Book Review: How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan

This fascinating book focuses on the new research that has been done in the last decade or so in the field of psychedelics. On the way, the author visits various institutions where studies are being carried out and interviews scientists, therapists, and subjects. He also recounts the history of psychedelic research since Albert Hofmann first discovered and synthesized LSD in 1938. He describes the research done by various labs in the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA experiments on mind control known as Project MXULTRA, the widespread use of the drugs for recreation during the hippy era, and Timothy Leary’s outlandish antics that eventually brought about the classification of LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and other psychedelics as Schedule I dangerous drugs according to the Controlled Substances Act, which led to the elimination of virtually all research for decades. The author also goes into the neuroscience of psychedelics and a description of the use of psychedelics for the treatment of depression, addictions, the trauma of approaching death for cancer patients, and other mental disorders.

One of the most interesting facets of this book, and what elevates it several grades above a mere history or science study, is that Pollan adds memoir by trying LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics and then writing about his experiences. This all adds a heightened level of verisimilitude. For his own safety and peace of mind, each time he uses the drugs he does it in a controlled setting with an experienced guide. This is a method that he endorses throughout the book. He argues that since psychedelics are so powerful and volatile, it is imperative to use them in carefully crafted surroundings with people who know how to help you out if you become discomfited.

Early on in the book, Pollan mentions that in his opinion psychedelics might be one of those experiences that are wasted on the young, and that they might be more valuable to people later in life that need further navigation to go the distance. I know that when I started taking psychedelics when I was a teenager I was totally unprepared for what transpired during my trips. I took them as casually as I did any other drug such as marijuana or alcohol, and my experiences often deteriorated rapidly into chaos and paranoia. I stopped taking them entirely for awhile. Later, when I was slightly older, I took them occasionally, but I was more careful about the surrounding environment and who I took them with. Pollan emphasizes the importance of careful selection of setting and companions, and I have to say that I agree. My best psychedelic experience was when I was visiting Katmandu in Nepal. I dropped LSD with a German traveler, and together we took a path up to the summits of the foothills surrounding the city where we had a breathtaking view of countless snow-covered Himalayan peaks. It was truly a transcendental experience.

Pollan is at his best when he is writing as a journalist or a memoirist. The book is fascinating throughout and only lags a bit at the end when he tries to summarize his findings and come to some conclusions. Because the new psychedelic research is still in the fledgling stage, he goes into a lot of speculation that is not much more than guesswork.

The book definitely advocates the controlled use of psychedelics for the treatment of anxiety about death, addictions, and depression. Pollan is a bit more ambivalent when it comes to using psychedelics for recreation, but encourages them as a means of spiritual enlightenment.

I have to admit that as I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder what a psychedelic trip would do for me now, at this age and in this stage of my life. Although creativity is a profoundly important part of my existence, I have settled into certain grooves and habits of thought and behavior that seem very repetitive and counterproductive. Pollan explains that neurologically, psychedelics help break people free of their default mode network, or DMN, which causes them to follow predetermined courses, and opens them to new paths and possibilities. Researchers have found that neurological patterns of people on psychedelics are similar to the patterns of children under five years old. The egos that have shaped their adult behaviors have been eliminated, allowing them to view the wonder and brilliance of the cosmos unimpeded. I could use some of that; a fresh perspective would be good for me.

Of course, for me the possibility of trying psychedelics again is a mental exercise; it would take a profoundly safe and serene setting and an excellent companion or companions around for me to attempt it. However, for those suffering from various mental afflictions, psychedelic therapy may offer great hope. I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, a veteran who was stationed in Iraq diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. She told me that psychedelic therapy is available for veterans with PTSD. I was surprised but heartened at the liberality of the veteran’s administration in this regard. It could very well be that the current research being done with psychedelics will harbinger a new era of treatment based upon the inherent value of the pharmacological substances rather than fear of the imaginary boogiemen of the past.

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Book Review: Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

I never read this book back in the early seventies when I was absorbing a lot of science fiction and attempting to make some sort of impact as a science fiction writer – even though it was highly acclaimed and won multiple awards. Admittedly I was veering away from a strict diet of science fiction and fantasy at that time, the early 1970s, devoting many of my reading hours to such writers as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry David Thoreau. Additionally, the science fiction I did read was mostly part of the literary movement that became known as the New Wave. Examples of New Wave writers – who heavily emphasized style, mood, characterization, and analysis of hot contemporary political and sociological topics – include Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney, and James Tiptree, Jr.

