R A Lafferty

Science fiction writers who should be in the canon ahead of Philip K Dick, part 1

The idea for the subtitle occurred to me after I bought my Library of America Nabokov and Amazon recommended this Philip K Dick omnibus from the same series, which got me thinking. Now, there’s a certain spotty kid in a council library in Guildford in the eighties who will have a hissy fit if he hears me say this, but: Dick is overrated. He is a good sf writer, and his life story is interesting and scary and sad, but I think he owes what mainstream attention he has to three things. His books are full of paranoid politics where the heroes are impotent before scary authoritarians, and therefore appeal strongly to undergraduates. They are full of references to drugs, and therefore appeal strongly to undergraduates. And, lastly, all but one of their basic themes (“what is reality?”, “what does it mean to be human?” and so on) interlock neatly with the average first-year philosophy or literary theory course, and therefore appeal strongly to both undergraduates and those who have to teach undergraduates. (His remaining basic theme is “I hate my wife”, which appeals strongly to a percentage of the latter group.)

But none of those three things are relevant to literary quality. Dick was a sloppy, repetitive writer, and his attitude to women, and just about everything else, was pretty puerile. I can think of at least three sf writers from the 60s and 70s who should get fancy acid-free paper hardback editions before he does, starting with R. A. Lafferty.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers

It would be a good thing if Lafferty were just in print, let alone in the canon, because I’ve had to fossick through second-hand bookstores for years to get a copy of this. The funky cover by Leo and Diane Dillon almost makes up for the wasted time. It has no evident connection with any of the short stories inside, but then neither do most things. Lafferty’s blurbs always go on about how crazy he is – ‘the madman Lafferty’, says Harlan Ellison on this one – which is a cheap way of saying that, like Flann O’Brien, he follows the logic of his premises with an exceptional amount of rigor, and has a good time while he’s doing it. O’Brien and Chesterton are probably his closest literary relatives, although Lafferty makes The Man Who Was Thursday look staid and realistic. There’s also a dash of early 20th-century American cornball poetry in his work which reminds me of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics. This collection includes his best stories: ‘Slow Tuesday Night’, ‘Primary Education of the Camiroi’, ‘Polity and Custom of the Camiroi’, and especially ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’.

The only novel I’ve read of Lafferty’s is Arrive at Easterwine. It’s also exceptional, almost like a science fiction version of Bouvard and Pécuchet, only with a team of eccentric scientists and an intelligent computer as the protagonists.


3 responses to “R A Lafferty

  1. Inspired by this post, I bought “The Past Master” from Gould’s Book Arcade the other day – have only read the first chapter and that while falling aslee – but it appears (in promospeak) that Only One Man can Save the Future – Thomas More.

    A good start.

  2. Nonsense.

    I like RA Lafferty a lot (and I happen to have read several of his books and stories, not just one), but it is absurd to put him in the same class as Dick. And no, I’m not an undergrad — I’m a middle-aged attorney who’s been reading and re-reading Dick with pleasure for over 40 years.

  3. It’s about time somebody disagreed with this blog.

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