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Monday, May 13, 2024

Who Is R. A. Lafferty? And Is He the Best Sci-Fi Writer Ever?

What follows will be the best article you’ve ever read about writing and science fiction.

Just kidding. Sort of. The sci-fi writer R. A. Lafferty used to make claims like that. For most of his career, he’d tell people he was “the best short story writer in the world.” Smart move, in theory. Makes you want to read him.

We’re suckers for superlatives. Best, greatest, most important. When Lafferty did it, he was joking. He was also being perfectly serious. Everything Lafferty put his name on was outrageous, insidery, and truth-seeking: a serious joke. But then, so is life itself. Therefore, Lafferty might be right. He might really be the best there ever was.

Just one problem: Nobody reads him. They didn’t when he was alive, and they don’t now that he’s dead. It’s a clickbait cliché falling somewhere between desperate and insulting to say so-and-so is the greatest such-and-such you’ve never heard of, but in this case, it happens to be true. Ask your nerdiest friends if they’ve ever encountered a Raphael Aloysius Lafferty in their cosmic travels. They haven’t, and a name like that sticks with a person. Even people who’ve heard of people other people haven’t heard of are people who haven’t heard of him.

Lafferty didn’t just write possibly the best short stories in the world, of which more than 200 were published by various pulps and small presses in his lifetime. He also wrote 36 novels, which is a lot and which nobody, not even Lafferty, has ever put in the category of best. (A tragic mistake.) Of them, only four merit entries on Wikipedia; fewer than that are currently in print. The Wikipedia page for Serpent’s Egg, a late-career work that came out in 1987 and fell into obscurity promptly thereafter, includes what might be the most fitting plot summary not only of a Lafferty novel but of any novel, ever written. As of February 24, 2021, at 3:22 pm, it reads, in its entirety: “Serpent’s Egg is a novel in which .”

This is exactly right. It could be a typo, but maybe it’s not. A joke, but also highly serious. Look at the awkward, breathtaking space the ghostly editor added before the period. In which—GASP, the end. The question is, do we dare to fill it in?

OK, so a select few actually have read Lafferty, a secret society of loonies whose names you probably do recognize. Neil Gaiman. Ursula Le Guin. Samuel Delany. Other sci-fi writers, in other words. R. A. Lafferty has always been, then, a sci-fi writer’s sci-fi writer—a blurry, far-out position to find oneself in. When comedians hang out, they famously have to commit acts of borderline criminality, usually involving nudity and great heights, to get each other to bust up. So just think what absurdities a sci-fi writer has to conjure forth to gobsmack his fellow sci-fi writers—sci-fi writers who actually are, by much wider consensus, some of the best in the world.


The descriptor they tend to resort to, as if by no other choice, is sui generis, dusty old Latin for “one of a kind.” It’s probably the most common phrase associated with Lafferty (incidentally a self-taught student of Latin), and it appears not once but twice in The Best of R. A. Lafferty, which Tor published earlier this year to nonexistent fanfare and which, in keeping with the man’s self-aggrandizing sense of humor, should’ve been called The Best (of the Best) of R. A. Lafferty. Each of the 22 short stories is introduced by a writer often far more famous than Lafferty, including Gaiman and Delany, and also John Scalzi, Jeff VanderMeer, Connie Willis, and Harlan Ellison (who’s dead; his piece was originally published in 1967). Ellison—whose fellow Ellison, Ralph, wrote Invisible Man—says this of Lafferty: “He is the invisible man.” Nice.

It is now time to expose you to some of Lafferty’s writing, which will further illuminate his chronic invisibility. So much of his output is dangerously unquotable outside its immediate context, because it depends for its effect on the words flying madly around it, but occasionally a paragraph pops up that makes about as much sense within the story as without and is therefore safer for the plucking. Here’s one, from “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies,” Lafferty’s alternate history, published in 1978, of television:

There seemed to be several meetings in this room superimposed on one another, and they cannot be sorted out. To sort them out would have been to destroy their effect, however, for they achieved syntheses of their several aspects and became the true meeting that never really took place but which contained all the other meetings in one theatrical unity.

