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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.

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