Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty
Review by Ann Cecil
Most science fiction writers like most other writers have been influenced by and in turn (if they are good writers) have influenced others, both inside the field and outside of the field. You can see, for example, the influence of Campbell's golden age writers Heinlein, Sturgeon, van Vogt, et. al. in many places. But in all of this, I can point to two writers who stand outside, who aren't like anyone before them, and whom nobody has really tried to write like since: Cordwainer Smith and R.A. Lafferty. And of the two, Lafferty is the more sui generis. In Smith's case, you can see how Chinese story telling techniques influenced him; and you can see occasional stories influenced by him (such as Silverberg's great short work, "Nightwings"). But I can't think of anyone who even tries to write in a style similar to Lafferty's.
It's hard to pin down a description of his style. In some ways, it seems dreamlike and a bit out of control, but look closely, and you'll see that Lafferty has tight control over what he is doing. The stories can be surreal, though again that's often not quite right; in many cases, they are a few steps beyond that. Lafferty's work can't be nailed down to any genre or technique. And there are phrases that stay with you, either for their strangeness, their humor, or (usually) both:
"Hi, Robert," Homer said, "what's new today?"
"Nothing, Papa. Nothing ever happens here. Oh, yeah, there's a monster in the house. He looks kind of like you. He's killing Mama and eating her up." This is from "The Hole in the Corner".
Lafferty's approach to the universe was somewhat skewed and very much his own. He looked at things in a new, fresh way, and caused his readers to do the same (and often walk away scratching their heads). And this isn't only true of his fiction. (If you can find it, read his The Fall of Rome which is a history (though history very much in Lafferty's voice and style.) But perhaps the best way to both be fully immersed in Lafferty and to get a view of all that he can do is to pick up a collection of his short stories. Nine Hundred Grandmothers, his first collection, was originally released as an Ace Science Fiction Special in 1970. It remains a major and highly entertaining work of SF today.
The collection features 21 stories, on various subjects, in various modes all unmistakably Lafferty, some more or less surreal, absurd, or strange than others (though all certainly strange to some extent). All are enjoyable, and several are major works. There are too many stories for me to mention all of them, but I'll at least point out several of my favorites.
"Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" is one of several stories that involve Epikt the Ktistec machine (though I defy anyone to try to fit those stories into any kind of consistent arc, since that was not something that concerned Lafferty). The group of scientists who work with Epikt have decided to change the past, such that Charlemagne will form a close friendship with Islam and science and literature will flower centuries earlier than it did. Meanwhile, the scientists, who know what the world around them is like, will watch for the changes. They don't see any changes, feel frustrated, and try again. But each time, even though they can't see it, the universe changes. It's both an amusing and insightful look into the historical process and into alternate history.
"Slow Tuesday Night" involves a future world where everyone lives at a breakneck pace. Fortunes are made and lost many times within a few hours. People meet, get married, and are divorced within the hour. Lafferty eases us into it, but once there he sweeps us along at breakneck pace. It's all unrealistic, of course, but it's such a fun ride while you're on it.
"The Six Fingers of Time" is a more serious story than many. A man wakes up with time moving much faster for him. Those around him seem to almost be standing still, and he's able to finish days worth of work before the others arrive. He learns to control it, and, after tiring of practical jokes (the story does indeed have some humor), he begins to use his abilities to learn. But there is a real force of evil in the world, one that tries to recruit him, which is what really gives the story its more serious focus.
Two stories involve the Cameroi, a planet full of people where laws can be made by any subgroup, the world president is chosen by lot, and no formal organizations exist. The reactions of human researchers on the planet are both amusing and interesting reflections on our own way of looking at the world.
Many of the stories feature strange inventions, often made out of the strangest (or silliest) thing and able to do bizarre things. In "Seven Day Terror" a young boy builds a "disappearer" out of a beer can and two pieces of red cardboard. In "Hog-Belly Honey," a man builds a machine capable of causing things that are not needed to disappear (and does things like make a man's beard vanish). Epikt the Ktistec machine is back in "Through Other Eyes" where a machine allows a scientist to view the world through other people's perspective, finding out just how different those perspectives are. (How many of us, as kids, wondered if when we looked at something and saw that it was red, if we indeed perceived this "red" the same as someone else looking at the same object. Or did they see what we'd call "blue" but use the name "red" since that's what they'd been taught to be the name. Lafferty starts there, but goes much farther.)
I could go on. As I look down the titles in the table of contents and come across story names, I find things I could say about each. In many cases, I could get very enthusiastic ("that was the great one where ... !"). But I won't. Instead, I'll just recommend that you go out, if you haven't discovered him already, and discover the joys and wonders of R.A.
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