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Past Master Mass Market Paperback – Import, 1968
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The general idea is something like this: Something is wrong in a utopian world, something so wrong that the controllers of that world fear that it may be on the brink of collapse if serious action isn't taken. So the controllers send for Thomas More, who coined the term "utopia," in the hopes that he can do something about it. However, they aren't about to give over their own power and control to him, preferring to try and use him to continue to pursue their own agenda. But Thomas More has ideas of his own. Or does he? Just what does he believe? And what is he trying to do? To add to the fun, along the way, he will meet up with a man with no last name, Lilith (whose eyes never seem to be the same color for long), Adam (who is very good at dying), semi-angelic seals, an empire ruled over by a college fraternity, giant beasts with sulfurous brains, a priest, malevolent robots of all kinds, and men who may or may not be men, some of whom aren't quite sure what they are. No, it isn't crystal clear, but it all makes a lot more sense in the end than you would dream possible. Lafferty seems to have mastered the art of taking a huge number of preposterous and disparate elements and drawing them all together into one tightly knit story with a definite theme. Nothing is superfluous, no matter how absurd it seems at first.
I am sure not everyone will like this book, especially if they leave off after the first pages, when the story is still developing. But it doesn't take much patience before the story really grabs a hold of the reader. I read it in four days, and that is only because I forced myself to put it down three times. It's a book with something to say, if you're willing to read with attention, and it isn't in the end what it seemed at the beginning, but only because it's better than you would have imagined.
One caveat: A few references to Catholic morality and praxis may not make much sense to the non-Catholic reader, but they are central to the story, so a little digging for information on Catholicism at the time he wrote might be helpful. They aren't really complicated references, but one can tell that Lafferty's faith really shaped his worldview. His sly commentary on the New Mass is darkly hilarious, and very revealing as to the state of affairs at the time this was written.
Lafferty’s writing is deceptively simple and his characters are so weirdly fascinating, or fascinatingly weird, that had, by an unlikely cosmic coincidence, this book made it into the mainstream and spawn movies, games, etc, all this Laffertarian gang of characters, the Evita, the Thomas, the Paul, the green monk etc would have definitely been visualized and put on show in wax museums of the paradoxical, for everyone to feel either awed or disturbed or both.
Past Master is a polarizing, allegorical trip in a Utopia part Dystopia, or a Dystopia part Utopia. Which of the two? It’s up to each and every reader to decide.
Finally, consider that Past Master comes from an era where books were not bloated artificially and you have a highly recommended read.
After seeing the film of the play of A Man for All Seasons, about Sir Thomas More VS King Henry VIII, I'd think of that character when reading Past Master. But not much background is necessary to get the story, such as it is. A future utopia is falling apart, and its leaders ask a computer to find the perfect ruler. With Laffertarian irony, it turns out to be the man who coined the term "utopia" (or popularized it), the mediaeval scholar Thomas More.
Astrobe, the utopia, however, is only sustained so long as people believe in it. Or at any rate, mechanical wolf-like killers are dispatched to eliminate those who lose their belief in the Astrobe dream. The tone, however, is rollicking, with black (noir) humor, and much of the book would be at home on Futurama. Lafferty trumps himself by relating the story through the eyes of Thomas More, a stranger in this strange land. "Lafferty has the power to ignite fire behind your eyeballs," Roger Zelazny noted (or something like that). Laffertarians who've only sampled the short stories, get ready for the full-length ride of Past Master.