Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Four 1960 stories by R. A. Lafferty

It's been a while since we've read anything by R. A. Lafferty, so let's take my copies of 1970's Nine Hundred Grandmothers, an Ace Science Fiction Special with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, and DAW's 1972 collection Strange Doings, which has a Jack Gaughan cover, down from the shelf and read four stories by the Iowa-born Oklahoma resident and recipient of a 1990 World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.

"Through Other Eyes"

This is a story about how our beliefs and perceptions are not simply objective and accurate views of the outside world, but are guided or distorted by our attitudes and interests, so that we all see different, even live in different, worlds.  The first two pages of this fifteen-page story act as a sort of prologue, in which scientists Charles Cogsworth and Gregory Smirnov talk about the experience of using their time machine, which allowed them to view famous people and events of the past.  These viewings were a terrible disappointment--reputedly beautiful Isolde was obese, famously witty Voltaire was in fact a disgusting pervert, Sappho, remembered as a genius poet, turned out to be a tedious cat lady, the fabled hero Lancelot was in fact almost too feeble to mount a horse, etc.

The main plot concerns Cogsworth's new machine, the Cerebral Scanner, which allows one to experience the inner thoughts and view of the world of other people and creatures.  Through the eyes of a skeptical critic he sees a world that is unsavory and mean, through the eyes of an important business executive he sees a world of numberless details and infinite connections that can--and must!--be managed by a pull of a string here or there (the connections are likened to reins, the executive to God and to a general commanding an army), and so on.  Cogsworth is eager to use the machine to observe the world through the eyes of Valery Mok, a beautiful woman whom he thinks an angel, a wit, and a paragon of kindness. (Lafferty makes clear that she is in fact none of these things, just a pleasant but essentially ordinary woman--Cogsworth's love for her has distorted his view of her.)  When Cogsworth sees the world through her eyes he is painfully disillusioned--her world is one of pervasive, overwhelming, sensuality--to Cogsworth the sensations she enjoys as she smells trees, touches a rail, or looks at clouds are shockingly and grossly, filthy, coarsely obscene.  "I had thought Valery was an angel...it is a shock to find that she is a pig."

When Mok uses the Cerebral Scanner to see the world as Cogsworth sees it, she is amazed to find how bloodless, loveless, and lifeless his view of the world is, and compares him to a pig, a pig made of dry dead sticks.  "You live with dead people, Charles.  You make everything dead.  You are abominable."  Lafferty gives us a happy ending, though; Mok, we see, the lively and sensuous woman, is going to open the cold and clinical scientist's eyes to the throbbing vitality and earthy beauty of our world and the two will live happily ever after.

"Through Other Eyes" first appeared in Future Science Fiction and seems to have been well-received, reappearing in Robert Silverberg's Mind to Mind as well as Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Six Fingers of Time"

This is one of those SF stories in which a guy can halt or severely slow down time and then take advantage of people as they stand still as statues or (not quite so anti-socially) get some extra work done.  The most famous of these stories are perhaps John D. MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything from 1962, which I have not read, and Nicholson Baker's 1994 The Fermata, which I read in the 20th century and plan to reread sometime this century.  If Wikipedia and my memory are to be trusted, both those novels focus on sex and the use of the time-retarding power to do things like undress women against their will.  In E. C. Tubb's Dumarest series there are the drugs slow-time and quick-time that speed up or slow down your metabolism forty times--by taking these drugs you can heal forty times faster or do forty times as much work in an hour (in a memorable scene in Lallia Dumarest uses slow-time to produce enough product to meet a crucial deadline) or slow you down so tedious space voyages seem to pass forty times as quickly.  In some Warhammer 40,000 games psykers can invoke the power of the warp to slow or speed up time for particular individuals or small areas and so get more moves than their foes.

In "The Six Fingers of Time," Charles Vincent wakes up and finds that time has slowed so much that each second, to him, feels like a minute, each minute an hour.  After exploring the slow-motion city he goes to the office and catches up on two days worth of work before any of his colleagues even shows up.