Don’t go away! On first read, yes, it’s nonsense, but this is the experience of experiencing Lafferty. He doesn’t make any sense, until you decide, and you must decide, that he does. Then, suddenly, he becomes a genius. Read the paragraph again. What’s he talking about? Today, you might realize he’s predicting Zoom: a main meeting full of individual nonmeetings taking place in chats and side slacks that together constitute a constant and overarching supermeeting! Tomorrow, it’ll sound like something else entirely.

However you read him, you can’t read Lafferty quickly, because he literally won’t let you. He speeds up his stories, his sentences, his mythopoetic thoughts so that you all but have to slow yourself down. In “The Primary Education of the Camiroi,” he documents the education system of a neighboring planet, whose students can outthink Earthly postdocs by the equivalent of their elementary school. When a young Camiroi girl is asked how rapidly she can read, she says she used to read an astonishing 4,000 words a minute. “They had quite a time correcting me of it,” she then admits. “I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

You begin to see why people, even professional wordsmiths, fumble their way toward talking about Lafferty, a writer’s writer who wants to retrain the way his readers read. So instead, they invoke phrases like sui generis—or, just as often, can’t help but use the name of the artist to describe the work itself. A Laffertarian might refer to Lafferty’s short stories as Laffervescent Lafferties in the Laffertian genre of Laffertiana at the annual Laffcon. All of those eponymous autologies have been used by real people in real writing about Lafferty, seemingly because no other words would do.

Lafferty would Lafferlove this (#laffoutloud). Among his many intellectual hobbies was etymology, and he had, he once said, “a rough reading knowledge of all the languages of the Latin, German, and Slavic families, as well as Irish and Greek.” One of his favorite writerly moves was to force his readers to think about where his words were coming from: “Thunder-struck,” he once wrote of certain imperiled characters, “they were literally astonished (which is the same thing latinized).” Huh? What’s that mean? Then you look up the word astonished—and realize that it literally comes from the Latin for “to thunder.”

Nothing about Lafferty’s style is ordinary. He averages approximately one exclamation mark a page. He likes to address his readers as people. His favorite words, based on frequency of use, include shaggy, ensorcel, and obtain. Not obtain in the obvious, transitive sense of “to get,” no no, but in the less familiar, more philosophical, intransitive sense of “to succeed” or “to prevail.” As in, Lafferty does not obtain for most readers, perhaps because he often invents words outright. Novanissimus. Mithermenic. Runningest. Giganticals. Some are weirder than others. All are, in theory, parseable. But you don’t have to work them out if you don’t want to. In fact, is all this linguistic babble—this “silvery gibberish,” as Lafferty would say—making it sound as though he’s difficult to read? Torturous? Impenetrable? Here’s the secret, people: He’s not. Not really. In some ways, he’s the easiest of them all.

Unlike, say, a Neil Gaiman type, Lafferty did not grow up reading much science fiction and fantasy. Nor did he dream of becoming a writer—he wouldn’t publish a word until his mid 40s. Born in Iowa in 1914, he was 4 or 5 years old when his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and, with the exception of the time he spent fighting in World War II, he lived there for the rest of his life.

Little is known about that life; it seems the number of Lafferty scholars can be counted on one (half of a thumbless) hand. He was politically conservative and a devout Catholic who went to mass every day, and he worked for many years as an electrical salesman and technician. Some ways he described himself: left-handed, a fat man, a compulsive walker, not very interesting. Ways others described him: shy, soft-spoken, eccentric, brilliant. He never married and lived with one of his sisters. He seemed to consider women near-mystical beings. A minority in his stories, they’re nonetheless always there, electric and extraordinary: often his very best characters.