Arthur C. Clarke was decidedly not part of the New Wave. He falls more into the category of classic or Golden Age science fiction writers, who relied more on ideas than characterization and style to fuel their stories. Rendezvous With Rama is a case in point. The style is rudimentary: basic serviceable English without any bells and frills. As for characterization, there is little to none. The characters are all but interchangeable. All that we know about their differences is that some are male and some female, some outrank others, some are older than others, and some have specific useful skill sets. Most of them have short Anglo-Saxon names that you might find in a list of the fifty most common names in England, with the exception of an occasional Boris or Rajiv that evidence no other difference than name to the rest of the cast. Racial diversity does not appear to exist in the twenty-second century, and men still hold all of the important and high-ranking positions. I don’t mean these comments as any particular disparagement of Clare’s work. This sort of blandness and lack of social progress was common back then in much of genre fiction, and the revolution that elevated science fiction to a higher art form as exemplified by the aforementioned New Wave was just picking up steam.

Now let’s move on to the positive side of the ledger. Despite the blandness, lack of characterization, and pedestrian style, Rendezvous With Rama has one thing in abundance that turns it into a terrifically entertaining reading experience: an overwhelming sense of wonder. Clarke’s gift as a writer was to be able to take scientific possibilities and projections, envision them, and make them come alive to his readers. In this book he takes us along as a space ship investigates an enigmatic phenomenon that has entered our solar system: an enormous cylinder that turns out to be an alien spacecraft that has been voyaging through the universe for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Inside, the investigating space ship crew discovers evidence that an astonishing degree of intelligence was behind the crafting of this technological wonder. In a series of short chapters, Clarke leads us on into this intricate microcosm. He uncovers it all as if through the eyes of the crew members, one detail at a time.

It’s all exciting, wholesome, mind-bending fun. As I said, the strength of this book is the sense of wonder, the uncovering of mysteries. Although it appears as if the explorers are in danger from time to time, they always get out of it quickly. There is never any pulse-pounding excitement. Again, that’s not a disparagement. The overwhelming feeling is one of awe.

Arthur C. Clarke is famous, of course, as the co-author of the ground-breaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote numerous other well-received novels such as Childhood’s End (which I remember thrilling to as a young teen) and The Fountains of Paradise. He was a master of cosmic-scaled ideas, and Rendezvous With Rama is an excellent example of his work.

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Book Review: Best American Travel Writing 2016 Edited by Bill Bryson and Jason Wilson

I’ve been wondering lately: if most of what I write is science fiction and fantasy, why don’t I read more of it? I don’t keep up with even a fair percentage of what comes out in the genre every year. I passed on voting for the Nebula Awards because I hadn’t read any of the nominees. I usually catch up on most of the acclaimed short stories and novelettes of the previous year in the best of the year volumes. Even when I do read speculative fiction, a lot of what I favor is what is known as “new wave” writing that came out in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Why? Well, there’s no problem. It’s just that there’s so much to read and my tastes run so wide that I can’t keep up. To maintain a balance, I tend to alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction. And when I’m reading fiction, I tend to alternate between reading science fiction and so-called literary fiction, which in my broad definition includes just about anything that’s not science fiction and fantasy, which I know is way too broad. Anyway, who cares? Let’s move on to the volume at hand.

I picked up The Best American Travel Writing 2016 at a library sale for a buck. I definitely found a bargain. It’s a great book. Usually when I read anthologies I only sort of like about half the stories or essays, and I really like even less. In this collection, though, there was only one dud in the bunch. Just one. The reason that one essay didn’t work is that, unlike all the other entries, the writer was so hung up on himself and trying to write fancy words and phrases, he forgot that he was supposed to be writing about a place that he traveled to. Damn, that one is boring. It sticks out like a sore thumb, to use a cliché. It’s somewhere around a third of the way through the book, and I’d been humming along marveling that all the pieces were so much fun and how magnificent it would be if every single one turned out to be great, and then suddenly: bam. Massive let-down. At least it was just the one.

One odd thing that I noticed while reading this volume: very few of the chosen essays are from travel magazines. Most are from general interest magazines or literary journals. Perhaps that accounts for their high quality – or perhaps there simply aren’t many superlative magazines devoted to travel available.

I got to thinking while I was reading all these first-class travel essays, wondering how they managed to all be so great. One reason must be that the editor, Bill Bryson, has excellent taste in literature. I’m sure that’s part of it. Another reason could be that travel has always evoked a profound sense of wonder in me, and since I haven’t been able to travel for so long, fantasizing about it by reading about these places is the next best thing. Let’s say it’s a combination of the two. Regardless of the reason, I had a great time reading this book.

