I recently read (over on Ethel, and to my great sadness) that science fiction writer R. A. Lafferty has passed away after a long bout with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was 87 years old. I’ve written about my enthusiasm for Lafferty before; his work was a joyous muddle, both simple and deceptively complex. (See, for instance, his take on the fountain of youth trope in "Nine Hundred Grandmothers", collected in his short story anthology of the same name.) When I wrote before, I said that I had never read anything Lafferty wrote about the craft of science fiction; that is no longer the case. Much of Lafferty’s work was published as chapbooks, and I checked out from the library a slim volume called It’s Down the Slippery Cellar Stair. It bills itself as a collection of essays "on fantastic literature". In the introduction, Lafferty writes:
The symptoms [of science fiction] are usually a falcon-like hunting or questing; a series of sudden tuneful encounters; a group of euphoorias and buoyancies that cry in opposite directions to be hoarded like misers’ treasures, and simultaneously to be shared with felow sufferers of the symptoms; feeling that the "World We Live In" is somehow masked and needs to be unmasked.
Throughout, Lafferty hammers his belief that storytelling is largely dead in mainstream literature. As Lafferty puts it, "The ghost of some other fiction might say in truth to Science Fiction: ‘You’re not very good, are you?’ But Science Fiction can answer, ‘Maybe not, but I’m alive and you’re dead.’"
It’s interesting to me because I associate Lafferty with the new wave of the sixties. Ken MacLeod calls new wave the reaction of writers realizing that science-fictional "decadent future societies" had already arrivied, but I associate it with a more rigorous attention to prose, a certain self-knowingness, a willingness to experiment with form, as well the rejection of the idea of moral evolution that MacLeod notes. (I have no idea if I’m being ahistoric, but I think of Gene Wolfe‘s Proustian masterpiece, 1972’s "The Fifth Head of Cerebus" as the exemplar of the the new wave sensibility.) And all of these qualities are the opposite of what Lafferty seems to admire.
But the gap can be bridged. One of the things that the new wave brought was a willingness to move away from the Boys’ Own pulpishness that was the heritage of the ‘20s and ‘30s and towards a more literary sensibility, even while talking about ghosts or aliens or robots or time travel. Lafferty did the same thing, only instead of chosing high literature (or the middle-highbrow of Norman Mailer and the like that seems to have been seized upon by many of his contemporaries), he chose shaggy dog yarns, barroom lies, supermarket tabloid and Sunday supplement articles, campfire ghost tales, the lunatic logic of stories written by children, all the while talking about ghosts and aliens and robots and time travel. Nobody could mistake a Lafferty book for one by Joanna Russ, not at fifty paces, but Gardner Dozois recalled Lafferty’s Past Master and Russ’ Picnic on Paradise as being "unlike anything I had read before." Lafferty refuted nostalgia by writing childishly, with a child’s wonder at the mundane and lack of wonder at the fantastic. He was branching away from the plodding adventure story, but perpendicular to everyone else. Lafferty’s stories are thought-provoking and addled and above all funny and full of life. His voice will be missed.