Lafferty was also an alcoholic. The reason he took up writing, he said, was to cut back on drinking, that “tricky old animal.” It’s unclear the extent to which he was successful in this. Over the course of his career, he was nominated for a handful of awards and won one Hugo, for the short story “Eurema’s Dam,” which he considered average but which remains the best portrait of a tech CEO ever written. “Albert hadn’t been a very well-adjusted adolescent, and he hated the memory of it,” Lafferty writes. “And nobody ever mistook him for an adjusted man.” Lafferty seems to have been talking about himself there, too; he once suggested he was “somehow deficient or lacking in person or personality.” On his occasional trips to sci-fi conventions and awards ceremonies, where he shocked readers by being much older than they thought he was, he was known to imbibe a little too freely. Helped him get over his shyness, friends said.

And Lafferty’s writing, it must be said, does have a kind of mad-drunk clarity to it. This is not to say he wrote under the influence; apparently he never did. But there’s a moment before incapacitation, but after considerable consumption, where a drinker’s thoughts seem to sharpen, heighten, and laser in, and that’s the state Lafferty sustains, somewhat impossibly, in his prose. It rambles, it sweats, it nearly collapses, but then it triumphs and takes a bow. As he once so loopingly, lapidarily put it: “One does whatever one can for oneness that is greater than self.”

You feel no pressure, reading a Lafferty. It’s like listening to a street preacher hold forth—you choose how and what to hear. The little that’s been written about him overemphasizes his religious and political beliefs, which are indeed all over his stories, but only if you want them to be. If you don’t, they’re simply tall tales, supremely well told—and many, about Native landowners (“Narrow Valley”), the speeding up of the technologized world (“Slow Tuesday Night”), and the fear of death (“Old Foot Forgot”), don’t feel Catholic or conservative at all. “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” follows a cultural anthropologist who travels deep underground on an alien planet to meet tinier and tinier ancient grandmas so he can discover the origin of life. (When he gets there, they laugh in his face.) In “Boomer Flats,” scientists search for Abominable Snowmen at the bottom of a muddy river. Possibly Lafferty’s all-time best (of the best) is “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” in which a sentient robot serpent aids foolish humans in traveling, and inadvertently erasing themselves, through time. It’s simple, ingenious, and completely hysterical.

By 1970, at age 56, Lafferty retired from electrical jobbing to write full-time. He became “moderately successful,” as he put it. “It didn’t put me on easy street, but it put me on easy alley.” He didn’t have a style that grew more apparent and solidified over time, simply because his style was fully set from the beginning. The literal would always slip into the metaphorical and back again. Children would always talk like the smartest adults. Random characters would always be introduced only to die a sentence later—it was as if an occult hand had placed them there for reasons even beyond Lafferty’s knowing. None of it made sense, all of it made sense, and he became the best short story writer in the world.

And all the while, he was also writing a bunch of insane novels.

An early editor of Lafferty’s told him two things: (1) Every story should start with a bang; and (2) never give a reader longer than 15 seconds before you “jerk him back.” So when Lafferty went to write his first novel, Past Master, published in 1968, he began it this way:

The three big men were met together in a private building of one of them. There was a clattering thunder in the street outside, but the sun was shining. It was the clashing thunder of the mechanical killers, ravening and raging. They shook the building and were on the verge of pulling it down. They required the life and blood of one of the three men and they required it immediately, now, within the hour, within the minute.

Three bangs, basically. And never a moment to breathe. It carries on like this for 200 pages.

Simply put, Lafferty’s books are his short stories stretched profoundly past breaking, which is perhaps why he thought of them as inferior. “Choppy” was the word he used, in an 1983 interview with Amazing magazine. This is both literally true—his third book, Space Chantey, a retelling of The Odyssey as a space opera in which one Captain Roadstrum spends years trying to return home to “Big Tulsa the marvelous, the Capital of the World,” is so choppy it makes you space-sick—and also entirely irrelevant, which Lafferty had to know. His novels implode with ideas. When the “three big men” of Past Master realize their perfect future utopia on the planet of Astrobe is about to collapse, they steal Utopia author Thomas More from Earth’s past to fix everything. What they don’t realize is that More was writing a satire, which Past Master also is: a critique of sci-fi utopias as a satire of a satire! To get to Earth, the hero Paul has to use “Hopp-Equation travel,” during which he becomes left-handed, experiences a “total reversal of polarity,” and hallucinates the events of the rest of the novel. It all ends both fantastically and also, somehow, historically.


