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"
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"
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.
"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"
The Who's masterpiece Quadrophenia, while 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.]
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."