Let’s see if I can pick out a few highlights. “Rotten Ice” by Gretel Ehrlich is about the melting glaciers and ice fields of Greenland. The author’s firsthand experiences and observations over years of visiting the area belie the ridiculous claims of those who insist that there is no such thing as global warming. “Off Diamond Head” by William Finnegan is an excerpt from his great book Barbarian Days in which he recounts his teen years surfing in Hawaii. “About Face” by Patricia Marx is a humorous piece about the South Korean obsession with plastic surgery. “The Reddest Carpet” by Mitch Moxley recounts a bizarre trip to North Korea to attend a film festival. One of the most disquieting but fascinating essays is “Growing Old With the Inuit” by Justin Nobel. Before recounting his journey to far northern Canada to attend a convention of elderly Inuit, the author spends a few pages describing all the ways that various cultures around the world used to murder their elderly members when the folks got too old to be of use. Gruesome stuff; especially difficult to read since I’m getting on in years myself.

These are just a few examples of the numerous superlative essays in this book. As I said, it’s fun to hop from one place to the next in essay after essay, enjoying a bit of armchair traveling. It makes me want to pick up some more volumes of this series when I get a chance – and also, of course, makes me want to visit all those places.

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Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Six Edited by Clifford D. Simak

Reading this book fascinated me on several levels. First of all, it’s an old Pocket Book edition that retailed when it came out in 1972 for 95 cents. I bought it in excellent condition at a science fiction convention for one dollar. It’s a slim volume that fits comfortably in the inside pocket of my jacket; they don’t make them like that anymore.

Additionally, the book brought a great feeling of nostalgia. I was nineteen years old when it came out and just beginning to explore the many wonders of science fiction and fantasy and basking in the realization that my life’s work was to be a writer. The following year I would attend the 1973 Clarion West Writer’s Workshop after having just turned twenty. I’m sure I read this book back then; I devoured all the Nebula Awards volumes I could find at the local library.

All the stories in the book are at least entertaining and at most masterful. It’s not what I would consider one of the best Nebula volumes, but it has some good material. Theodore Sturgeon’s “Slow Sculpture” is a very carefully written, nuanced piece of work.

In the early 1970s, the New Wave, epitomized by the works of Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, and others, was pounding furiously on traditional science fiction’s shores. The groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions edited by Harland Ellison had recently been published. The field was split between traditionalists who abhorred the new freedoms in subject matter, style, and sexual explicitness and new voices who celebrated the opportunities for openness of artistic expression. This volume, I think, leans towards the traditional after a New Wave sweep of the Nebulas the year before. “Slow Sculpture” and “Ill Met in Lankhmar” by Fritz Leiber, a fantasy novella, the two winners, represent traditional approaches to storytelling.

This year was the first and only year that no award was given in the short story category. Three short stories are presented in this volume, and any one of them might have won. In fact, the toastmaster Isaac Asimov mistakenly announced that Gene Wolfe won the award. I have always felt that not giving out an award that year was a shameful mistake. The award is given to the best story of the year, not the best story as compared with other years. One of the writers who were nominated should have won it. I have since read many Nebula Award winning stories, and a number of them were inferior to the stories that were nominated but did not win in 1970. I can’t help but think that there were some elements of the New Wave struggle involved in the decision. Stories from Damon Knight’s anthologies Orbit 6 and Orbit 7 dominated the short fiction nominations that year; in fact, six out of the seven short story nominees were from Orbit. Was the voting of “no award” a reaction to the predominance of New Wave selections? Who knows now, almost five decades later? Suffice it to say that I hope that Nebula voters never again make the same mistake of voting “no award” in any categories and thus disappointing the nominated authors.

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A Second Look: America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad

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A memoir of my culture shock after living for many years overseas. Here’s the back cover copy:

 In 1976 John Walters left the United States in search of adventure and literary inspiration. He lived for many years in India, Bangladesh, Italy, and Greece. He married and had five sons. Finally, faced with the economic catastrophe in Greece and the lack of opportunities for his sons, he returned to the land of his birth. Without home, without job, without resources, he confronted his own country as if for the first time.

 This is a memoir of someone who, late in life, was forced to leave everything behind and start fresh in what for him had become a new land. It will appeal to those who are confronted with major life changes in these troubled economic times; to those who, though they may desire rest and retirement, must continue toiling to make ends meet; for those who desire insight into the vast, multifaceted culture of the United States from a fresh perspective, unencumbered by familiarity.

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Book Review: The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson

I came across this book while browsing a shelf of materials about the Pacific Northwest or by Pacific Northwest writers and filmmakers. I’m almost always up for interesting books on writing, although I had not heard of Charles Johnson. It turns out he’s an important African-American writer. He won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel Middle Passage, and for over thirty years he taught creative writing at the University of Washington.

