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Monday, January 26, 2015

"In Our Block" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederick Pohl’s If. Nominated for the Nebula and reprinted in a Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert R. Potter, and Martin H. Greenberg (picked by Neil Gaiman as his favorite fantasy story).
Two gentlemen wander a little known block visiting shanties that weren’t there not long ago. One small shack has trucks enter and leave despite being much smaller than the trucks. One, a stenographer recalls an entire conversation and can type it up in seconds... with her tongue. Another offers to restore hair to any color (though one assumes that any creature could do such a thing one his own. Another cold beer, despite having nothing around.

This seems like a typical if clever little SF story of its day, where aliens have visited Earth and are trying to fit in and improve our lot, yet be evasive about being aliens.

But the title gives a few pauses.

1. “Our”
The story opens:
“There were a lot of funny people in that block.”
So if it’s their block as well, they are one of the funny people, one of the aliens or folk with strange powers (whether supernatural or science beyond our understanding, is unclear).

The stenographer confirms this although its ostensibly a joke that only makes sense after you examine the last word in the title:
"Hi, cousin!"

2. “Block”
Relevant definitions include a) a residential area bordered by streets on four sides, b) something that impedes flow, and c) slang for head.

A is clear. B is relevant as there is a slight memory and understanding problem going on here. It's not just the impossible or improbable are occurring, but people's understanding of it is muddled:
"This is the first steel tape I ever made. Just got the idea when I saw you measuring my shack with that old beat-up one."
If that's true, how did this guy offer one up for sale without knowing what it was?

Likewise, the stenographer says:
"No sense mix up two things at one time.... The ungrammar of the letter is your own, sir." 
She is the one with problematic grammar. Or is she?

The character are blocked mentally from their own reality and identity. Jim Boomer's identifies himself as of the Shawnee tribe headquartered in Oklahoma but his last name indicates a group of settlers who came to farm Oklahoma territory. It's paradox that's solvable if extended out of the past, into the future--where Shawnee and Boomer children intermarry. This becomes a more distinct possibility as the stenographer "cousin" names herself of the Innominee tribe. This derives from the Latin innominatus meaning "nameless."

Note how easily the protagonists succumb to the "alien" reasoning by the end. We assume that the protagonists do not buy the stenographer's explanation of the shack that allows larger trucks to pass through as being able to "cut prices."
"Like the girl says, he cuts prices," Boomer said. 
Boomer closes with this opening idea of funny people being in the block.

What do we make of this lost identity and reality for these characters? Possibilities:

  1. In the future we lose ourselves. 
  2. Aliens take on our identities and forget themselves.
  3. Maybe identity places arbitrary and unnecessary logic limits on the imagination and, therefore, one's ability.
  4. Or life is nonsense when examined closely.
A fifth possibility: That all is illusion, but this seems unlikely as the story events would lose relevance.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

“Nine Hundred Grandmothers” by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederik Pohl’s If. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Attebery, Ellen Datlow and Gardner Dozois. Online.

Ceran Swicegood, a promising young Special Aspects Man, studies the curious species, the Proavitoi. They do not seem to die but rather retire to a sleeping state where they slumber the rest of their lives except to awake now and then.

Ceran’s name may have something to do with his personality as he is nice. His choice to keep his name is to his commander's consternation:
"Only Ceran kept his own [name]—to the disgust of his commander, Manbreaker. 
" 'Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood!' "
According to the anonymous narrator, Ceran "had one irritating habit. He was forever asking the questions: How Did It All Begin?” Ceran sees the Proavitoi as a way to answer this question.

When Ceran gets his conversation with the oldest Proavitoi, she evades his questions about the beginning as it is a joke and that he should delight as they do in the evasion. He does not. He wishes he had a tough name like Manbreaker's, so they'd supply answers or he'd kill the Proavitoi ancestors, one by one.

He does not but is frustrated. He leaves, changes his name, and becomes the conqueror of a small island for ninety-seven days and presumably meets an unpleasant end.

We have three groups represented here:

  1. The Proavitoi, who delight in the mystery of life,
  2. Manbreaker and his ilk (perfect name) who willingly destroy others to get what they need. Also, they seem to be a more practical sort. What can you do with knowing the beginnings of things? More practical is immortality. Swicegood frustrates Manbreaker as much as the Proavitoi frustrate Swicegood.
  3. Finally, Ceran Swicegood, the outlier of his species who are out to conquer people and their lands. Ceran wants to conquer the ineffable, but his methods are peaceful but require answers in a way similar to Manbreaker, demanding and immediate. He does not have patience. When his is used up, he becomes like the rest of his species.
Manbreaker is a name that cuts both ways. Yes, they break other men, but they also break themselves as happens to Ceran: When he breaks other men, he breaks himself.

This is probably one of my favorites of Lafferty's.

