Thursday, September 17, 2009

Past Master

Past Master by R.A. Lafferty (Ace Books, 1968), published as part of editor Terry Carr’s seminal Ace Science Fiction Specials series.

R.A. Lafferty’s first novel, Past Master, is by turns fascinating and something of a mess. Hundreds of years in the future, the rulers of Astrobe, a world whose utopian ambitions have gone askew, send for a leader from the past to help them through their crisis. A jeremiad against a false utopia, the story is told with great energy, invention, and humor.

The leader they chose is scholar and statesman Thomas More, author of Utopia (1516). Lafferty’s great achievement here is that his portrait of More is a persuasive one. His More is a man of human failings and misconceptions, and, at the same time, bright, commanding and charismatic. Lafferty’s expert use of archaic English adds subtle shadings to his recreation.

More’s concerns, utopianism and Catholicism, are the twin concerns that thread through the novel. Is the impulse toward utopia creative or destructive? Can the Catholic Church endure and remain relevant across the centuries? These questions are explored, yet no easy answers can be expected.

Lafferty gathers together a strong supporting cast of characters and, alas, does little with them. The storytelling sags in the middle. It seems rushed in places and then it is slowed by overlong rants.

There are several marvelous set pieces, chief among them the interstellar journey that brings Thomas More to Astrobe. The problem for science fiction authors attempting to portray interstellar travel is not in coming up with the latest flim-flammery of an idea for an engine, but in convincing the reader that a journey that encompasses vast time and space has occurred. Lafferty's “passage dreams” concept is one of the most successful I have encountered at communicating that entire subjective lifetimes are passing during the journey.

It’s hard to resist interpreting Lafferty’s skepticism of the status quo as particularly relevant to the 1960s, when the book was originally published. Little that has occurred in the years since should diminish our distrust.

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