The Way of the Writer is an informal book. It’s divided into short sections that read as if they are assembled blog posts. In fact, as I read, I sometimes thought of another collection of essays I read recently, No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is in fact a series of accumulated blogs.

Johnson’s book is not a how-to for writers. Although there is practical advice scattered throughout, most of it takes the form of a memoir as he briefly touches on the many types of creative work he has done during his decades-long career, including novels, short stories, essays, scripts, and cartoons. He also describes his life as a teacher and some of his teaching techniques.

Most of the book is in the very conversational tone of an experienced, acclaimed writer reminiscing about a long and successful career. Every writer’s journey is different, and Johnson’s is fascinating. He began as a professional cartoonist for various newspapers and magazines and from there got into journalism and novel writing. He alludes numerous times to his mentor John Gardner, who was one of his first writing teachers and helped him achieve his first sales and his agent. Another topic he comes back to over and over is the value of rewriting, of going through multiple drafts before considering a literary work finished. I know from having read many book and articles on writing that this is a controversial topic, but Johnson falls definitively into the rewrite camp. As an example, he mentions throwing away 3,000 imperfect pages while composing the 250-page Middle Passage.

In the last few chapters, Johnson delves into subjects such as Buddhism, existentialism, and other philosophical topics which are not directly on the subject of writing, except to the extent that the philosophies of writers shape their individual works. This part of the book is not as easy a read as the rest, partly because it veers away from the general discussion of the writing life, and also because it touches on philosophical arguments that require more space to elucidate than is given within the context of this book. I suppose another reason that I felt my attention wandering is that I have little interest in existentialism as expounded by writers such as Sartre, as my own worldview differs so radically from theirs. All in all, though, I found this book a pleasant journey into the life and thoughts of an important writer that I am glad to have discovered.

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Book Review: Best American Short Stories of the Century Edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison

I picked this book up at a library sale. It was published in 1999 and represents the opinions of the two editors on which stories are the best from the yearly volumes of The Best American Short Stories from 1915 until 1999. Updike added other restrictions, as he explains in his introduction; among them is the stipulation that he would only include stories with North American characters that take place in the United States or Canada. I’m not sure why he insisted on Americans only, but I am sure that the restrictions on source material and content make it impossible for this book to really contain the best of the century. What about all the non-American authors? What about all the stories that take place elsewhere in the world by American writers? Anyway, it is what it is, and even within those self-imposed boundaries, great fiction was undoubtedly produced in the twentieth century. My question as I read most of the stories in this volume, however, was: where is it?

In short, I found most of the selections in this book to be tedious and boring – the type of stories you find as obligatory reads in high school literature classes. I hesitate to make such a negative statement and assessment. I admire many of the writers whose works are herein represented. Furthermore, I usually refrain from writing negative comments in my reviews. In the past, I have skipped writing reviews rather than trash a book. Here I make an exception because of several lessons we can draw from the material.

As I mentioned, I have read numerous stories from many of the writers in this volume, and I know that they are for the most part capable of much better work. For instance, instead of choosing “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway, which seems the constant go-to favorite for anthologists, it would have been more compelling and exciting to include “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a wonderful reflection on the writer’s life. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “The Key” is okay, but “Gimpel the Fool” is much more entertaining and fun. Apart from the mystery story “A Jury of Her Peers” from way back in 1917, Updike includes no short stories that could be called genre material at all: no other mysteries and no science fiction, fantasy or magic realism. This excludes some of the finest short fiction produced anywhere ever. In fact, even now, it is genre fiction that is keeping the short story alive and thriving. Many of the best literary magazines routinely include science fiction and fantasy, and many of the middle-tier literary magazines are failing. This is in part, I think, due to their practice of charging authors reading fees before they will even consider their work, effectively stifling voices that cannot afford to pay editors for a chance to be heard. I write about this at length in the essay The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees, which first appeared on the website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and is now available on this blog.

Once I start reading, I almost never skip over parts of a book or set it down without finishing it. Sad to say, I couldn’t finish this book. First I found myself skipping stories after a page or two of inaction, but I kept on through hundreds more pages, giving each story a try. There were a few noticeable shining lights – brilliant flashes in the midst of mediocrity – but at about six hundred out of eight hundred pages, I finally gave up and moved on to something else. And I love short stories. I go out of my way to seek out short story collections. I guess the editors’ tastes simply didn’t jibe with mine.

