|Back covers of my copies|
"All the People"
Oh, this is a good one! "All the People" starts off slow and deceptively flat; as I read the first two pages I was thinking, "Is this it? Boring philosophical conversation?" But "All the People" is a puzzle, a mystery story so mysterious that at first you don't even realize that what you are looking at is a single piece of an unassembled jigsaw puzzle! The structure of the story is perfect, as is the pacing; reading it is like looking through a telescope and seeing nothing but blur, but then, as you turn the knob, shapes slowly, then quickly, come in to focus until you have a crystal clear image, an image that is striking, surprising, and a little disturbing. "All the People" achieves what stories with twist endings try to achieve, but there is not really a twist--everything that happens makes perfect sense and is essentially predictable; Lafferty doesn't use any trickery and he doesn't subvert expectations so much as carry things to an inevitable and logical conclusion--put together the puzzle pieces--faster than the reader may have.
While it may make sense to call "All the People" a mystery story, it doesn't feel like one of those mystery tales in which the reader is a mere spectator, watching some guy chase down some meaningless MacGuffin. Instead, the reader feels like a participant in the exploration of a whole new world, and what the character is chasing is something meaningful, something tied up in his own character and wider human nature. Laffert doesn't just succeed in structuring and pacing his story and in constructing its plot, but in providing us an affecting character, Anthony Trotz.
Trotz is a lonely individual who discovers he has a fantastic, incredible, ability, and, as he seeks to confirm that he even has this impossible power and tries to figure out its meaning, the truth of his life and his world is revealed to him. When all is clear he makes a decision with life-changing and world-shattering ramifications.
A puzzle story and a story of a character, "All the People" is also very solidly a science fiction story, making brilliant use of traditional SF themes like the paradigm shift and the blurry lines between life and not-life and between human and inhuman, as well as standard SF devices like robots, computers, mental powers, government conspiracies and alien invasions.
This piece is pleasant enough, but feels a little trifling. Aloys Foulcault-Oeg is an impoverished intellectual from a long line of impoverished people (he wears his great-grandfather's holed and patched overcoat which has been passed down generation after generation) living in an obscure country. When he comes up with a groundbreaking series of formulae he is invited to a big event in New York ("the great town where even the shop girls dressed like princesses") to receive a valuable award. Criminals kidnap Aloys and an imposter gives a three-and-a-half hour speech in his place. As we all know, academics are phonies, so none of the leading thinkers assembled to hear the speech reveal it is incomprehensible nonsense. The crooks get their hands on Aloys' award, but the ending of the story is a happy one for Aloys--he joins the criminal gang, leaving his life of poverty behind.
"Aloys" is a fun little story with fun touches, like the characters' names. The main character's name seems to refer to Lafferty's own, of course, as well as that of famous (and famously difficult and dubious) French scholar Michel Foucault, though 1961 was pretty early in Foucault's career--maybe this is just a happy coincidence? Did Lafferty think of himself as a poor man feted by phony elites? As a writer whose work was regarded as complex and perhaps bogus? Another significant name is that of the man who finances the award and ceremony and has a "villa in the province, which is to say, Long Island"--Maecenas.
I like it, but compared to the other Lafferty stories I've been reading, it feels kind of slight.
This is a time travel story, all about a scientist and inventor who goes back in time to give his young self advice. You see, when Higgston Rainbird is old, in the middle of the nineteenth century, he can look back on a career of considerable achievement, but he regrets the many years spent on dead ends--if he had known which avenues of research and development were going to go nowhere he would have made much more progress. So he goes back in time to spend a few hours issuing much time-saving advice to his younger self; as a result, this new, wiser, iteration of Rainbird is able to accomplish such astonishing and beneficial feats as travelling to Mars, building a computer, and putting into operation a social system which abolishes government--all before 1850!
Still, there is much work to be done--finishing up his project that will unlock the secret of immortality, for example. So, Rainbird goes back in time again in an effort to repeat his scheme, but this time disaster results. Distracted by such addictive hobbies as falconry and horse racing, the latest iteration of the inventor achieves relatively little, and all that progress in energy, electronics, transport, and political science is undone, in fact, never occurred.
Like "Aloys" this is an entertaining story, but fails to reach the level of the very fine "All the People" or the 1960 stories we talked about in our last blog post.
In our next episode we'll take a look at some Raphael Aloysius Lafferty productions that debuted in Galaxy and If in 1962!