The effect wears off and after some months have passed he begins to almost think that crazy day was no more than a dream.  But then he meets a mysterious figure whose face is hidden, who hints that Vincent, who has a deformed thumb that suggests a sixth digit, is a descendant of an ancient race of six-fingered people who inhabited the Earth before mankind.  This strange character teaches Vincent how to switch on and off his time-retarding power, and Vincent proceeds to uses his weird talent to play cruel jokes on people, to take advantage of women sexually, to steal money, to learn scores of foreign languages and to accumulate esoteric knowledge.

Besides adding the Weird Tales-style bloodline-of-an-ancient-lost-race-of-wizards angle to our guy-who-controls-time-and-abuses-people story, Lafferty, one of the SF world's most prominent and most hard core Catholics, adds a moral and Christian dimension.  The faceless figure, it appears, is the Devil, and Vincent risks a horrible fate for using his inhuman ability to harm others and enjoy benefits he has not earned.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was first published in If and later was the title story of an anthology of stories from that magazine which, somewhat bizarrely, pretended to be an anthology of stories from If's sister magazine Galaxy.  Both magazines were edited by Horace L. Gold, so I guess the publishers of the volume felt they would be forgiven this little trespass against the trust of the SF-reading public.  (No respect!)

"The Ugly Sea"

In three of the stories we are talking about today Lafferty uses traditional SF topics and themes ("I'm travelling through time!"; "I'm reading people's minds!"; "I can stop time!"; "I'm on an alien planet fighting a huge monster!") but "The Ugly Sea" is more of a mainstream literary piece, and appropriately enough first appeared in The Literary Review, a journal put out by Fairleigh Dickinson University of the great state of New Jersey.  (I once attended a wedding at Fairleigh Dickinson.  Fascinating, right?)  It takes up a traditional literary theme, the sea and its strange allure.  No doubt you remember the opening passages of Moby Dick, in which the narrator describes his own irresistible attraction to the sea, which he suspects all men share, and Homer's phrase "the wine-dark sea," which has become proverbial.  Rock music aficionados are familiar with Pete Townshend's use of the beach and the sea as recurring motifs in The Who's masterpiece Quadropheniawhile sword and sorcery fans (to bring us back to SF) may recall how, in Swords in the Mist,  Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser spoke of "their mistress, the sea...her rages and caressings, her coolths and unending dancings, sometimes lightly footing a minuet, sometimes furiously a-stamp, and her infinitude of secret parts."

In the frame story of "The Ugly Sea" Lafferty takes a counterintuitive but quite credible tack, having storyteller Sour John declare that the sea is ugly ("It has the aroma of an open sewer...it is perhaps the most untidy thing in the world...it is monotonous, with only four or five faces, and all of them coarse") but wins the love of men, including Sour John himself, just the same.  The main plot of "The Ugly Sea," which Sour John narrates, is about an associate of John's, a Jewish loan shark named Moysha Uferwohner, who falls in love with Bonny, a twelve-year-old crippled girl who plays piano (badly) at the Blue Fish, a bar frequented by seamen.  Bonny is fated to marry a sailor, so Moysha becomes a sailor himself, even though, as Sour John tells us, the Jews, "God's own people," have always "shunned" that "evil grave," the ocean.  Moysha, according to Sour John, is only the third Jewish seaman in all of history! 

Melville's Ishmael equates his desire to go to sea with suicide: "This is my substitute for pistol and ball.  With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship."  Lafferty's story here similarly conjoins seafaring and death.  It is very bad luck, we are told, for a seaman to marry a cripple, but a sailor marries Bonny when she is fifteen years old, anyway.  This tar soon dies of illness at sea, and Bonny remarries at sixteen--this second sailor is killed in a terrible accident in a ship's engine room.  Finally at seventeen she marries Moysha; Moysha leaves his five-year career as a sailor behind, and these two crazy kids live happily together inland for three years.

