Friday, January 30, 2009

Readings 2K9: Past Master

Past Master
by R.A. Lafferty

This is easily the strangest book I’ve read so far this year, and I expect it to remain so. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The basic gist of it is: in the future, men from a colony of Earth bring Thomas More forward in time to be their ruler. The joke is that their world is a communistic utopia, effectively (though unintentionally) built along the lines of, well, Thomas More’s Utopia.

But there’s so much more to the book than that one-line premise. There’s a manic inventiveness that keeps the book moving, in ways that have nothing to do with traditional plot structures. Lafferty was noted for bringing the feel of oral storytelling into his prose, a hellaciously difficult thing to do, and that’s clearly shaped Past Master on a number of levels. Not only linguistically, but also structurally; the book careens from image to image, from event to event, in a completely unpredictable and extravagant way.

Character suffers for it, in a sense; that is, characters become flattened, archetypal. The book works because Lafferty knows that’s what’s happening, and runs with it. More in this book bears little resemblance to the Thomas More I’ve read about elsewhere, but he’s close enough that he collapses into the historical image of Thomas More easily.

The book, Lafferty’s first, was published in 1968, and acclaimed as a classic of the New Wave of SF. Oddly, though, what leaped out at me as I began it was its similarity to classical Campbellian Golden Age stories — the situation of the colony world, travel in time and space, evil robotic intelligences, action scenes, and so on. Then, of course, it became something completely different; but the superstructure of the older stories is still there. The point I’m trying to get to is that, looking back now, I wonder if the New Wave is best considered as an intermediary step; writers like Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester going a degree beyond Campbell in the late 40s and 50s, then the New Wave making another leap in the late 60s and 70s. Leading to, I suppose, writers like Jeff Vandermeer and A.A. Attanasio — arguably more literary, but also perhaps even more inventive writers. Like most teleological views of historical process, I expect this could be demonstrated to be false pretty easily; still, I find the notion intriguing.

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