Originally published in the July 2017 issue of Education & Culture.
The difference between science fiction writers and fantasy writers is a generalization that holds up as well as a generalization can. Sci-fi authors tend to be liberal or libertarian, looking forward to the future and trusting in reason. Fantasy authors tend to be conservative, looking back to the past and believing in magic. In the decades after World War II, when the genres were more ghettoized and before cross-splicing had given us such prodigies as cyberpunk elf-wizards in space, authors were even more likely than today to be true to type.
So what are we to make of a science fiction author of the 1960s and ’70s who sends his heroes to fight for the reactionary Spanish Carlists? Who believes in the literal reality of the Devil, who patterns an entire novel after the Interior Castle of Saint Teresa of Avila, who takes what he calls “the secular-liberal imposture” as his avowed and constant enemy?
Lafferty has never been a household name, but he has long commanded a devout readership. In March of 2017, Centipede Press published The Man with the Speckled Eyes, the fourth volume in what is projected to be a 12-volume deluxe edition of Lafferty’s collected short fiction, including many stories not previously available in book form. The first two volumes sold out rapidly, with third-party sellers now listing copies on Amazon for hundreds of dollars.
Lafferty had the makings of a great American storyteller long before he sold his first story in 1959 at the age of 45. Growing up in Oklahoma between the wars, he was two generations removed from Irish famine migrants and one generation removed from the end of the Indian wars, when chiefs like Quanah Parker lived out their voluble dotage on federal reservations under the official supervision of, among others, Lafferty’s uncle. Service in the Pacific brought Lafferty into contact with the world outside Tulsa, as well as a dozen new flavors of American yarning in his Army unit to add to his native Celtic blarney.
These experiences, plus his devout Catholic faith, were rich soil for his talent—but it did not flower until, on the far side of middle age, he embraced the unlikeliest of genres.
The heritage of science fiction is, after all, not only anti-Christian but specifically anti-Catholic. Its origins are in the Gothic novel circa Frankenstein, and there is a reason the two most famous Gothic parodies both have the word “abbey” in the title. Catholic superstition was the substance of the Gothic frisson, inquisitorial tortures and convent debaucheries its stock terrors. Far from trafficking in the supernatural themselves, Gothic novels more often ended with a grand debunking, showing off their Protestant good sense by revealing how it was all done with trapdoors and lookalikes. In the more recent SF subgenre of alternate history, the most popular scenario after “What if the Nazis had won World War II?” is “What if England had remained Catholic?” According to novels like Pavane, Times Without Number, and The Alteration, the answer has a lot to do with backwardness and castration.
But Lafferty the daily Mass-goer was a science fiction author and no other kind. His short pieces appeared in Galaxy and Amazing Stories. He had a left-brained day job as an electrical engineer. Not all of his stories revolved around aliens and spacemen, but some did, and almost all of them feature the signature of science fiction, the one big What if . . . ? If he seemed like a freak in the sci-fi fraternity, it was because his work belonged to a different tradition of science fiction, a path-not-taken tradition, going farther back than Mary Shelley and Monk Lewis to books like Thomas More’s Utopia.
The great Lord Chancellor’s jeu d’esprit was, in fact, the germ of Lafferty’s most accomplished novel. In Past Master (1968), the élite of Earth depart for the planet Astrobe and over many centuries build up a working model of More’s Utopia. There is no poverty or sickness on Astrobe, no anxiety or hate, and yet by the year 2535 more than a tenth of its people have defected to Cathead, the walled slum where buildings swarm with rats, children run naked, and everyone works themselves to death within ten years if they don’t get stabbed in a tavern first. The elders of Astrobe send a time traveler to bring them the one ruler who can tell them how to fix their broken society—Thomas More himself.
The utopia with one thing wrong is an old trope in science fiction. The difference between Past Master and other variations, say, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” is that the Dickensian misery of Cathead serves no purpose whatsoever. “There was no market or use for the product, no pay for the work, no reward of any kind,” the book explains. “They can return to civilized Astrobe today, within the hour, and be cared for and endowed with property and settled in ease.” In civilized Astrobe, the only downsides to life—none of which are downsides in the eyes of its citizens—are that there is no privacy, no religion, and no purpose, and nine out of ten lives end in voluntary euthanasia. They do not even, like the original Utopians, keep slaves. The challenge for the reader, and for More, is to argue the wickedness of the Astrobe model without the shortcut of some dramatic injustice to point to.
Lafferty and More (the real one) shared a love of punning. The traveler in More’s Utopia is named Raphael Hythloday, which mean “speaker of nonsense,” and the Greek name of the river there means “Without Water,” the ruler, “Without People.” The name “Astrobe,” like “Utopia” itself, has two interpretations. It could refer to stars, but it could also mean an absence of strobos, turbulence, the ancient pulse of germ and birth. Lafferty’s broader oeuvre includes puns in Greek, French, Spanish, Russian, German, Gaelic, and for all I know Malay, of which he had a passing knowledge. This puts him in a class with that other born philologist of mid-century genre fiction, who once scribbled the made-up word “hobbit” on a student’s exam paper and made the fateful decision that he should figure out what sort of people would have that name. Lafferty would have delighted in pointing out that in some old Germanic languages tolcken meant “translator.”
