Monday, June 5, 2023

Who is RA Lafferty? And is he the best science fiction writer of all time?

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The following will be be the best article you have ever read on writing and science fiction.

I laugh. Kind of. Science fiction writer RA Lafferty used to make such statements. For most of his career he told people he was “the best short story writer in the world.” Smart movement. Makes you want to read it.

We are crazy about superlatives. The best, the biggest, the most important. When Lafferty did it, he was joking. He was also perfectly serious. Everything Lafferty put his name on was outrageous, insidious, and seeking the truth: a serious joke. But then, it is life itself. Therefore, Lafferty may be right. He might be the best there is.

Just one problem: no one reads it. They didn’t do it while he was alive, and they haven’t done it now that he’s dead. It’s a clickbait cliché that falls somewhere between desperate and insulting to say this or that is the greatest of such and such you never heard of it, but in this case it turns out to be true. Ask your nerdiest friends if they’ve ever met a Raphael Aloysius Lafferty on their cosmic journeys. They didn’t, and a name like that sticks with a person. Even people who have heard of people that others haven’t heard of are people who haven’t heard of.

Lafferty not only wrote perhaps the best short stories in the world, over 200 of which were published by various pulp and small presses during his lifetime. He also wrote 36 novels, which is a lot and which no one, not even Lafferty, has ever put in the best category. (A tragic mistake.) Of these, only four entries are worth publishing on Wikipedia; less than those currently printed. The Wikipedia page for Snake egg, a late-career work that came out in 1987 and fell into obscurity soon after, encompasses what might be the best plot summary of not just a Lafferty novel, but any novel, never wrote. As of February 24, 2021, at 3:22 p.m., it reads in its entirety: “Snake egg is a novel in which.

It’s exactly that. It could be a typo, but maybe it isn’t. A joke, but also very serious. Look at the embarrassing and mind-boggling space the ghostly Wiki editor added before the period. In which – GASP, the end. The question is: do we dare to fill it out?

OK, so a few have read Lafferty, a secret society of loons whose names you probably recognize. Neil Gaiman. Ursula Le Guin. Samuel Delaney. Other science fiction writers, in other words. RA Lafferty has therefore always been the sci-fi writer of a sci-fi writer – a fuzzy and distant position to find himself. When comedians hang out they have to commit borderline crime, usually involving nudity and great heights, to get busted. So think about the nonsense a sci-fi writer has to conjure to dazzle his fellow sci-fi writers – sci-fi writers who are, in fact, by a much wider consensus, among the best in the world.

The descriptor they tend to resort to, like no other choice, is sui generis, dusty old Latin for “one of a kind”. This is probably the most common phrase associated with Lafferty (incidentally a self-taught student of Latin), and it does not appear once but twice in The best of RA Lafferty, which Tor released earlier this year with non-existent fanfare and which, in keeping with man’s self-expanding sense of humor, should have been called The best (of the best) of RA Lafferty. Each of the 22 short stories is presented by a writer often much more famous than Lafferty, including Gaiman and Delaney, as well as John Scalzi, Jeff VanderMeer, Connie Willis and Harlan Ellison (who died; his article was originally published in 1967 ). Ellison – of whom fellow Ellison Ralph wrote Invisible Man– says this of Lafferty: “He is the invisible man.” Pretty.

Now is the time to expose you to some of Lafferty’s writing, which will further illuminate his chronic invisibility. Much of her output is dangerously immeasurable outside of its immediate context, as it relies for its effect on words flying madly around it, but sometimes a paragraph pops up that makes as much sense in the story as without, and is therefore safer for picking. Here’s one, from “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies,” Lafferty’s alternate story, published in 1978, from television:


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