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Friday 28 June 2002

Past Masters

by Claude Lalumière

R.A. Lafferty died on 18 March 2002. His stories and novels are replete with monsters, gods, demons, extraterrestrials, and other unlikely creatures. They are filled with time travel, resurrections, and other impossible events. But don't believe a word of it; his narrators are liars. In all likelihood nothing fantastical actually ever occurs in a Lafferty tale. But, hey, fiction is all made up anyway. It's just that in the case of Lafferty's fiction, everything's made up at a further remove.

His first sale to the SF/fantasy market, the story "Day of the Glacier", was in 1960. The changes being wrought upon the SF/fantasy field in the 1960s by the New Wave made it possible for Lafferty's peculiar writings to find a home there. His most well-known book is Past Master (1968), a time-travel exploration of utopian ideals (and a strangely ribald comedy) featuring Thomas More. Lafferty himself was not part of the New Wave (certainly their respective politics diverged greatly), but their concomitant ascent was fortuitous for his career. Sadly, as the mainstream of SF started to distance itself from the innovations of the 1960s, so did Lafferty's popularity wane.

In 1990, he was presented with the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. By that time, Lafferty titles had long since disappeared from the catalogs of major publishers (and, subsequently, from most bookshop shelves). Fortunately, he inspired in his readers a passionate devotion, leading several to found specialty presses whose principal motivation was to ensure that Lafferty's writings kept being published: Chris Drumm Books (through which several chapbooks are still available), United Mythologies Press, Corroboree Press, Broken Mirrors Press, to name the most prominent. In 2002, thanks to Wildside Press, a number of Lafferty's key works are more easily available than they have been for a long time. One other important novel, the Native American epic tall tale Okla Hannali (originally published in 1972), has been in print from the University of Oklahoma Press since 1991.

In the mid-1980s, I acquired a bunch of Terry Carr anthologies, and in his The Best Science Fiction of the Year #11, I encountered Lafferty for the first time. In that story, "You Can't Go Back", a hauntingly strange tale of lost dreams, aching nostalgia, and an unlikely moon (now available in the collection Iron Tears), I found an approach to fabulation that struck a vibrant chord in my imagination: unexplained and impossible phenomena taken for granted as quotidian by the narrator and the characters; a bizarre sense of humour that refused to be fully grasped; poignant sadness permeating even the silliest goings-on; idiosyncratic mythologizing; and a voice that sounded like nothing else. "You Can't Go Back" remains one of my favourite pieces of fiction ever: utterly bizarre, yet empathically resonant.

I read a few more anthologized stories, and then, in 1988, the short-lived mass-market line Bart Books reprinted two classic Lafferty novels: the supernatural conspiracy / bizarre fantasy adventure Fourth Mansions and the horrific dream journey The Devil Is Dead. Both of these novels refuse to conform to easy categorizations, to surrender to straightforward unambiguous meanings. Lafferty's fiction filled me with an obsessive need to explore and investigate as much of his work as I could — knowing that I might never fully understand what I was encountering.

I had not yet caught on to the fact that Lafferty's narrators are liars.

And then I discovered the specialty presses, with their wealth of obscure Lafferty books: Archipelago, East of Laughter, Sindbad: The Thirteenth Voyage, etc. And I managed to find used copies of old paperbacks: Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Ringing Changes, Arrive at Easterwine, etc. I believe it was while reading The Flame Is Green that the revelation struck me like a lightning bolt. I don't think that it was a single scene that did it. Rather, it was probably a realization that had been slowly forming: I couldn't trust Lafferty's narrators; they lie. They lie deliriously and joyfully, mischievously and cannily. The lie because they can.

Not that that explains everything.

Like the best writing, Lafferty's fiction is imbued with a complex, intriguing, and obsessive personal mythology. I doubt that I'll ever fully understand Lafferty, but that doesn't stop me from being awed by his work, marvelling at his unusually powerful turns of phrases, and delighting in the near-rapturous experience of having my imagination lose itself in his ecstatically eccentric tall tales.

She: A History of Adventure, by H. Rider Haggard (Modern Library, 2002; originally published in 1887)

One of the most startling things about She is that it reads like a deconstruction of the very genre it helped spawn: adventures seething with repressed homoerotic subtext in which patriarchal and misogynist colonialists "discover" a "lost" civilization.

First, there's the matter of sexual politics. The narrator expounds upon his own misogyny as a failing in his character. The homosexual subtext is barely hidden: male characters share a bed for comfort and reassurance, and the narrator dwells longingly in precise detail on the good looks and charm of his young and virile ward.

Then there's colonialism. Yes, the characters are Christians who condescendingly believe their worldview to be the apex of civilization. But over and over again they are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) shown to be the ones who are too close-minded to learn from other perspectives.

And of course, all the clichés are here. For example: years rendered as "18—"; the author being the "editor" of a peculiar manuscript come to him under unusual circumstances; the near-death escapes, etc.

But simmering under all of that is an ambiguous, message-free exploration of gender politics and imperialism that either is keenly self-aware or unconsciously taps into to hidden zeitgeist of its era. More likely, a balance between these. Haggard could not have been entirely unaware of what he was accomplishing; and yet the text also gives the impression of having transcended its author's grasp, going places that astonished even Haggard himself.

