Friday, November 7, 2014

The Door Into A Dozen Or A Hundred Planet-Falls A Day (HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY, LAFF!)

R. A. Lafferty was born on November 7th, 1914.  One hundred years ago today, the world birthed its own Best Seer Ever since none of the world's inhabitants looked like they were ever going to get around to birthing such a person themselves.  This may have been an impatient move on the part of the world.  In her haste, she spawned an ugly-duckling-swan that spewed a billion words of incalculable worth late in life and at a rate that left his would-be readers thunderstruck and half mad. 
The way he looked, his own physical appearance, was part of it:  he was variously called troll, goblin, gnome, ogre, and leprechaun in his lifetime.  And he looked it a little.  For his own part, no matter what names they called him, the beautiful ugly troll boy always maintained that humans were his favourite of the fauna of Earth.  But it wasn't really his look, it was his looking that sent goosebumps of unaccustomed awe shooting up the arms of his readers and made them worry they might have to start all the way over and redefine everything.
For a decade or so in the 1960s and early 70s it looked like it might just work, the world's human peoples might just listen. (I suspect the world's non-human peoples sat up and took note just fine - the bears and whales may have been the most pleased of that lot, as Lafferty seemed to address them most frequently and flatteringly; the cats and spiders and snakes I can only surmise must have been quite a bit less impressed with his symbology, which mostly - but, in fairness, not always - cast them as pictographs for corruption.  Motor cars no doubt feel justly miffed and misrepresented.  But maybe they didn't totally understand him right.  Lightning, on the other hand, can still be seen preening at the all the lavish attention he gave it.  Limestone too probably felt fairly chummy toward him since it recurringly featured in the ugly-duckling-swan-troll's writings.  Then again, limestone has always been quite secure in its own self-image and has never craved much independent approval.) 
Yes, the human peoples for a little bit there looked like they might really listen, and listened like they might really look.  With the new eyes Lafferty offered them in both his open hands.   
By the 1980s, however (and up to today), the world's human population just couldn't take all that Big Seeing, all that unfiltered (or rather, enhanced-filtered) intake.  They shut the door on Lafferty's writing with a whimpering bang.  They shuddered and glanced at each other nervously, trying to laugh, but just kind of croaking their relief.  Besides, laughter was the ugly-duckling-gnome-swan's big thing.  He had made it an all-out philosophical bedrock and they could never feel quite as comfortable with it again, unless they brayed it brashly, nice and hollow.  (They were worried they'd find something inside the laughter if it got too full.)
Thus shut out, the leprechaun languished and died.  The crypto-swan left us to our tunnel vision and went to his reward.  (Lafferty was in no danger of being adjudged:  'You have already received your reward.')  A few ragged followers mourned.  The rest didn't even notice, or certainly pretended not to anyway.  (Did you feel that little bump, like the bottom of the world just fell out? one might say to another.  No, no, I didn't feel a thing.  All's well, we don't need a world-bottom anyway, another might reply.  No, no, I didn't feel anything either.  I can't imagine why I brought it up.)
So.  The world jumped the gun when she made that one.
Ah, but the old goblin-swan played a neat little trick on the human peoples.  In secret, he built a door.  Different from the one the humans had shut on him.  He had taken we don't know how long assembling it, careful detail by careful detail.  Maybe he assembled in the 80s and 90s, while the humans' backs were obstinately turned.  It was comprised of all that the human peoples refused to see and it opened onto so very much more.  It was the door to his office, and it's no wonder he wrote what he did inside there.  But this door would lead into his plenitude of worlds-right-inside-our-own-world no matter where it stood, at the entry to his office or anywhere else at all.  A collector obtained the door after the swan-ogre died.  The collector remains suspiciously silent as to the door's properties and powers and regarding any adventures he may have undergone thanks to its presence in his home.
Yet The Door to Lafferty's Office (as it has styled itself) has begun to make itself known more widely, offering itself to the world it would seem, and thereby offering Lafferty's vision once more to a wayward humanity.  It is an unexpected mercy that we don't deserve, but one which, if we've one last shred of wit left in our rattling almost-extinguished pumpkin heads, we will gladly receive with tears and smiles of gratitude and wonder.  The Door 'conveys' (as Lafferty often dubbed the speech of things without mouths) to those with ears to hear:  Fear not. Repent. Enter.
To me, most of the great moments of science fiction are planet-falls: unshipping and setting foot on new worlds. And yet the experience of planet-fall is a daily thing, one that never grows stale. It happens a dozen or a hundred times a day. We live on a tolerably new world, and there is always the feeling of having just arrived on it. This is a world that is always more than ninety percent unexplored by ourselves, and we have a compulsion to get on with the exploration. It’s an intricate and massive world, prodigious in detail and almost beyond numbering in its dimensions; compendious, encyclopedic, physically astonishing, prodigal in line and color, alive on a dozen different levels, of great friendliness and affection in most of its fauna and especially in its “superior fauna” known as mankind. This species is more delightful than all the tribbles and fuzzies that can be imagined. This world, probably a masterwork among worlds, is loaded with encounters and happenings; and do not forget that etymologically all happenings are happy.

-R. A. Lafferty, ‘The Case of the Moth-eaten Magician’ (collected in Fantastic Lives: Autobiographical Essays By Notable Science Fiction Writers, 1981, edited by Martin H. Greenburg, Southern Illinois University Press)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

His complete short fiction is now available on-line under creative commons.

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