I read a similar volume a couple of years ago: 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories Edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor. I wrote a series of three reviews about that volume, which you can find here, here, and here. In reading back over those reviews, I notice that in the first part, I raise several of the objections that I have also brought up here about the boredom, the similarity to obligatory school assignments, and the editors not selecting the best of the writers’ work. Unlike The Best American Short Stories of the Century, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories ends exceedingly strong. Part of the reason may be that the volume carries on fifteen more years until 2015, but I think that the main reason is that it has much more diversity in it. The later sections of the book have stories by immigrant and ethnic writers such as Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jamaica Kincaid. Additionally, it even contains a wonderful science fiction tale by George Saunders. In other words, it ventures into important territories that Updike’s volume completely ignores.

In conclusion, I have to say that I cannot recommend this book. Even the yearly Best American Short Stories volumes offer much more diversity, excitement, and fun. For a few years now I’ve been reading these as they appear in midyear, and they tend to have a good mix of exotic settings, science fiction, and fantasy as well as stories set on American soil and entrenched in American culture. It’s up to you, and it’s all a matter of taste, but if I were you, I would look elsewhere for my short story reading material.

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“Escape Strategies” in Aftermath: Explorations of Loss and Grief

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Radix Media has recently held book launches on the east and west coasts for its anthology Aftermath: Explorations of Loss and Grief, which contains my short story “Escape Strategies.” It’s a beautifully designed book containing short stories, memoirs, comics, illustrations, and photographs that touch on various heartfelt emotional themes. My story is partly autobiographical, based on an ongoing tragedy that has affected our family.

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Book Review: Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick

Because the vast empire of the Soviet Union is dead and gone, it’s hard sometimes to remember how pervasive, influential, and terrifying it once was. I grew up during the Cold War, when the ongoing struggle between communism and capitalism as exemplified by Russia and the United States was a fact of life. It screamed at us through novels and films such as the James Bond series, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and many other works. Not only that, but it hit the young men of my generation in a personal way through the war in Vietnam and the draft, which had been interpreted to us by those who promoted the war as one more arena in the continuing battle against communism. We saw people like Khrushchev and Brezhnev on the news, and they seemed like ambassadors from another planet. The truth was, though, that these public figures were rulers in a land in which the common people, supposedly in the name of reform but actually to keep the ruling elite in power and privilege, were being enslaved, tortured, and murdered.

Remnick’s book focuses on the last days of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the nonviolent revolution that brought about the end of the union, the independence of the various satellite republics, and the democratization of Russia. Its main arc begins around 1985 when Gorbachev initiated perestroika, which means restructuring, and glasnost, which means openness, to bring to light aspects of Soviet history that had been long hidden such as Stalin’s purges of millions of citizens through execution or exile to labor camps. This aroused the ire of right-wing factions of the communist party who were staunch supporters of Stalin and the one-party system of absolute rule. It turned out that most of these people worked to retain the existing system not because they gave a damn what happened to the workers that it was all supposedly for, but rather because they wanted to retain their opulent lifestyles, their luxurious offices, their holiday villas, their private limousines and planes, and other perks that the top men received. Remnick details the fine line that Gorbachev walked, especially in the beginning, to open up the country but at the same time pacify the reactionaries.

As perestroika and glasnost became more prevalent, liberal factions of the media in the country reacted and made brave steps to get the truth out to the common people. Miners and other groups of workers went on strike to protest their squalid work and living situations. The situation escalated until satellite republics broke away from the union and Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s first elected president. Hard liners in the Kremlin, the KGB, and the military attempted one final coup out of desperation; when it failed, Russia and the rest of the countries in the erstwhile Soviet Union had truly become changed lands.

All of this may sound like tedious and boring history, but Remnick brings it to life so that it reads like a fictional political thriller. Remnick, who at the time worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, arrived in Moscow in 1988 with his wife, lived through these tumultuous events, interviewed all the major players, and traveled throughout the country to get perspectives from isolated areas. He earned my respect when he describes that, during a visit to a coal mining region in Siberia, he strapped on equipment and lights and went deep into a dangerous mineshaft so he could see firsthand the horrendous conditions under which the miners worked. I got acute claustrophobia just reading about it.

This book was first published in the early 1990s and won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. It deserved the prize. It’s meticulously researched, full of firsthand information, and very well written. One might suppose that it is irrelevant to our present era, but it isn’t. In fact, as I read it, I had a sense of immediacy and a feeling that governments are volatile entities and things can change fast in national and international politics. Before Gorbachev initiated the changes that brought about the fall of the communist party, the Soviet Union was bankrupt and many of its people were suffering and starving, but very few would have thought it possible that in a few short years, Russia would change on such a massive scale. This book is a great read and highly recommended.

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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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