Friday, November 8, 2013

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and “Groaning Hinges of the World” by R. A. Lafferty

Yesterday Joachim Boaz and some other SF fans were talking on Twitter about R. A. Lafferty.  I was cooling my heels in the Dunn Library at Simpson College at the time, and decided to look over the SF anthologies there to see what Lafferty stories were available, and found two.

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” (1966) I found in the Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993), edited by famous SF writer Ursula K. Le Guin and college professor Brian Attebery.  We are told on the back cover that the Norton Book of Science Fiction has been “Successfully used at over one hundred schools nationwide….” 
“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” is exactly the sort of story you’d expect to find in a book of SF stories a humanities professor would assign you to read, a story that attempts to subvert the Western white male patriarchy and its racism, sexism, capitalism, imperialism, militarism, and obsessive need to amass knowledge through science.  Like the other Lafferty stories I have read, it is written like a fable and inhabited by archetypes and symbols.  It is short and to the point.

An expedition of men who have exchanged their birth names for piratical nicknames like “George Blood” and “Blast Berg” lands on an asteroid inhabited by gentle aliens in order to squeeze a profit out of it.  One of the expedition’s members has refused to change his name.  He is a “Special Aspects Man,” the cultural liaison of the expedition.  He discovers that the natives do not die; instead, as they grow old, they slow down and shrink and live underground, more or less as mummies who spend most of their time sleeping, but still have their wits about them.  The Special Aspects Man sneaks into the underground catacomb where the oldest of the natives, people who are as small as ants, lay in repose, and interrogates them.  The Special Aspects Man is obsessed with the desire to know “How Did It All Begin?”  He presumes that people from hundreds of generations ago may know the answer to this question, which Lafferty tells us drives all Special Aspects Men.

The tiniest, oldest, grandmother will not reveal the secret, instead telling the Special Aspects Man that “how it began” is a joke, a joke so funny that a human such as he who can die would die laughing if he heard it.  The Special Aspects Man, frustrated and hysterical, leaves the grandmothers, and becomes as ruthless and violent as his comrades, taking the name “Blaze Bolt.”

What are we to make of this story?  That human death is the result of our inquisitive nature, that we should look at the world and life with a light heart and not ask so many questions, as some of our questions cannot be answered and considering them can only make us unhappy?  I suppose this makes sense from a Christian perspective; the Christians tell us if we accept Jesus based on faith, not logic or evidence, that we can live forever.

I wasn't exactly crazy about this story, but it is memorable.

“Groaning Hinges of the World” (1971) I found in The Ruins of Earth: An Anthology of Stories of the Immediate Future (1971), a pessimistic collection edited by Thomas Disch, the talented writer of fiction and SF criticism.  The theme of the collection seems to be that technology, pollution, and overpopulation are going to destroy the world any minute now.  Disch admits in the intro that Lafferty’s story does not quite fit the theme.
Lafferty’s story is, as I now know to expect, a fable or piece of folklore.  This one refers metaphorically to the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Nazi Revolution (and perhaps other events centered in Germany, like the Protestant Reformation and World War I) and the horrible atrocities and wars arising from these revolutions.  These upheavals are allegorically described as natural events that occurred when their regions rotated or revolved on hinges, and people from underground, who looked identical to the original surface people, but were bloodthirsty and evil, took the place of the surface people and proceeded to launch their campaigns of terror and murder.
The main plot of the story concerns a hinge in Indonesia: the hinge operates and people from one fishing village attack the other villages, torturing, murdering and/or robbing all the people who come into their hands.  A Dutchman figures out how to manually turn the hinges back, ending the terrible revolution.

There are many elements of Lafferty’s symbolism that are worthy of consideration.  Cataclysms like the wars and revolutions he refers to do often seem to come out of nowhere, almost like natural disasters, and of course some apparently ordinary people in such circumstances do awful atrocities.  (Perhaps a reminder from the Christian Lafferty that we are all sinners.)  The fact that a Dutchman is able to operate the hinges manually could be a reminder that revolutions are not natural events at all, but driven by human will – maybe the fact that it is the one white person in the Indonesian tale that figures out how to move the hinges is a reference to the fact that since the Renaissance it has been Europeans who have used their ingenuity to dominate the globe and set the world agenda, often to the detriment of non-Europeans.  Another interesting facet of the Indonesian story is the intimation that the fishermen who commit the atrocities during the revolution were, before the revolution, oppressed by the other fishing villages; it is a commonplace to argue that the French and Russian Revolutions are a result of Bourbon and Romanov tyranny, and the rise of the Nazis a result of the harsh demands made of Germany by a vengeful France and Britain.

This is by no means the type of story I ordinarily like, lacking as it does plot, characters, and the tension and satisfaction we derive from a story of people facing adversities and overcoming them or succumbing to them.  Still, it is an interesting puzzle and I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading it and pondering over it. 


On the Wikipedia page for Lafferty we learn that big name writers like Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Neil Gaiman consider Lafferty a unique writer, unlike any other.  The stories I read today lead me to suspect they are correct.         

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