Review PAST MASTER by R.A. Lafferty

PAST MASTER (1968) is the first published science fiction novel by R.A. Lafferty, nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo, back when those awards were honest and meant well.

R.A. Lafferty is a mad genius.

As with Cordwainer Smith or Gene Wolfe, Lafferty’s work is eccentric in scope and approach, and will not suit conventional tastes. He is, however, quite Catholic, hence his vision is likely to be unappreciated by those who do not share his worldview: it would be easy enough to admire the psychedelic pyrotechnics of his work, while missing the sacred heart.

PAST MASTER is nominally science fiction, but is better understood as a Tall Tale replete with the exaggeration and understatement and wry humor of windy Old West yarn-spinning.

The conceit of the tale is that the well-planned and programmed humanist paradise of planet Astrobe, in A.D 2535 (precisely a thousand years after his execution) summon Saint Thomas More across time and space to cure their wounded world.

For their utopia has gone off the rails, and the great mystery of what causes the malaise and social breakdown is what Thomas More, the first author of Utopia and last honest man in history, is called on to solve.

The irony, of course, is that More wrote UTOPIA as a bitter satire, as a joke, foreseeing what would happen to civilization if it carried out the heretical and spartan absurdities of the Reformation to their logical extreme, which, in our day, it has. No more than the author of NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR did More intend his book to be a blueprint rather than a warning.

The story opens with the three secret masters of the planet under siege by the Programmed Killers, who are telepathic robo-people designed to detect and destroy anyone whose thoughts question or threaten the Dream of Astrobe.

For Astrobe is a golden world, whose cities anticipate and fulfill every human need, but ever more people flee the perfect palaces for lives of toil and filth either in the vast slums of Cathead and Wu Town or among the murderous wildlife, jungle and swamp of the Feral Areas, where beasts are more vicious and thunderstorms more violent than ever could be on Earth. Strangely, the wretched slum-dwellers choking on pollution and dying of overwork could at any time, in a moment, be wafted back into the golden pleasures of the programmed city-life, but embrace the raw and suicidal life instead.

Of the three masters, one regards the trouble as solvable, one regards as minor, but the third says only revolution, obliteration, and rebirth can cure the malaise. His desire to destroy the world in order to reform it is perhaps what provokes the ire of the Programmed Killers. But his counsel prevails: the three send for Thomas More as the only likely candidate to be World Ruler, whom the three expect to control as their puppet to reform their civilization.

Each of the three secret masters thinks the other two are puppets under his control: yet all three secret masters are themselves secretly controlled. The programmers are programmed.

One of the several charming conceits of the tale, is that Thomas More is nonchalantly unsurprised when meeting Paul the time-traveler send to fetch him. Naturally, Thomas he has met many time travelers before, who frequently come to question him about the end of his life, which, also naturally, in this year, he knows nothing of, and cannot fathom.

Thomas likewise has heard hints of the future of Astrobe from them, and reassures Paul that his world will survive her current crisis to meet more crises as generations pass. But he did not realize the mythic figure destined to save Astrobe from its current crisis is he himself.

It is a clever variation on the idea of time travel not seen in other time travel stories, handled lightheartedly, in Lafferty’s typical atypical way.

Thomas More arrives on the world, is attacked, escapes, and travels to the brightest and darkest spot on the globe, meeting various eccentric characters as he goes: necromancers, ghosts, roughnecks, half-robots, monks, huntsmen, harlots, widowers, and so on.  Unspoken warnings (perhaps from a psychic seal-man) guide him around ambuscades and killer packs. He climbs a mountain and kills the devil and is entertained by an impoverished Emperor. He suffers rude pranks, hears rowdy tales, is lectured by intellectuals and sees unspeakable hardships while his companions perish around him.

The plot is meandering and dreamlike, connected by theme, not by one event leading to the next. This is as it must be: the mystery of the world’s pain is what Thomas is asked to solve, but those who ask him do not wish for it to be solved, for they are the problem.

In a truly chilling scene, he meets the secret master of the world controlling the other secret masters: a demonic nothingness named Ouden (Οὐδέν)  worshipped by the soulless robots, who wished for an ancestral hero to give their lifeless machine-lives meaning. These programmed people reveal that they have neither conscience nor consciousness, and they seek to exterminate first humanity, then themselves. The truth is erased from the mind and memory of Thomas More before the meeting ends, but slight hints linger in his brain to warn him once becomes World Ruler for a space of nine days.

On the final day of his glorious reign, he is asked to outlaw the afterlife. He refuses, as before, to put earthly king above heavenly, and with the inevitable result.

This end scene is frankly disappointing, and an alert reader must return to the opening where Thomas is first introduced to learn indirectly from him the resolution, or, rather, the non-resolution, which follows the finale. As in our world, when the world comes to an end, and is awaiting a chance to be reborn, we are cautioned to be quiet and await the will from on high.

Thomas More is presented as likeable and stubborn, clever but flawed, for he spends the center of the book convinced of the admirable desirability of the Dream of Astrobe only to realize its detestable emptiness in the end scene, where he is called upon to ban the beyond. The programmed paradise is heaven, and so has no need of heaven — so the demonic creatures occupying the soulless brains of robots say (and force him to say).

The other characters are architypes, more akin to heraldic beasts than fully realized characters: a regal lion, a sleek fox, a worried hawk. Character have symbolic or thematic meaning likely to escape the grasp of the unwary reader: the mindreading sealion Rimrock the Ansel, who evolved himself to self-awareness by crawling up on land; the boy Adam who dies many times, always grandly; the space-time pilot Paul, whose face is scarred with a smile; the weekly Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; the Last Metropolitan of Astrobe; the girl Evita who may be Eve or Lilith; and so on.

Stylistically, some count R.A. Lafferty as part of the New Wave of science fiction, a movement prompted by Michael Moorcock during the Crazy Years when hippies and hopheads roamed free, attempting to move prose from the journalistic style of Hemmingway to the experimental jabberwocky of James Joyce. I disagree: Lafferty’s stylings in turn are highly metaphorical, elliptical, jocular, erudite, folksy and deadpan, but the language is more apocalyptic symbolism than psychedelic vaporing: John of Patmos rather than Timothy Leary.

But even to liken him to prophetic writings of old, or to New Waves, or to liken him to other authors, such as Cordwainer Smith or Gene Wolfe is misleading. R.A. Lafferty is sui generis. He is richly inventive, dreamlike, weak on plot, strong on striking images and excesses of prose, gushing, fabulous, unconstrained. He is a difficult writer to like, but once you like him, you love him.

His theme is quite too plain to state plainly, but obvious once you see it: Astrobe is a socialist paradise, the outcome of every human plan for heaven on earth ever made, but empty. The Church that More is asked to outlaw is the same our world is currently attempting to outlaw here and now, and the Dream of Astrobe has its own name in our century, and another name in the days of Henry the Eighth: but it is forever the same dream.

If there is nothing beyond us, nothing in the afterlife, then there is nothing here, and no life now.

The book is highly recommended, but only for those fit to drink its wild wine, dark dregs and all, and hear its unspoken message.

I feel it would be a disservice not to end this review with a quote from Gene Wolfe:

Lafferty represents the old human sanity. He is the ambassador dispatched to the late Twentieth Century by Dr. Johnson and Benjamin Franklin, Socrates and St. Paul. And theirs was a conservative point of view that cannot be said to have been conserved, since the conservatives (most of all) have forgotten it. Theirs was a liberal point of view so wildly radical and revolutionary that no one in the past several centuries has dared set it free again.