Laugh with Lafferty

One of the gloomy things about running an SF newsletter like my own Ansible is having to record the deaths. As I write (in April) the 2002 list includes Joe Haldeman's writer brother Jack C. Haldeman, Swedish fantasy author Astrid Lindgren, Chuck Jones of animation fame, Spike Milligan (co-writer of The Bed-Sitting Room, a post-holocaust play that became a cult movie), Dudley Moore (Bedazzled and The Bed-Sitting Room) and – a personal friend – New Zealand SF author Cherry Wilder. Gloom.

Not everyone has heard of the neglected SF genius who died in March, R.A. Lafferty. He hadn't written anything since a stroke in the early 80s, although stories from his cupboard of unpublished manuscripts continued to appear. Major publishers abandoned him in the mid-80s: Lafferty was just too dementedly brilliant for them.

It's hard to describe his work. Very Irish-American, sometimes mystical, often wildly funny, Lafferty told outrageous tall tales. In his idea of utopia, "they take the sky off early in the morning so you can get as high as you want all day long." He invented weird new myths and remixed old ones – his novel Space Chantey is an extremely free retelling of the Odyssey as comic space adventure.

In Lafferty's short "Been a Long, Long Time", a hapless immortal called Boshel accidentally introduces randomness into the newly created universe. His punishment is to test the theory that a team of monkeys typing at random could eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. In real time. The archangel Michael provides a clock, a stone cube light-years across:

"'You don't have to wind it, you don't have to do a thing to it, Bosh,' Michael explained. 'A small bird will come every millennium and sharpen its beak on the stone. You can tell the passing of time by the diminishing of the stone. It's a good clock and it has only one moving part, the bird ...'"

The task is still incomplete when the stone has worn away enough to accommodate a small solar system ...

Lafferty was nominated for many Hugo and Nebula awards, winning a 1973 Hugo for the wild and woolly "Eurema's Dam", developing the idea that "stupidity is the mother of invention" and that technological progress results from people too dumb and lazy to do the job by hand. The nerds shall inherit the Earth! Prophetic, really.

His titles aren't easily forgotten. Books: Arrive at Easterwine, Not to Mention Camels, Nine Hundred Grandmothers, and Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? Memorable shorts: "Nor Limestone Islands" (featuring floating islands in the sky), "Continued on Next Rock", "All Pieces of a River Shore" and "The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos".

Lafferty's writing sticks in the mind, too. The Reefs of Earth, in which alien children ineptly try to destroy the human race, plants itself in your memory with rhymed chapter titles forming a poem. The Devil is Dead has an introduction promising us the story "of Papadiabolous the Devil and his company, and of two of the hidden lives of Finnegan; and how it is not always serious to die, the first time it happens." – and ending, "Is that not an odd introduction? I don't understand it at all."

His best work is in the short stories, whose dotty flavour and fondness for conspiracy theories are summed up in the famous opening of "About a Secret Crocodile" ...

"There is a secret society of seven men that controls the finances of the world. This is known to everyone but the details are not known. There are some who believe that it would be better if one of those seven were a financier."

I swapped letters with Lafferty and met him briefly at the 1979 World SF Convention in Brighton. He always admitted he had a drink problem, and magically appeared at the head of the queue whenever the bar opened. Smiling, enigmatic, uncommunicative, he showed few signs of the inspired blarney in his fiction. A French publisher nervously asked whether Lafferty minded being compared to G.K. Chesterton (another Catholic author), and there was a terrifying silence that went on and on. Was the great man hideously offended? Eventually, very slowly, he said: "You're on the right track, kid," and wandered away.

The World Fantasy Convention belatedly did the decent thing and honoured R.A. Lafferty with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990. But the SF world never honoured him enough.

David Langford, needless to say, is a Lafferty fan.