January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.
Past Master by R.A. Lafferty
I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, though he was recommended to me time and again. One of the foibles of loving books so much is that you sometimes think you know better than other people do about what you may enjoy. My apologies to all who recommended Lafferty–I should have dived in the first time his name came up! I was absolutely blown away by Past Master. I wish I’d read it earlier.
This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or how dreams play out in faster-than-light travel, there are so many rabbit trails one could follow in this novel that reading it sometimes felt like work at times. But the work was enjoyable–like the work where you don’t want to stop. You’re loving it, and you’re good at it, and it’s got to be done!
There are whole scenes in this novel that had me re-reading them in order to try to pick up on more strands of meaning. One scene has Thomas More… wait, what? Yes, I forgot to mention that Thomas More–the one who wrote Utopia and was executed for not recognizing the annulment of King Henry’s marriage–is one of the main characters in the book. Let’s step back. The plot has Thomas More get fetched from his own time before his death to help rescue a future Utopia, but the inhabitants of the future Utopia apparently don’t realize that More’s Utopia was more a biting satire in Lafferty’s vision than it was a goal for a future society. Anyway, there’s a scene where Thomas More is confronted by a beautiful woman who tries to seduce him, apparently wanting to seduce a Saint, and More and her get in a lengthy conversation about the meaning of her name, Evita, and whether she is like Eve, the mother of life, or a Lilith-like seductress and wicked person, largely based upon her name. Twists and turns come fast and hard in the conversation, and it is a delight–especially for me as someone who knows a decent amount of church history and has studied Greek/Hebrew (only the basics!). Scenes like that, though, are found throughout the book.
There’s no question that Lafferty is offering the book as his own form of social commentary. Is a utopia with all needs met worth selling souls for? What is the church to become or do in such a society? What might Thomas More think of applying his thought to a real world situation? Mis-applying it? Is Lafferty really just making one extended commentary and pushback on Vatican II, as the introduction to the version I read briefly suggested? These questions warred in my consciousness while I read the book, though they never took away the enjoyment I had throughout, they simply added to it. Lafferty’s prose style is also great. As I said, it’s dense, but it also manages to be lyrical at times and full of wonder throughout.
Past Master is one of those novels that you read and realize it’s going to stick with you for a long time. I am so happy I finally got around to reading it, and I recommend it highly to you, fellow sci-fi/fantasy lovers! Heck, even if you don’t really care about sci-fi/fantasy, it’s a great read and occasional exploration of religious/science themes and more. Go read it!
J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!
My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!
Try Fourth Mansions next. (I know, you don’t take recommendations. . . )
Hey I do read recommendations! It just takes a while sometimes. Big problem for Lafferty is access. I couldn’t get Past Master even through interlibrary loan because the libraries that had it wouldn’t send it. I have a limited book budget so couldn’t just go buy a copy. Finally snagged it with a credit I got from a Kindle sale. I’ll see if I can get a library to send Fourth Mansions. Any reason it is a favorite?
Fourth Mansions (1969) is the probably other main novel highly acclaimed among Lafferty’s readership, even more so than Past Master. It will take you deeper into Lafferty’s speculative theology, from a different plot-type angle (set in contemporary USA, involving factions of preternatural persons and highly colourful psychic goings-on). His major motif is from Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (hence it’s title – her book goes through the soul’s ‘first mansions’, ‘second mansions’, on to the seventh mansions – the ‘fourth mansions’ is the middle of the journey, where Lafferty imagines society poised on the brink of transcendence to higher or reversion to lower mansions. The prose, hard as it may be to believe, is even richer and more layered than Past Master. But it largely has that same readable and exuberant quality you describe in your review of PM, though it has a slightly longer page count.
But if you’re more keen for a mythic, tall-tale space-faring romp, try Lafferty’s short novel Space Chantey, based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. Or if you have any taste for something like a sci-fi version of a Southern Gothic sort of Mark Twain type narrative, try the short novel The Reefs of Earth. (Both, oddly enough, published the same year as Past Master.)
I guess it isn’t “vintage” for me by your rubric. I read it when Ace released it as their 3rd Science Fiction Special in 1968. I bought and read both the entire 1st and entire 3rd Ace SFS series as they were released. It was the first Lafferty novel that I’d read, and the 2nd Lafferty work after the short story Land of the Great Horses in Dangerous Visions the year before. The story had impressed me, but so much of Dangerous Visions did that it didn’t stand out. (After all of these years, I think my main takeaway from DV was David R. Bunch’s Moderan.) Past Master, though, hooked me and is responsible for me being a lifelong fan. I picked up a Garland Library hardcover reissue at some Worldcon or other (maybe Noreascon 3 in Boston or ConFrancisco in the obvious city) in order to reread it so that I didn’t have to open my paperback copy again. A few minutes later, I ran into Lafferty in the Dealer’s Room and asked him to sign it. He asked what I’d paid for it and I told him $20, to which he responded that it was “too much for a book like that” in a self-deprecating way. I begged to differ and he signed it. Since I started so early (and am so old) I was able to get everything published by the man as the books and chapbooks came out, and have a complete Lafferty library without ever having payed collectors’ prices. There are a few advantages to being this old! I developed relationships by mail with Chris Drumm, United Mythologies Press, Corroboree, everyone.
