Thursday, January 5, 2023

Past Master by R. A. Lafferty

Nonsensical take on Utopia
R. A. Lafferty’s science fiction novel Past Master was first published in 1968. I encountered the novel when I purchased the Library of America’s collection American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1968-1969, in which Past Master is included. I’ve come to expect great things from the Library of America, editorially speaking, but in this case I was disappointed by their selection of this work. The editor of the collection talks about Past Master as if it were a seminal work of the science fiction genre, and the book was nominated for Nebula and Hugo Awards, but I just found it terribly annoying, tedious, and pointless.

In the year 2535, on the world of Astrobe, an Earth colony circling another star somewhere in space, a trio of political powerbrokers gather to discuss the fate of their civilization. Astrobe was meant to be a Utopia for humanity, but things aren’t quite working out that way. The prevailing regime on Astrobe faces rebellion from both human and “programmed” (android) inhabitants. What’s needed to save this society is a new leader, a man of honesty and integrity who can inspire Astrobe to keep the dream alive. The Astrobian illuminati have the power to reach back into time and summon forth historical figures from humanity’s past. It is decided that Thomas More, author of the original Utopia published in 1516, would be the best man to lead this new Utopia. Once More is brought to Astrobe, however, not all are in favor of his ascension to the throne, and he faces threats of assassination and enticements toward corruption.

That may sound like a clever premise for a novel, but the result is far less than satisfying. The plot involves some not-so-profound commentary on how Utopias are not all they’re cracked up to be. The drive to implement a universal perfection results in a totalitarian squelching of individuality. Lafferty merely tells us this, however, rather than really showing us through thoughtful narrative and imagery, as do better dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 or Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

The bulk of the book is occupied by whimsical excesses. I guess because this is a science fiction universe, Lafferty thinks that anything goes, with no rules, so there’s no reason to make any sense. The book reads as if the fictional world he’s creating is just made up as he goes along. More is introduced to a motley crew of characters with goofy names, some of whom have special powers—witches, wizards, immortals, transmigrants—with no logical justification. The narration is a tapestry of nonsensical sentences, while the dialogue is a running banter of non-sequiturs. Although there are intentional moments of humor here and there, it doesn’t seem as if the novel is intended as satire. Instead, the prose simply comes across as silly without being funny. Much of the text just seems like unnecessary wordplay, which may have been more palatable in the era of beat poetry but now feels like a waste of time.

Perhaps critics and experts of the genre consider Past Master to be a classic of New Wave science fiction, but I found nothing in it to merit such praise. I prefer sci-fi that has some logic to it, even if it establishes its own logic, rather than just a willy-nilly stream of words that only add up to style without substance.

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