to be the Art of the Whales.

Mostly the faces and forms were those of famous whales of yore.  But there were also distinguished-looking animal faces, human faces, god faces, even strange computer faces, all emerging from the big stones that the sea-lice were sculpting for the whales.  And whenever they finished one of the great and distinguished faces, the sea-lice covered it over with a beautiful and thin plaiting of nacre or mother-of-pearl.

(pp. 137-138)

By the novel's end this dream of a coalescing vision of life has not yet saved the day.  It is still an underground thing. It is the resistance movement that stubbornly refuses to be stamped out.  It is the 'egg' of promise and new beginnings.

Indeed, one of the surviving Children of the Experiments, Lutin the young female python, who had become pregnant earlier in the narrative, appears to have given birth to a giant egg:

"Lo! - and Behold It!"

"That thing!" Inneall cried out aghast.

"Yes, that thing with the beautiful golden and blue light pulsating about it!"  Lutin spoke out of her mood of rapture.  "That wonderful, that blessed, that hope-of-the-world thing." 

(p. 154)

Dubu the wise young female bear says that 'a couple of odd fellows' gigglingly informed her about the egg:

"It is the joke by which the World will be saved and transformed". (p. 155)

And this too resonates with one of Lafferty's consistent themes.  In his early story 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' (1966), when a space explorer asks "How Did It All Begin?" of those who purportedly can tell him the answer, those who were actually there at the Beginning, he is met with giggling and laughter and told: '"Oh, it was so funny how it began.  So joke! So fool, so clown, so grotesque thing!" [...] And they laughed. And laughed.  And went on laughing...' Storming off angry, thinking he hasn't received an answer, the explorer misses that he has.  He misses that he is being told that the universe is rooted in Cosmic Laughter.  In the short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' (1972), the scattered disciples of Christ are the only hope left for rebuilding a post-catastrophe world and one of them informs another that sometimes 'the Lord... jests, He jokes, and we be the point of His most pointed jokes.'  And so here in Serpent's Egg also, Cosmic Laughter is the creative power for the New Beginning as much as the Beginning. We are not told what is inside the egg, but only given clues and hints and an 'Epilog by a Sea Louse'.

This novel is one of the more coherently structured and executed of Lafferty's notoriously difficult novels.  It meanders a bit in the third quarter, but the majority of it is packed with Laffertian wit and wisdom and weird wonders.  It is perhaps not quite the feast that, say, Annals of Klepsis or Fourth Mansions or Past Master or Arrive At Easterwine are, but I would definitely call it unmissable.

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