A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Best of R. A. Lafferty
Edited by Jonathan Strahan

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 15, 2021

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I received an advance copy of this title from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It will be published by Tor next month, February 2, but it's a reprint of a 2019 UK edition, part of the SF Masterworks series from Gollancz. Raphael Aloysius Lafferty was born in Iowa in 1914, but from the age of four spent the majority of his life in Oklahoma, primarily Tulsa. He began writing in the late '50s, his first SF story being published in 1960, his first novel in '68. I had read a few of these before in other anthologies, including the first Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison. I think I read the first novel, Past Master, but have little to no memory of it. Lafferty was very prolific, with over thirty novels and more than two hundred short stories in a career than spanned only two and half decades. A stroke in 1980 diminished his output, his last story coming in 1984. He died in 2002. The stories here are from throughout his career. Some originally appeared in periodicals such as Galaxy, IF, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, the Magazine of Horror, or in various volumes of original anthologies; Terry Carr's Universe, Damon Knight's Orbit, and Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions. They boast a combined fourteen award nominations, with two wins.

The collection is edited by Jonathan Strahan, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. Each story also gets an individual introduction by various authors, Gaiman contributing two of them, and a few have afterwords by other writers, one by Lafferty himself. Not part of his official intro, more like a blurb which comes before the Table of Contents or copyright page, Gaiman wrote, "R. A. Lafferty…was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was." The reader is free to interpret that any way they wish. Others who wrote introductions include: Michael Swanwick, Michael Bishop, Robert Silverberg, Nancy Kress, Kelly Robson, Connie Willis, John Scalzi, Jeff VanderMeer, and Samuel R. Delany (twice). The intro for "Land of the Great Horses" is from the late Harlan Ellison, copying what he wrote in Dangerous Visions. I didn't read all of every introduction, mainly because some quoted extensively from the story they were introducing, which I felt was unneccessary. I also did not read all of each story. If I was to take the word of those who introduced them and described their reactions to Lafferty's prose, I would assume he would be a writer to treasure. Perhaps it will take another reading to better appreciate him, but I wasn't as impressed. To forestall a negative reaction from Lafferty fans, I can offer my defense of being very distracted the past week for various reasons. Perhaps it was the right book at the wrong time for me. I thought of several descriptions for the stories, which are mainly of the folksy, tall-tale variety. Clever, unique, and distinctive came to mind, but also verbose and tedious. Several go on much longer than necessary to make their point.

My reaction is somewhat echoed in Delany's intro to "The Primary Education of the Camiroi," in which he says Lafferty "…was a gadfly. Paradoxically, he was never a writer I 'liked'—and even today I think of him as someone I am always being asked to write about. Because he's so smart, it's always a compliment…His works are wryly humoruous—though I always realize, moments after the laughter, I am the butt of the joke." I'm pretty sure he didn't mean that as a Black Man, or as a gay man, but simply as a human. Lafferty loved humanity, but continually pointed out our inevitable fallibilities. Living in Oklahoma, he obviously interacted with many indigenous people, and probably listened to their stories. Several of his characters are either native Americans, or else from other folk traditions, and that includes some of the aliens. Searching for other information about him, I learned of an historical fiction novel that sounds very interesting; Okla Hannali is about the Choctaw removal and relocation to the Oklahoma Territory, and has been praised by Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. Many of the stories are told second or third hand, by people who had heard the tales from others. Quite a few are dreamlike in their imagery, and I'm sure at least one of them, "Days of Grass, Days of Straw," is literally a succession of dreams.

I did make a few notes while reading, but not for every story, especially those I didn't finish. Looking back at a few of the titles it's hard for me to recall details. That is not true for all of them, and I'm sure a re-read will boost my appreciation. Even when they are set on another planet, or talking about aliens on Earth, they are primarily fantasies, many of the absurd variety. A society that moves so fast a woman can marry and divorce multiple times in one night ("Slow Tuesday Night"); a man hexes his land so as to prohibit anyone else occupying it ("Narrow Valley"); time travel to alter history, resulting in the scientists being successful but their memories are of the new reality ("Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne"); ramshackle buildings popping up overnight featuring miraculous manufacturing techniques ("In Our Block"); an alien world which boasts immortality, previous generations growing smaller and smaller over time ("Nine Hundred Grandmothers"); an alternate world tale of a different kind of television developed in the late 19th Century ("Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies"); a girl inventor who gets upstaged by her younger brother ("Seven Day Terror"). As I said above, some go on longer than necessary, and still end on an ambiguous note, without a resolution.

The story that won a Hugo, along with a Seiun, and was also a Locus finalist, is among my least favorites. "Eurema's Dam" is the ultimate absurd farce; a man who is so stupid he cannot do anything for himself, including reading and writing, so he has to settle for inventing a series of machines to do the work for him. My favorites are mostly in the latter half of the book. "Continued on Next Rock" is about a group of archeologists caught in a time reversal, uncovering artifacts and stone tablet writings that could not possibly be in the strata they're working. "Boomer Flats" features three men mentioned in several of the stories, the eminent scientists Arpad Arkabaranan, Velikof Vonk, and Willy McGilley. In this case they are in search of ABSM (Abominabal Snowmen), even if in Boomer Flats, Oklahoma they might meet a sasquatch or related creature instead. "Funnyfingers" introduced mythical creatures I don't recall reading about before. Originally from Anatolian Phrygia, later moving to Crete, and apparently many other areas around the world, the Daktuloi: Kelmis (the smelter), Acmon (the anvil), and Damnameneus (the hammer), were thought to be the first to forge iron. Oread is a girl in the Oklahoma Ozarks, whose adoptive mother is human, while Oread and her father are daktyls too, able to construct almost anything out of iron by calling on the ancient gods who reside in the hills behind their home. One downside to that is their long life spans, which means they will outlive the mother and Oread's boyfriend.

Not necessarily my favorite, but one I had a fond memory of reading before, was "The World of Will and Wallpaper." Originally encountered in Terry Carr's Best SF of the Year #3, although I had forgotten who wrote it, and may have confused it with a Le Guin story of similar title. Delany introduced this one too, saying he didn't appreciate it as much the first time because he was not familiar with the references, and that was the same for me. The main character in this future scenario is William Morris, who is well aware his name-sake was the 19th Century author of fantasy novels such as The Wood Beyond the World, although Delany (or the editor) mis-identifies it as "The World Beyond the Wood." What Morris is not aware of is that his ancestor was also an artist known for his intricate wallpaper designs. The whole world is one gigantic city circling the globe, and one day William Morris decides he wants to travel west to experience as much of it as possible, and also to reach the Wood Beyond the World. He has no expectations of what he will find, nor what he might encounter on the other side of that Wood. With a couple of different companions, he journeys west, but both of the women will only go so far. He has to leave them behind as they return to their homes in the east. Every street is a different type of neighborhood, many patterned after an historical period or city. When he goes beyond the Wood, he finds streets and neighborhoods that are almost the exact duplicates of those he saw in the other part of the world. Homogeneity taken to the extreme. Might as well stay at home.

Just in writing this, thinking back, I already have a better appreciation for some of the stories than when I was reading. Hopefully I can have a clearer mind the next time I try. I've made note of other stories not included here but that I have in other anthologies, and I have two of his novels. This will appeal to some readers, to others not, but that is the case with all fiction. If you like tall tales and whimsy, it might be what your looking for. I'll give it a cautious recommendation for now.


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R. A. Lafferty

Jonathan Strahan

UK edition: January 1, 2019
US: February 2, 2021

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