The first half of She is a truly rousing and intriguing tale. After Chapter 17, however, in which Ayesha (She-who-must-be-obeyed) makes an important discovery, the book loses steam. For one thing, the plot seems to halt. For another, Ayesha is afterwards reduced from a mysterious, terrifying, and seductive demigoddess to a jealous, simpering, love-sick brat who needs a man to be complete. It's tempting to simplify that transformation into the unsavoury, woman-fearing message that behind any show of female strength or independence lies a woman in dire need of a man. But, again, the novel is too slippery to allow for any pat conclusions.

All in all, She is a compelling and rich text that can still stimulate, entertain, and perplex.

As for this edition, avoid the Margaret Atwood introduction, at least until after reading the novel. In it, Atwood reveals the entire story. Otherwise, she talks much about herself, but offers no insight or perspective into either She or Haggard. There is, however, a very informative anonymous six-page "Biographical Note" that amply compensates for the lacunae of Atwood's self-indulgent piece.

The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles G. Finney (Bison Books, 2002; originally published in 1935)

In terms of being baffling, few books can hold a candle to Charles Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao.

A circus filled with mythological creatures comes to Small Town, USA. First, Dr. Lao gives an uninspiring and lacklustre parade that leaves townspeople (and readers!) befuddled. Nevertheless, the bored townspeople attend the circus to see more of its mythological freaks. The first impression of the circus is that it's a decrepit sideshow, and a poorly convincing one at that. But then, its mysteries slowly unveil themselves, and several townspeople are subjected to transformative experiences, both physical and mental.

Dr. Lao himself is both a caricature of the racist stereotype of "the Chinaman" and a canny manipulator who uses that guise to confound, dupe, or ridicule the rubes at the circus. But I'm just speculating; it's never really explained just what he's up to, although he does slip in and out of character constantly (if not consistently!). He is certainly more intelligent than he lets on to most, and his ultimate agenda is mired in contradictions and mysteries.

And yet, despite all the evidence, there's a lingering sense that it is all a sham. But its exact nature and purpose remain elusive. Just as the nature of the story being told and even more so its meaning remain elusive. Also, there's a sense that the transformative experiences of the townspeople will soon be forgotten; an enveloping sadness alludes to the fantastic's failure to permanently change the mundane worldview of the townspeople.

The Circus of Dr. Lao is a fascinating work: a labyrinth of meanings and images that sucks in the imagination, teases it and impishly plays with it. It gives nothing away, but offers much sustenance to those willing to take the risk of stepping into the tents housing its bizarre attractions. Despite the chaos, the author is in full control, deftly weaving a strangely seductive narrative that cares little for conventional plot structures, preferring to offer its own peculiar brand of delights.

This Bison Frontiers of the Imagination edition also includes Boris Artzybasheff's gorgeously strange illustrations from the original 1935 edition.

Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology, by Paul K. Alkon (Routledge, 2002)

Anyone looking for a lively, impassioned, and knowledgeable survey of the early texts that helped shape and define the branch of literature that came to be known, for better or for worse (I'd argue for worse), as science fiction would be well served by seeking out Paul Alkon's informative volume Science Fiction Before 1900: Imagination Discovers Technology. Originally released in hardcover by Twayne as part of its Studies in Literary Themes and Genres, Alkon's book has been given a second life (in paperback) in Routledge's Genres in Context series.

As much as I grew to enjoy this book as I delved deeper into it, I must confess to having been put off by the author's preface, which begins: "Every fan of science fiction remembers with pleasure Arthur C. Clarke's classic 1953 story 'The Nine Billion Names of God.'" Quite apart from the fact that I — a lifelong SF reader — hold no affection whatsoever for that particular piece of fuzzy cosmic mysticism, I also find that that kind of bold and presumptuous assertion is lazy writing. Fortunately, the rest of the book is not plagued by such pronouncements. In fact, for the most part, the rest of the book just sizzles.

The text is separated into four chapters. First up is "A Short History of the Future", which defines the parameters of the study, discusses the very early precursors, and places the usual suspects (Shelley, Verne, Wells, et al.) in historical perspective. Next, one chapter each is devoted to pre-1900 SF in, respectively, England, France, and the USA.

"The Short History of the Future" and the chapters on England and France are nothing less than engrossing; they constitute a truly awe-inspiring chronicle of the evolving imaginative tradition that became SF. Alkon is authoritative and passionate; clearly a lifelong love for SF has guided his research; that love, his excitement at unravelling the evolutive thread of SF's various tropes and shared ideas, and his deep and broad appreciation for the visionary writers who created the most influential early SF texts all combine to create an infectiously enthralling historical narrative.

The chapter on the USA, however, is weak. The other chapters dazzle with their density of information, authors, and titles. In contrast, the USA chapter feels both slight and padded. Much too much space is devoted to Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court; Twain's novel is recapped in excruciating detail. In addition, while Alkon provides vivid (and probably unassailable) arguments when he equates England with "New Viewpoints" and France with "Technophilia", his attempt to attach the "Technophobia" tag on the USA is far from convincing; even he must list several examples of technophilia that make a such generalist claim flimsy at best. Nevertheless, the chapter is imbued with the same verve as the previous three, even if the content is lacking, comparatively.

The bulk of the book is a cornucopia of SF history, painstakingly researched and vividly and lovingly brought to life — a thrilling and exciting read for those wanting to explore SF's origins.

Claude Lalumière was a bookseller for 12 years. He is now a writer, critic, editor, and translator. "Bestial Acts", the first story in his Lost Pages cycle, has just been published in Interzone #178, April 2002. His website features news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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