Lafferty loved history. In fact, he preferred it to science fiction. Sci-fi was never native to him; those were simply the stories of his that sold early in his career, so he kept up with it, mostly ignoring what others were doing and being, he said, “a little bit stubborn about writing my own stuff.” Over time, though, he seems to have realized the connection science fiction has to myth and history. Growing up, Lafferty was surrounded by stories—tall tales his father would spin to entertain the family, “old Indian stories” that his mother picked up as a school teacher of Native students in Oklahoma. By the time he became a writer, he started doing the same thing.

In 1972, Lafferty published one of his rare non-sci-fi novels, Okla Hannali, a history of the Choctaw Indians in the 19th century. A subset of the few (mostly writers) who have read it consider it an American classic on a par with Huck Finn and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and it’s the only one of his books that’s consistently in print. (A division of Hachette UK published a rather sad-looking omnibus edition of three others, including Past Master and Space Chantey, in 2018.) In an introduction, Geary Hobson, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and the editor of The Remembered Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Native American Literature, calls it “a rather unusual, totally extraordinary book.” It’s straighter than his sci-fi, perhaps, being based on real people, but it’s still classic Lafferty: formally inventive, mythopoetic, word-centric. The last bit of Lafferty you read here should be this, one of Okla Hannali’s most startling passages:

There is an interesting question in the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas and also in an old science fiction story, the name of which I forget, concerning the paradox of free will and predestined fate. It asks whether a man in making a great decision that will forever set the seal on his future does not also set the seal on his past. A man alters his future, and does he not also alter his past in conformity with it? Does he not settle not only what manner of man he will be, but also what manner of man he has been?

The science fiction story he’s referencing could, slyly, be his own—“Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne”—but it needn’t be. The point is that Native myths, Catholicism, and science fiction all ask versions of the same question: How preordained is destiny? In a single paragraph, Lafferty elevates sci-fi to the level of ultimate truth, and unifies his entire artistic and thematic project in the process.

Lafferty would write many more novels, some historical, most science fictional, all squirming inside the rigidity of categorization to begin with. He’d stop writing, due to health issues, in his 70s, and die, with almost all of his work out of print, in 2002. But every so often, someone discovers him, and certain destinies, both his and others’, subtly shift. Neil Gaiman will mention him in a blog post, sending a few readers off to find an affordable old copy of, say, Not to Mention Camels or Serpent’s Egg. (Good luck.) Or Jeff VanderMeer will include him in a new anthology, reminding those in the know of Lafferty’s deep, continuing influence. Samuel Delany has suggested that some of the genre’s worthiest books, such as his Triton and Le Guin’s Dispossessed, are rooted in Lafferty’s strange un-utopias. Lafferty pushed them, as he did many others, to think bigger and weirder about the possibilities of the fantastic.

Maybe that’s the final reason for Lafferty’s microfame as the sci-fi writer’s truest sci-fi writer. He did what the others couldn’t, and still can’t, do: He talked not only about the future but as the future, in a language truly outside the immediacies of time. Reflecting on his body of work, Lafferty once said he wasn’t so much writing individual stories as “one very very long novel,” with recurring characters and settings, that he’d never quite be able to finish. He called this hypothetical supernovel A Ghost Story, one forever haunted by gaps and hopes and spaces before the period. It is a novel, perhaps more than any other in the history of the world, that is about the fate of that world, the fate of us all. It is unknowable and incomplete. It is, in the end, a novel in which .

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