In Nine Hundred Grandmothers, R.A. Lafferty violates the most basic rule of science fiction. Instead of leaping into the future, he descends into the past. Where other science fiction authors fret about our final destiny, Lafferty worries about our ultimate origins. Let Bradbury write of Martians, Heinlein of Venusians. Lafferty, for his part, turns his attention to grandmothers…and to the grandmothers of the grandmothers…and to the grandmothers of the grandmothers of the grandmothers, etc. etc.
The nine hundred grandmothers appear in the opening tale of this pleasing collection of short stories, most of them originally published in various sci-fi magazines during the 1960s. The title story takes place on the asteroid Proavitus, where a team of astronauts is investigating the terrain and inhabitants, primarily in pursuit of lucrative trade deals. But one of the expedition members, Ceran Swicegood, is distracted by a peculiar claim of his local informants. Hard as it is to believe, the natives assert that they never die—they only get smaller and smaller as they age. Their old ancestors, now very tiny, reportedly live in the basements of their homes, where these miniature forebears spend most of their time sleeping.
Any other researcher would be excited about the prospect of discovering the biological basis for immortality. But Swicegood, like his author R.A. Lafferty, cares about the past, not the future—and especially the distant past. He is determined to find the oldest of the immortal ancestors in order to ask the pressing question: "How did it all begin" He sneaks unobserved into the basement of the home of his best informant, and begins descending lower and lower through rooms populated by smaller and smaller 'grandmothers'. I won’t give away any spoilers, but merely point out that this outlandish concept—and the overriding sense that the solutions to the mysteries of science are buried in the depths of a forgotten history—recur again and again in the imaginative writing of Mr. Lafferty.
In the second story in this collection, "Land of the Great Horses," a peculiar series of events around the world—involving migrations, mirages and miracles—requires some sort of scientific explanation. True to form, Lafferty serves one up, but requires us to peer a thousand years back into the past to grasp the implications of these tumultuous changes. In the third story, "Ginny Wrapped in the Sun," a different anomaly requires a similar excavation of long distant events—but in this instance Lafferty takes us back a quarter of million years to the time of Neanderthals. And just when you think Lafferty can't sink any deeper into the streams of time, the fourth story in his collection, "The Six Fingers of Time" even gives us a glimpse back into the Garden of Eden.
This is science fiction, at least of a sort. But Lafferty's preferred scientists are geologists, evolutionary biologists, forensic archaeologists, and others who rarely look up to the stars—more often they are found digging in the dirt. Even when Lafferty goes to some trouble to construct a futuristic society, as he does in his story "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne," he builds his tale around a group of scientists obsessed with time travel, and the possibility of tinkering with events of the Middle Ages. Let other sci-fi authors journey to the stars, Lafferty is too caught up in the intrigues of the Carolingian Empire during the ninth century AD.
But even if Lafferty is obsessed with the past, his writing is anything but old-fashioned. His plots are ingenious, his tales well-told. At times he seems to waver in his allegiances between the dramatic and the comic, and for stretches he shows his affinity to Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley, the masters of 1960s era sci-fi satire. In truth, Lafferty could have built a career on humorous tales of hapless protagonists. But he is more of a formalist than either of those droll contemporaries. Lafferty would never sacrifice pacing and structure in exchange for laughs, the way, say, Sheckley does in Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Moreover, he has too bright a disposition to indulge for long in dark satire. As Neil Gaiman has aptly put it, Lafferty possessed "gravitas about things that were light" and "antigravitas about important heavy things." But I'm hardly surprised by that. Lafferty, after all, was that greatest of rarities, a Roman Catholic novelist who found that his theological- philosophical vision was compatible with a career writing genre stories. In his worldview, even the apparently frivolous incident— whether past, present or distant future—comes pre-equipped with metaphysical significance.
This orientation may help explain why an author might aim to unlock the meaning of future events by looking back a couple thousand years, give or take a few millennia. Religion rarely figures in Lafferty's plots—at least not overtly—and is hardly even mentioned in passing by his characters. But his overriding notion that human destiny can be grasped by searching for a historic revealed truth…well, let’s just say that science fiction authors hardly invented that idea.
Lafferty's reputation, for its part, is enjoying a kind of posthumous resurrection. David Barnett recently announced in The Guardian that Lafferty, who died in 2002 at age 87, "might just be the most important science-fiction writer you've never heard of." But many are hearing about him, nonetheless, if we can judge by the return to print of his works. A few months back, a publisher released a limited edition collection of Lafferty's stories, which sold out almost immediately. The bottleneck seems to be copyrights and permissions rather than lack of demand. In Japan, where Lafferty's works have been more easily available, his books are still popular, even more than a decade after the author's death.
Alas, Nine Hundred Grandmoters is still out print, but perhaps it too will soon be available. "I'd love to see a Complete Lafferty in print," Gaiman recently commented. "I used to give people his short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers, until one day it was out of print and gone." My advice is: don’t wait for a reprint. Second-hand copies can still be found, although at a sizable mark-up from their cover price. Yes, perhaps you need to be a bit of a persistent antiquarian someone with a pressing curiosity and willing to dig around into the past, if you want to understand the legacy (or just find copies of the books) of this author. But I suspect R.A. Lafferty would have quite a bit of sympathy with precisely that kind of reader.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.