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The Best of R. A. Lafferty Paperback – February 7, 2019
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Many thanks to the publishers and the editors and the fans.
It includes 22 stories in 446 pages, edited by Jonathan Strahan. It includes an overall introduction by Neil Gaiman and introductions to each of the stories by SF writers including Terry Bisson, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, and Michael Swanwick. Ellison's introduction to "Land of the Great Horses" is the original 1967 introduction from the "Dangerous Visions" anthology.
Only 8 of the stories overlap with "Nine Hundred Grandmothers" (which is 21 stories in 318 pages). It includes Lafferty's only Hugo-winning story, "Eurema's Dam," introduced by Silverberg, who published it in his "New Dimensions II." It won in 1973.
Gaiman was, like me, smitten at a young age by Lafferty. He carried out a correspondence with the Tulsa author, who was a huge inspiration and influence on his writing.
Centipede Press has recently been publishing all of Lafferty's stories in a multi-volume series that is frustratingly expensive and already going out of print. But this new collection is for now quite accessible and affordable, so Lafferty fans should not hesitate!
Top international reviews
A Guardian quote on the back cover describes Lafferty as "the most important science fiction writer you've never heard of" and while fans of Davids Masson and Bunch might argue that particular toss, it's certainly open to debate. What's not debatable is that Lafferty's work is sui generis, with his approach to concepts, plotting and writing style being entirely his own and, by the standards of more popular mass market SF, extremely wayward and unlikely to appeal to space opera fans. In his introduction to this volume, Neil Gaiman makes cautious comparison with the likes of Avram Davidson, Flann O'Brien and Gene Wolfe. If you like at least two of those writers, you'll probably love this, and if you don't like at least two of those writers, you should run for the hills rather than investigate this any further.
Lafferty wrote several novels but his idiosyncrasies don't sit comfortably in a full-length narrative. By contrast, his short fiction, which appeared with some frequency in SF magazines and anthologies from the early sixties to the mid-eighties, is a bizarrely wonderful journey into the profoundly absurd and the absurdly profound, with a narrative voice like none you're ever heard. And "heard", rather than "read", is deliberate, because the voice is typically that of a teller of tales so tall you feel obliged to believe them because, they're so blatantly implausible to be convincing untruths.
22 of those stories are included here, each with an individual introduction by members of the great and good among the SFF community (including Samuel Delany, Michael Bishop, Connie Willis and Jeff VanderMeer), alongside aforementioned overall intro from Neil Gaiman (whose own fictions occasionally resemble a more self-effacing, English Lafferty). All the greatest hits are here including "Narrow Valley", "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" "Nine Hundred Grandmothers", "Continued On Next Rock", the Hugo-winning "Eurema's Dam" (Lafferty's only major award) and "Slow Tuesday Night", which manages to be both preposterous and one of the most startlingly accurate forecasts of 21st century life to emerge from sixties SF.
Lafferty's work has been neglected and overlooked for far too long. This collection represents a major step towards giving it the respect and love it merits, and there's something particularly satisfying in it appearing in the VGSF Masterwork livery, alongside, and of equal status with, many more acknowledged classics of the genre. But there's still something peculiarly disreputable about it, and that's exactly as it should be.
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.