How can a structure of fiction limn reality more clearly than reality does? Ah, well, that's the magic in it, you see...
R.A. Lafferty could explain it to you, and probably has. Raphael Aloysius Lafferty has thought more, said more, and written down more intricate thoughts than anyone else in SF -- possibly than anyone else in SF ever, past or future -- and his career alone would serve to terminally blur all the nice distinctions between sorts of literature and of genres within those sorts. There is no question but that the man is an SF writer -- all that he does all day, apparently, is to speculate, although the front of his mind may at times rest -- and equally no question that you could go mad attempting to define what kind of SF he writes.
Well, scholars, your task has been made even more piquant, and certainly no easier, by the appearance of Four Stories, one of the most chapped chap-books it has ever been my pleasure to behold.
Available at $2.00 postpaid from Chris Drumm, P.O. Box 445, Polk City, IA 50226, these are four stories copyright 1983 by Lafferty and hitherto unpublished. "The Last Astronomer" is relatively straightforward; it's about the life and the last day of High Rider Charles-Wain, the last astronomer to survive the shattering discoveries that the universe is really quite small, interstellar distances are ludicrously short, and that Terrestrial "astronomy fiction" has long been the favorite humorous reading matter on Mars.
"In the Turpentine Trees," however, begins to take on matters of some weight. It raises the questions of how a person might go about becoming God, how often it might have been done, and why it's not done more often. Furthermore, it provides answers.
"Bird-Master" either is or is not a recasting of certain American Indian legends, reflecting another interest of Lafferty's. Or rather reflecting that aspect of Lafferty's one interest, which is everything. It's fine, and besides being risible is haunting. The story which is in some ways the slightest of the four, but will be discussed more often because it has an easily encapsulated idea, is "Faith Sufficient," about a fake faith-healer who exposes faith-healing fakes, but at a crucial moment depends on the intervention of a mouse who can move mountains. (Say that line aloud three times quickly, and you will do to your tongue what Lafferty does to the mind.)
There you are. You can't do a study of Lafferty without being conversant with this material; I would judge that "In the Turpentine Trees," at least in some ways crosses beyond the borders of what commercial SF media finds publishable, and so is an indispensible benchmark of just how much craziness we will indulge, and of what kind. So send Drumm the $2.00. I don't know how he got hold of this material, but I'm sure it's legit. Also available is his R.A. Lafferty Checklist, at $1.25: 32 pages, with notes.
The pages, if other Drumm publications are any criterion, are covered with very small type, achieved by photo-reducing typewritten copy. It comes out 16 characters to the inch -- 25% smaller than elite. Four Stories has over 37 pages, each page 4 1/2" x 7', with very tight margins. The whole thing looks like something produced in a basement on 8 1/2" x 11" paper ingeniously folded, sewn (literally), and then trimmed by tearing the edges against a steel rule. The checklists -- there are four others -- are equally marvelous to behold. (The Hal Clement @ 50c, is eight pages on cardstock; the Mack Reynolds and Thomas M. Disch, at $1.00 each, are 24 pages; the Algis Budrys, at 75c, is 16 pages and even includes my crime fiction, plus running corrections of errata.) All this apparently began with book dealer Drumm's publication of a catalog ($1.00, refundable with purchase) and has since gotten out of hand.
It seems somehow inevitable that the Laffertys of this world find the Drumms and the Drumms find the Budryses. But if we didn't have Lafferty to prepare our minds for that realization -- and if Lafferty didn't have SF preparing the ground for him -- we wouldn't be equipped to understand that inevitability.