Monday, May 4, 2009

R. A. Lafferty (author)

(1914-2002)
Wikipedia Entry

image Even without reading the byline, you could always identify a R.A. Lafferty story. He had one of the most individualistic voices in the genre, and one of the most amazing imaginations. Since his best work was in short stories,* he is slowly fading from consciousness.

Lafferty came to science fiction relatively late (especially for the 1960s, when people were breaking in to print in their early 20s).  His first story was published when he was 40, and he didn't begin to establish himself as a writer until his 50s.  He worked for many years as an electrical engineer and still managed to crank out hundreds of stories, and was a regular in Damon Knight's Orbit anthologies and in the magazines of the time.

His stories were generally tall tales. There was a larger-than-life feel to them, and they were filled with surprises.  Some of my favorites included:

  • Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne.  A fable on the dangers of messing with time.
  • Slow Tuesday Night. A society where everything happens very quickly -- and 15 minutes of fame is a very long time.
  • What Was the Name of That Town?  A search to find something not known to exist by a close study of the absence of evidence.  With a brilliant solution.
  • Continued on Next Rock. A prehistoric romance of a sort.
  • Incased in Ancient Rind. A sad and beautiful tale about pollution and what it brings back.
  • Rainbird. The story of an inventor, and the dangers of going too far.
  • Euremia's Dam.  The real mother of invention.**

Lafferty merged both Irish and Native American storytelling methods and the result was always a delight.

But Lafferty was never a fan favorite.  He did win a Hugo Award for Euremia's Dam," but he got few award nominations and no other wins.  And the changes in science fiction in the 80s and 90s left Lafferty behind.  He still hadn't lost his skill, but readers didn't appreciate his style any more.  His work tended to be published in smaller SF presses to excellent reviews but little exposure.  I remember one year when the Nebula committee begged someone to publish a Lafferty story so that they could recommend it.

Lafferty died in 2002, pretty much unknown to the Star Wars generation.  His work remains in print, but only in limited editions.  You owe it to yourself to pick some of them up.

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*He wrote quite a few novels, but most did not live up to his short fiction; the only one I found that came close was his Past Master.

**And nothing to do with Frank Zappa, thank you very much.

2 comments:

George de Verges said...

I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Lafferty in the 1980's, when I lived in Tulsa. His sister worked with my father at Gulf Oil, but I first met him when my wife was called to the home he shared with his sister, who wanted piles of books removed for a local Catholic school book sale (or just removed). I saw a box, which heralded that it had contained the works of Thomas Aquinas in English translation---10 volumes. When I asked the source, my wife told me it was the excess of R. A. Lafferty, who had glowered in the background as the books were hauled away.

I later met Mr. Lafferty after Mass...he lived near the parish we attended. I offered him a ride home...an excuse to indulge (shyly) in hero worship. He called me "young fella,"...he clearly saw no need to learn my name. I recall that I complemented him on a story about the second, private moon the Osages hid in Osage County, in Oklahoma, near the town of Bluejacket. I told him that Osage County possessed a weirdness that allowed you to imagine a second moon hidden there, while such a story set in, say, Rogers County would seem silly. He swung around and said "You think the Cherokees can't have their own moon?" My hopes erupted that the author of "OklaHanali" would provide all the Five Civilized Tribes with moons and other astrological secrts throughout Oklahoma, but it was not to be.

We will not, I'm afraid, see his likes again soon.

Bill Reynolds said...

This is the post that led me to your blog. I discovered Lafferty with the Ace Special release of Past Master. Somehow, I'd missed his stories in If and Galaxy, which is odd because those magazines were where I developed my love for Cordwainer Smith. I've bought and read the 1st edition of literally every Lafferty book or booklet ever released, from major to minor publishers, the latter usually directly from the publishers like Chris Drumm & United Mythologies. I'm currently buying the Centipede collections as they come out, even though I have most of the stories already, so that I can reread them in a different order. I've bought rereading copies of several of RAL's books. I picked up an HC reprint of Past Master at a con in the early '90s and ran into him. He was kind enough to sign it.