But the sea has gotten under Moysha's skin!  Those three blissful years end when Moysha is drawn back to the sailor's life.  He joins Sour John's crew, abandoning his wife and children for certain death.

I've had no luck finding an image online of the cover of the Fall 1960 issue of The Literary Review, so all you people who click over to MPorcius Fiction Log for the pictures will have to be satisfied with an image of the second place "The Ugly Sea" appeared, New Worlds of Fantasy #2 with its effective Kelly Freas cover.   

[UPDATE January 2, 2018: Commenter Todd Mason owns a copy of the Autumn 1960 issue of The Literary Review, and points out below that Lafferty's "The Ugly Sea" is in fact in the Autumn 1961 issue.  I was mislead by a typo at isfdb, which still lists "Fall 1960" as the issue in which the story appeared.] 


Planet Bellota is one strange world.  Though a mere one hundred miles in circumference, it has a gravity equal to half that of Earth's.  It is home to many insects, but each individual bug seems to be of a different species.  Lightning storms are constant, and the rinds of fruits are edible while the flesh is unpalatable.  And then there is the sole large inhabitant, a friendly beast much like a large bear which, like the insects, seems to have no sex or parents.  A team of six Earthling scientists is carefully studying this mysterious world until, unexpectedly, Snuffles the heretofore friendly psuedo-ursine suddenly attacks and they have to fight and then flee for their lives!

Lafferty wrote quite a few stories that feature horrendous violence, and "Snuffles" is one of them--the Earth expedition suffers heavy casualties in its struggle against Snuffles!  The survivors of the initial surprise attack march day after day, the wounded Snuffles hot on their heels, toying with them.  Lacking any supplies, the Earthers resort to eating native plants, including those with hallucinogenic properties.  Around the time they start eating this stuff, the survivors begin to receive what appear to be telepathic messages from Snuffles.  Lafferty has already given us reason to suspect Snuffles is a God or Devil or, most likely, a Gnostic demiurge figure (if you needed one, reading "Snuffles" provides a reason to read the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism), and our suspicions are further fueled when Snuffle's messages (or are they merely hallucinations fueled by the scientists' exhaustion and ingestion of narcotic plants?--like "Through Other Eyes," this story is in part about how questionable our perceptions of the world can be) assert that Snuffles created planet Bellota, and maybe the entire universe.

I didn't know until I had finished the story whether any of the humans would get off the planet alive or if any of the planet's mysteries would be solved.

It is normal to read SF stories in which human beings are jerks who despoil the environment and are too quick to resort to violence.  But in "Snuffles" Lafferty makes sure we see the human characters as good people and even seems to be suggesting that we are too gullible, too eager to see the universe as benign when in fact it is inimical.  At the start of the story one character argues that Bellota is the only "fun" planet in the galaxy (when it is in fact the planet where they will be massacred), and during Snuffle's first attack the leader of the expedition chooses to shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill because "He was fond of Snuffles and gambled that it would not be necessary to kill him."  These people are too reluctant to resort to violence!  Another interesting aspect of the story is how Lafferty implies that Bellota, which seems like a topsy-turvy, atypical world, is actually the only sincere or normal planet in the universe, and/or is a mirror which displays reality to those few who have the opportunity to visit it.       

If you want to read another well-written story by a Catholic conservative about people pursued by an intelligent alien bear (I know some of you have very specific interests) I strongly recommend Gene Wolfe's "Try and Kill It" from 1996, a very good adventure/horror story.  I kind of wonder if "Try and Kill It" is a subtle homage to "Snuffles;" Wolfe actually uses the word "snuffling" in it, though that is hardly dispositive.  I'm also wondering if there is any chance "Snuffles" is an homage to A. E. van Vogt's 1939 "Black Destroyer," one of the inaugural stories of science fiction's Golden Age.  As you no doubt already know, in "Black Destroyer" a bunch of scientists make friends with an over-sized alien beast which seems friendly at first but later starts murdering them.

