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The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each with a brand new introduction by various well-known authors. There’s also a long foreword by Neil Gaiman, and for me this contained the biggest surprise in the book.

Of course, I expected him to say he was a Lafferty fan, but he goes much further than that. Throughout his teens and early 20s, Lafferty was his absolute favourite author, and he corresponded with him a great deal. He even sent him his own first writing effort, which elicited an encouraging response from Lafferty. In Gaiman’s words, ‘My favourite author told me I should write some more, so I did.’ If you’re in the ‘never heard of R. A. Lafferty’ category and you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, that means you really ought to check this book out.

Rating a work of fiction is always subjective. A few years ago I read an earlier Lafferty collection, Ringing Changes that I’d unhesitatingly give five stars. That’s because it was strong on the sort of stories I like best, namely ones based around challenging or thought-provoking ideas. There are some of those in this new collection too, but the overall feel is rather different. Perhaps it’s because the stories were selected by professional authors, but there’s a stronger emphasis on character-driven rather than idea-driven tales. That’s less to my taste, but no doubt plenty of readers would give this one five stars too.

I’ve got all this way without saying what the unique appeal of Lafferty’s fiction is. Actually there’s not just one thing but a whole bunch of them: a whimsical, almost folksy narrative style; wildly eccentric yet believable characters; surreal settings; fresh takes on old SF themes; incisive satire. In the best of his stories, you get all the above at once – a good example being the first story in this collection, ‘Slow Tuesday Night’, from 1965. With the (sadly fictitious) Abebaios block removed from human minds, people can now do everything at lightning speed.  In the course of a single night fashions can come and go, fortunes can be made and lost, philosophical ideas can emerge and be forgotten. Featuring the likes of Basil Bagelbaker, Maxwell Mouser and Ildefonsa Impala, only R. A. Lafferty could have written something this funny, and this serious.

My personal favourite is the aforementioned ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’. It’s based on a hackneyed idea – that altering a tiny event in the past can change the present beyond recognition – but Lafferty’s approach is so clever, and so different, that I can happily read it again and again. The historical event referred to in the title – the battle of Roncevaux Pass – is probably only common currency among military history buffs, which may lead you to expect something of a highbrow read. But with its cartoonish narrative – featuring characters like Willy McGilly, Aloysius Shiplap and a dragon-headed, cigar-smoking machine called Epiktistes – the story is anything but that.

Although Lafferty draws on the usual trappings of science fiction – time machines, spaceships, alien planets – there isn’t that much science, either real or fictional, in his stories. That’s surprising, in a way, because before he became a writer he worked in electronic engineering. There’s only one story in the collection that gives a hint of that: ‘Selenium Ghosts of the 1870s’, about an imagined form of Victorian-era television. When it first appeared in 1978 the word ‘steampunk’ didn’t exist, but that’s effectively what it is. It’s metafiction, too, because it summarises the plot of a number of 19th century TV shows – including a science fictional one, set on Mars. This includes one of the best examples of pseudoscientific technobabble I’ve ever come across, and I can’t resist ending the review by quoting it:

‘He posits, for instance, an atmosphere composed mostly of an eno-magnetised, digammated, attenuated form of oxygen. Being eno-magnetised, that atmosphere would naturally cling to its planet even though the gravity would not be strong enough to retain it otherwise. Being digammated, it would produce no line in the Martian spectrum, would have no corona or optical distortion effect, and could in no way be detected  from Earth. And yet an Earthly human would be able to breathe it freely.’
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Review by Andrew May

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