Book Review: Past Master by R.A. Lafferty

Rafael Aloysius Lafferty, who wrote under the name R.A. Lafferty, was an inescapable presence in the 1960s and 1970s in the science fiction field. It seemed that just about every best of the year or awards anthology I picked up back then had a short story by him in it. He was a writer’s writer; he received praise and acknowledgement as one of the field’s top talents from writers much better known that he was. Now, who recognizes the name anymore? Diehard fans from the era, sure, but his reputation has not been as enduring as others. Perhaps one reason is that his work was so quirky that none of it was ever adapted to film or TV.

I read many of his short stories back then, and some of the classics such as “Narrow Valley” and “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” I have read several times. I never read any of his novels, though, until now. Not for lack of trying. I remember once I asked a Native American friend what books about Native Americans he would recommend, and one title that came up was Okla Hannali by R.A. Lafferty. I tried to find a copy, and then generally searched for some of Lafferty’s other work, short story collections in particular, and I discovered to my chagrin that whatever was available was ridiculously overpriced – and that included not only rare first editions but also new volumes. After he had died, someone had got hold of the rights and priced them out of bounds for most readers. And so they remained for many years; I know, because I would check from time to time. I just perused Amazon’s listings, in fact, and very few of his books are available new, and most of the short story collections that it’s possible to buy new are still heart-attack-inducingly expensive. Most of his work is out of print, and these works are very pricey as well. For instance, the book I am reviewing now, Past Master, is only available used for over forty dollars.

And thus we come to the refreshing wonders of used book vendors. During my recent sojourn at the science fiction convention Norwescon 2018, I was able to obtain a clean, excellent used copy of Past Master for the price of one dollar.

Past Master is Lafferty’s first novel, and it was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It’s a short novel by modern standards, as were many of the finest novels back then. Sometimes I think that modern novels have become bloated with words, with publishers’ marketing departments and readers thinking that the bigger the book, the better it is – but nothing could be further from the truth. When the standard for novels was around fifty to seventy thousand words, they were lean and rich, with not a word misplaced. Now, there often seems to be a lot of padding to get them up to a couple hundred thousand words.

To me, Past Master seems to be a Lafferty short story that ran amok, that maybe started as a shorter work but burst its bounds to accommodate all the wild ideas. It deals with a planet called Astrobe, where society has supposedly been perfected and everyone has health and wealth and everything that they need. The only glitch is that millions of its citizens abandon this ideal society to live in slum cities full of disease and poverty, and the rulers of the planet cannot figure out why. In desperation they send someone back in space and time to Old Earth to collect Thomas More, who they recognize as an expert on utopias, just before he is to be beheaded by the king of England. Their plan is to set More up as president with the title of Past Master, hoping that he can cure the ills that are causing the mass exodus from the perfect world.

I don’t want to give away what this all leads to, because you should really find a copy of this great book for yourself and discover the joys therein. R.A. Lafferty is a master of the absurd, and it can only be hoped that more of his works become available at affordable prices so modern readers can appreciate his singular genius.

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