The biggest Lafferty paradox, however, is in the stories themselves. Most of them are very short, and at first sight they appear to be whimsical, offbeat fantasies that can read quickly and forgotten quickly. His characters are often bizarrely cartoonish, with bizarre cartoonish names. His settings are surreal and his plots are outrageous. His writing style is chatty and filled with laugh-out-loud humour. This all goes to support the view that Lafferty’s stories are lightweight and ephemeral. But nothing could be further from the truth – which is that Lafferty was one of the most serious, deep-thinking writers of his generation. Almost all his stories have a carefully thought-through philosophical subtext, often on issues he felt strongly about.
When you think about deep-thinking SF writers of the 60s and 70s, the name that springs most obviously to mind is Philip K. Dick. Probably every SF fan in the world has heard of him, and academics write dissertations about his work. So why isn’t the same true of R. A. Lafferty?
One difference is in the medium they chose. Most of Dick’s important works are 70,000 word novels, while Lafferty’s tend to be 5,000 word short stories – a form whose popularity has plummeted since the 1970s. But a bigger difference is in the accessibility of their ideas. Dick’s idée fixe was essentially Gnostic – that the so-called “reality” we perceive around us is in some sense fake or substandard. That resonates perfectly with the uncertainty and paranoia of the modern world, and most readers can relate to it. There’s something screwy about reality in Lafferty’s stories too – but in a far more complex way, which even a Lafferty fan like myself often has difficulty getting to grips with.
In Wild Talents, Charles Fort wrote: “I conceive of nothing in religion, science or philosophy that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.” Does this mean that while reality itself is fixed and self-consistent, human attempts to understand it are constantly changing perspective over the generations? Or is it that reality itself is always shifting into new configurations? Lafferty seems to have believed the latter. His stories tell of times in the past – often the not-very-distant past – when the laws of physics were different, or human abilities were different, or animal species were different, or time itself was different. But the differences quickly get forgotten, because history reshapes itself to cover up the changes.
By my count, more than half the 20 stories in the Ringing Changes collection deal with one variation or another on this theme (the other stories deal with other, equally philosophical, ideas). I will get hopelessly muddled if I try to describe all of them, so I’ll just focus on the two most obviously Fortean stories.
The longest story in the collection, “The Rivers of Damascus”, is one of half a dozen that I’d already read (in this case, in the issue of Galaxy magazine in which it first appeared). Longest is a relative term, though – it’s still only 27 pages, although it could easily have been expanded into a novel ten times that length. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the original plan, since the story reads like the outline of a novel in places. For example, the backstories of the two main characters go into far more biographical detail than you would expect in a novelette of this length. One of them is a skilled dowser, who is capable of dowsing not just underground water but the past as well (this is explained with some first-rate technobabble about the heterodyning of brain waves – Lafferty was an electrical engineer by profession).
The other character has a psychic talent of a different kind – he can tune into mental impressions and turn them into solid reality. So between them, acting as a team, they can help academic researchers recreate the past in the form of a “para-archaeological probe”. But this is a Lafferty story, so it’s the wrong underground river they tap into... and the past thus revealed is completely different from the one in the history books. They become a laughing-stock of the scientific establishment, paraded before a billion-strong TV audience on an ultra-skeptical documentary show called “Science Supreme, the End of the Crackpots”. But the story has a happy ending – the entrenched academics are revealed as the true crackpots, while the world gives the para-archaeologists an open-door welcome!
The collection includes three stories that hadn’t previously seen print. One of them is burdened with the rather longwinded title “Oh Whatta You Do When the Well Runs Dry?” (I guess that’s what happens when an author makes up his own title, without editorial intervention). It’s an excellent story, though. It features the same protagonist, Miss Phosphor McCabe, as “Nor Limestone Islands” which I mentioned in Charles Fort in Fiction. This story isn’t a direct sequel, but it’s equally Fortean and it has a stronger philosophical subtext.
The “well” of the title is the Collective Unconscious – a concept taken from Jungian psychology, though given a Lafferty-esque twist. This is the place people get their ideas and creative inspirations from, and one day it suddenly runs dry. Or does it? A group of Forteans knows better. They know the Collective Unconscious consists of countless sub-wells, and what has run dry is just the conventional-thinking one. There are plenty of others to choose from – but only if everyone in the world becomes as open-minded as the Forteans! Again, the story has a happy ending:
You know what rough and shouting people the Forteans had always been? You remember what rude strutters the Boschites were? You know the loud and glittering insanity of the Dalikites, and the perversity and perfidy of the Albionians? These shabby, crude, delirious dregs of humanity had always lived on rocks in the lower skies and in shanties on the outskirts of our towns. But now we all drank their water, we thought their thoughts (thoughts? some of their ghouly notions were enough to rot the flesh off your bones), and now we became indistinguishable from them.