Thank you for stopping by and for your story! I’m planning on diving in to more Lafferty going forward.
Love the story about meeting him and your correspondence. I had an early experience meeting Orson Scott Card and he was so gracious to me. Have also met David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and several others. I love having those confections and memories. Thanks again for sharing and stopping by!
Any other Lafferty you’d say as a next read?
I love Fourth Mansions as much as Past Master. I also read that as an Ace Science Fiction Special. Some people find it difficult, but I’ve breezed through it every time I’ve read it. I’d also suggest Arrive at Easterwine. I love the Institute for Impure Science stories, and that is the only novel in the sequence. Also (I cheated and read my friend Kevin’s comment below), I agree with his suggestion of Okla Hannali, which is indeed magnificent.
And, of course, there are the short stories, upon which rests much of his reputation. If the Centipede collections are too dear, the recent Gollancz Best of is a great selection, with many of my favorites.
I should have mentioned above, but I got too involved in telling my story, that you wrote a terrific analysis of the book and I’m looking forward to the rest of your vintage reviews.
I love your review. I have been a Lafferty fan for more decades than I’m willing to admit. You are right, this book is written on so many levels that is seems to fill many times more than its page count. There have been more pages written about Past Master than pages within the book. There are many high points in Past Master for me, many favorite scenes. I think the one I return to most is the scene where Thomas, Evita, and the Father Odopter, the Green-robe priest of the order of St. Klingensmith are fishing for the devil. I attempted some years ago to write an essay comparing that scene to Howard Waldrop’s “God’s Hooks” but realized quickly I was in way over my head.
Good-ish news in the world of Lafferty availability: Golancz has recently released an omnibus called R. A. Lafferty Three Great Novels. It contains the novels Space Chantey, Fourth Mansions, and Past Master. They have also just published a new Best of R. A. Lafferty collection of short stories with introductions by authors like Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delaney, Robert Silverberg, etc.
Locus Press has recently republished Lafferty’s novel The Reefs of Earth.
OU Press still publishes his magnificent Okla Hannali. This is a historical novel that tells the story of the Choctaw nation from roughly 1800 to 1900 through a uniquely Choctaw voice. It is simultaneously uproariously funny, deeply sad, and genuinely beautiful. i hold Okla Hannali to be one of the most important works of American literature.
All these are available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller.
And those of us who are truly rabid fans publish a periodical book series called Feast of Laughter which contains essays about Lafferty’s writing, stories and artwork inspired by his work, and a story and and essay by Lafferty in every volume. Check it out at feastoflaughter.org.
Thank you for posting this review. I can’t wait to see what you have to say about his other novels!
Thanks for stopping by and for your comment! Loved that scene, too!
I saw that that omnibus had published. I may have to grab it to dig in to more Lafferty. I saw that “Past Master” was just released on Audible, as well. I’ll have to snag that for my re-read. Thanks for alerting me to some avenues to get them!
I plan on writing more as I read more. I have a few different authors pending for Vintage Sci-Fi Month!
[…] Theist enjoys Past Master by R.A. Lafferty, with bonus recommendations in the comments […]
An author I want to like and should like… but I’ve picked this one up at least four times without managing to get past the first few pages. I adore many of his shorter fictions and have reviewed them here and there over the years. I haven’t given his novels a fair shot and expect to enjoy them if I got in a reading groove.
[…] Past Master by R.A. Lafferty- One of those novels that makes you sit back and think on every page. It’s a phenomenal read that has a central plot with a surprising premise. […]
[…] Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (My Winner)- Grade: A+ I’ve never read a work by Lafferty before this one, and I have to say I was absolutely blown away. He’d been recommended by a number of different people to me, and with this Hugo read-through I finally picked up Past Master to check him out. I wish I’d done so earlier. This novel is dense. Though it’s short, I could hardly believe it only weighed in around 190 pages when I looked it up online. The book took me as long to read as most 400+ page novels do, largely because I found myself so drawn into the premise, prose, and symbolism found throughout. There’s no question here that Lafferty has steeped this book in layers upon layers of meaning, to the point that unpacking it all would take quite a bit of study. Whether it’s the play upon “Evita” (Lilith? Eve? Someone else?), the way Lafferty interconnects discussions of Utopia with questions about the soul, or any number of other major themes in the book, it’s a fascinating, fantastic ride. Longer review/overview that I wrote here. […]
[…] 4: Past Master by R. A. Lafferty (205 […]