"Snuffles" first appeared in Galaxy and has been pretty successful, being included in anthologies in America, Britain, France, and Germany, including an anthology devoted to stories about religion.


It is easy to recommend all four of these stories--they are all smooth and entertaining reads with fun little jokes and all feature interesting themes we've seen before but do different things with them.  Being written over 50 years ago by somebody who wasn't exactly taking pains to appeal to current trends in what constituted acceptable thinking, these stories can sometimes surprise--broad-brush assertions about women (they are more sensual than men!) and Jews (they never become sailors!) are good examples.  The stories also invite consideration of whether they have some deep meaning or philosophical point to make, even if Sour John in "The Ugly Sea" responds to a listener who asks, "Is there a moral to this?" with the flat declaration, "No.  It is an immoral story.  And it's a mystery to me."


  1. Thank you for these great reviews!

    I've always considered "Through Other Eyes" to be Lafferty's perfectly structured Science Fiction story. It is truly science fiction in that the technology is pivotal to the plot, but that the story is really more about us as human beings than it is about science or prognostication. I forgive him his portrayal of Valery as sensual, because I think he did a good job of portraying her as a richly varied individual more than just a representation of a female stereotype. I also love that he starts with a dismissal of their time machine invention, tossing off a complete SF story in a few dismissive paragraphs.

    "The Six Fingers of Time" is a very early story for Lafferty, and I've always found the prose in it to be more straightforward, less incandescent than some of his later stories. I blogged about it on Yet Another Lafferty Blog, where I said that this story exists on three levels. First it is a straightforward twilight-zone style story with a mild twist at the end, but in that classic style of story, the clever individual almost always succeeds over the nefarious forces set against him (at least in stories in 1960--by the late '60s, we'd had enough cultural disillusionment to come to expect unhappy endings). On a second level, it is the story of one man's choices in the face of temptation, and how he ultimately chooses a virtuous path, but too late to succeed. Thirdly, it is the story of forces that predate humanity and are set against us through all of time. This is a theme that Lafferty revisits time and time again, in novels like The Devil is Dead and my favorite, Fourth Mansions.

    I've only read "The Ugly Sea" once a long, long time ago, while sitting in the upstairs reading room of the South Hampton Public Library waiting for my wife and her mother to go wedding dress shopping. Perhaps a bit of irony there, but I've never become a sailor. However, my wife does have a broken leg right now, and I do feel a strange yearning for the sea...

    "Snuffles" is a masterpiece--straight out. It is a masterpiece that I find very difficult to read, not because of the prose, which is easy and engaging, but because I find each of the characters' deaths devastating. He does a great job of introducing each character as a sort of representative of normal traits within most of our personalities. Then they are killed for not appreciating the world enough. I identify with each character individually, and fear I may sometimes be guilty of the lack of thoughtfulness for which they are killed. It makes "Snuffles" a deeply affecting but uncomfortable read.

    Thank you again for these great reviews!

  2. Thanks for your insightful comments about these Lafferty stories and kind words about this here blog.

    I like "Through Other Eyes" and what you say makes sense, but I have to say that right now I am thinking "All the People" is Lafferty's most perfectly structured science-fiction story--it really made a big impression on me!

    1. I've always thought "All the People" could have made a great Twilight Zone episode. Actually that's true of a lot of early Lafferty stories.

  3. To your question about whether Gene Wolfe's "Try and Kill it" is an homage to "Snuffles," I haven't read "Try and Kill it" yet, but I do know that Gene Wolfe is a tremendous Lafferty Fan. We published a lengthy piece by him in the last Feast of Laughter.

  4. Turns out it was THE LITERARY REVIEW issue for Autumn 1961 that appears to feature "The Ugly Sea"...I now own a copy of the 1960 issue, but alas no Lafferty (a fair amount of other stuff of note).

    1. Cripes, isfdb steered me wrong! I'll update the blog post! Thanks for the heads up!