According to Lafferty, More’s problem was that readers believed he was serious in Utopia when he was only joking. He himself had the opposite problem. Lafferty was most certainly not joking when, for example, he depicted Communist characters as literally demonic in The Flame Is Green. He masked his sincerity in playfulness, both in interviews and in his work. The character most often identified as an authorial stand-in, Bertigrew Bagley of Fourth Mansions, a man of Chestertonian dimensions, explains of himself:
“I try to live by certain norms, squarely as a square. One meaning of norma, a norm, in Latin is a carpenter’s square.”
“I tell you, Bagley, that you vary from that square. Isn’t the word for that abnormal?”
“Not the only word. Me, I’m enormous.”
Chestertonian dimensions and Chestertonian themes, too. In Past Master, the sanctuary of orderliness saves Thomas More when the council of Astrobe tries mind control on him: “I’ve but to think in Latin and they can’t come into me.”
Lafferty dropped his clowning once, in a lecture to a sci-fi conference in 1979, later published in his sole essay collection under the title “The Day After the World Ended.” Wondering why there were so many postapocalyptic stories but so few good ones, he concluded, “The reason here is that fact precludes fiction. Being inside the situation, we are a little too close to it to see it clearly”:
Today is The Day After the World Ended . . . . I am speaking literally about a real happening, the end of the world in which we lived till fairly recent years. The destruction or unstructuring of that world, which is still sometimes referred to as “Western Civilization” or “Modern Civilization,” happened suddenly, sometime in the half century between 1912 and 1962. That world, which was “The World” for a few centuries, is gone. Though it ended quite recently, the amnesia concerning its ending is general.
Lafferty himself wrote a book with the title Apocalypses, featuring the story “The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney,” in which it is gradually revealed that, sometime in the late 1960s, mankind erased all memory of the two world wars. The climax of the story is an article from the Deactivated Military Review by one Brig. General George Dredgefellow asking, “Have we had two world wars in this century or haven’t we? And are we about to have a third world war that, by general estimate, will end the world?” He walks himself through the evidence—on one hand, the four billion humans who don’t believe in the wars, on the other, a tiny dissenting apocalyptic cult—and poses himself rhetorical questions:
“Well, how would the people behave if two parts of Armageddon had happened?”
“They would reform their ways, and they would do penance even as the people of Nineveh did penance.”
“Nah, they wouldn’t. They would behave as depraved louts, just as they have always done, and just as they are still doing.”
General Dredgefellow ends inconclusively with a final question: “When the world is finally destroyed will it act as though it is destroyed? Or will it be the most casual and nonbelieving cinder ever?”
Lafferty’s fascination with the end of the world surfaces again and again in his fiction (“What Was the Name of That Town Again,” “Ginny Wrapped in the Sun”) and produced his only work of nonfiction, The Fall of Rome. The book is as idiosyncratic as Gibbon’s, but there the comparison ends. Lafferty’s book is half a novelistic telling of the life of Alaric the Goth, half a hodgepodge of his fanciful private theories. In neither case can his statements be taken entirely at face value. He cites sources that do not exist, assigns characters names that appear in no records, and posits etymological connections that would send Tolkien running for his red pen.
(On the other hand, never be too quick to assume Lafferty is just making things up. I had assumed Father Isidore Robot was someone he invented for his historical novel about the Choctaw, Okla Hannali, but it turns out Father Robot is a real person with a Wikipedia page and everything.)
Running throughout the book is Lafferty’s cyclical theory of world history. Mankind builds civilization generation by generation and, periodically, destroys what he has built, so cataclysmically that the next generation has to start from the beginning. Fourth Mansions, his novel based on Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, follows the same theory. Just as the individual soul ascends from mansion to mansion, mankind ascends through levels of civilization; the higher it gets, the more demons try to assail it. Teresa wrote of vipers and toads. In Lafferty’s cosmology, these are “tentacled liberalism (the python-hydra)” and “Communism, from underground (the toad with the tantalizing jewel in its head).”
The final paragraph of Fall of Rome deserves to be quoted in full, as a rare moment when Lafferty left off outlandish metaphor (mostly) and spoke plainly:
But we are all Goths, for all that, whoever we are; which is to say, Outlanders. And like the Goth Sarus we still owe loyalty to an Empire, but we no longer know of what the Empire consists. We are still bound by the statement of Stilicho that the highest duty in the World is the proper ordering of the World. There will be, and are, other worlds; and perhaps it is not a terrible thing that a world should end. But we are still in admiration at the great corpse of it.
There is a mini-genre of science fiction known, cheekily, as “Jesuits in Space.” It is easy to see why James Blish, Mary Doria Russell, and so many others chose to assign their characters to the Society of Jesus. In every continent and latitude, from the Americas to the Far East, the Jesuits took the lead in exploration, confronting alien nations and adapting to their particular missionary needs. The current Vatican Astronomer is a Jesuit. They are a natural fit for science fiction.
Lafferty, an exception as always, was more like a monk of an earlier order. He looked at the Sixties and saw a civilization in ruins, even if, like the people in “Enniscorthy Sweeney,” 90 percent of the world had no idea and kept going along as if nothing had been destroyed. Like an old manuscript copyist, his task was to preserve the truths that had been forgotten, to keep present before his readers’ eyes the reality of the world that was lost—and the reality, almost never mentioned by Lafferty but implicit all the time, of a better world to come.