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Eurema’s Dam" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Robert Silverberg’s New Dimensions. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Lester del Rey, Terry Carr, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Orson Scott Card. It won the Hugo and Seiun awards and was up for the Locus.
Albert, about the last of the dolts, is thought of as the only idiot in a society of human perfection. Albert, though, invents things to make up for his lacks since "Necessity is the mother of invention": a machine for hunches, for understanding women, etc. In fact, in the last thirty years, the major inventions all belong to Albert.

The story opens nearly majestic (the word "about" undermines the majesty):
"He was about the last of them."
Lafferty then plays on the readers' expectations, allowing for grand possibilities, but slaps the reader's face with a dead-fish surprise:
"No. No. He was the last of the dolts."
Although he and his society seem to agree Albert is a dolt, he is anything but. When listing his defects, astute readers will note the creative genius turning the gears of his mind. Although he can't tell time, he isn't interested in time. He must understand a litany of strange aspects of Nature--things most mortals do not understand--in order to differentiate his left hand from his right. Not to mention all of his inventions that no one else has come up with. All because of his flaw of being "a dolt."

This must have touched the then-zeitgeist of the SF'nal mind: in what was Lafferty’s only major award-winner. It is the nerd-song, the tune of which must have rang more melodic in its day with the then-denigration of any who lie outside cultural norms. The quotes below touch on what must have triggered the passion.

The story ends:
"We'll inaugurate a new era!... We'll gobble them [the ordinary] like goobers."
The Twenty-First Century began on this rather odd note. 
Although it may not be as Lafferty's vision, there's a predictive truth here. Nerds or societal outliers have been more closely accepted as societal norms.
  1. "Some things would always be beyond him--like whether it was the big hand or the little hand of the clock that told the hours. But this wasn't something serious. He never did care what time it was."
  2. "Were we all well adjusted, we would ossify and die."
  3. "The world is kept healthy only by some of the unhealthy minds lurking in it."
  4. "Only a crippled calf makes a new path."
  5. "Dolts!... What will you do for dolts when the last of us is gone? How will you survive without us?"

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Slow Tuesday Night" by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Frederik Pohl’s Galaxy. Nominated for a Nebula award and reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Judith Merril, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, Willis E. McNelly, Leon E. Stover, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward L. Ferman, John W. Milstead, Joseph D. Olander, Patricia S. Warrick, Gardner R. Dozois, Pamela Sargent, Terry Carr, James E. Gunn, Ellen Datlow, Rob Latham, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B. Evans, Carol McGuirk. Online.
Economics, inventions and trends come hourly. Someone's fame can wax and wane within minutes. Fortunes can be won and lost four times in a day. Marriages dissolve as men and women follow trends of what's popular.

In what is considered another of Lafferty’s classics, this expands Moore's Law--computer transistor power doubling every two years--to include people and society. However, this story appeared in Galaxy before Moore announced his theory. Perhaps it was in the air: steam-engine time.

This satirizes popularity, economics, and trend-watching to make societal decisions. By rendering the timeline for trends down to hours or minutes, all such decisions based on trends appear absurd. The title punctuates the satire by calling all the events as occurring on a "Slow Tuesday Night."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Edward L. Ferman’s F&SF. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Terry Carr, Judith Merril, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward L. Ferman, Jack M. Dann, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Gardner R. Dozois, Stephen R. Donaldson, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Brian M. Thomsen, Ellen Datlow, and Gordon Van Gelder. Online.
In order to keep his land after taxation took it away from him, Clarence Big-Saddle puts a curse on the land to make it seem less than it is. Several homesteaders have tried to occupy the land but failed. Scientists come to explain the phenomena of a land that looks like a ditch but whose length is longer than it seems.

The latest family to occupy the land seems to succeed although the Rampart father has to be carried bodily into the land. Some scientists come up with hypotheses and are self-satisfied with their validity while others simply scratch their heads--perhaps with a shade more honesty.

The latest Native American son, Clarence Little-Saddle, seeing the Ramparts adjusting to the difficult perspective, puts another curse on the land that flattens the Rampart family into two dimensions. This links it to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland dimensional masterwork.

However, a stronger dimension is that between Native Americans and the homesteaders who took over their lands. While many gained lands through a kind of verbal trickery, Lafferty turns the tables. The Native American Saddle family literalizes the flat perspective the pioneering Ramparts family have of Native Americans on to their persons.

While clearly considered one of Lafferty’s classics, aspects of the tale get over-gnawed. Interestingly, this story is classified as fantasy by some, SF by others as the story achieves its SF-ness through spells.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

R. A. Lafferty Fan Club

Items of interest for the R. A. Lafferty fan:

  1. R. A. Lafferty Facebook Page
  2. appreciation website
  3. magazine,
  4. interview,
  6. and online stories.
His popularity has waned, but it's nice to see his loyal cult following carrying on.