Who Is R. A. Lafferty? And Is He the Best Sci-Fi Writer Ever?

What follows shall be the finest article you’ve ever examine writing and science fiction.

Simply kidding. Kind of. The sci-fi author R. A. Lafferty used to make claims like that. For many of his profession, he’d inform individuals he was “the finest quick story author in the world.” Good transfer. Makes you wish to learn him.

We’re suckers for superlatives. Best, best, most necessary. When Lafferty did it, he was joking. He was additionally being completely critical. All the things Lafferty put his identify on was outrageous, insidery, and truth-seeking: a critical joke. However then, so is life itself. Due to this fact, Lafferty could be proper. He may actually be the finest there ever was.

Only one drawback: No person reads him. They didn’t when he was alive, they usually don’t now that he’s useless. It’s a clickbait cliché falling someplace between determined and insulting to say so-and-so is the best such-and-such you’ve by no means heard of, however on this case, it occurs to be true. Ask your nerdiest buddies in the event that they’ve ever encountered a Raphael Aloysius Lafferty of their cosmic travels. They haven’t, and a reputation like that sticks with an individual. Even individuals who’ve heard of individuals different individuals haven’t heard of are individuals who haven’t heard of him.


Lafferty didn’t simply write probably the finest quick tales in the world, of which greater than 200 have been revealed by varied pulps and small presses in his lifetime. He additionally wrote 36 novels, which is loads and which no person, not even Lafferty, has ever put in the class of finest. (A tragic mistake.) Of them, solely 4 advantage entries on Wikipedia; fewer than which might be at the moment in print. The Wikipedia web page for Serpent’s Egg, a late-career work that got here out in 1987 and fell into obscurity promptly thereafter, consists of what could be the finest plot abstract not solely of a Lafferty novel however of any novel, ever written. As of Feb. 24, 2021, at 3:22 pm, it reads, in its entirety: “Serpent’s Egg is a novel wherein .”

That is precisely proper. It might be a typo, however perhaps it’s not. A joke, but in addition extremely critical. Have a look at the awkward, breathtaking house the ghostly Wiki editor added earlier than the interval. By which—GASP, the finish. The query is, will we dare to fill it in?

OK, so a choose few even have learn Lafferty, a secret society of loonies whose names you most likely do acknowledge. Neil Gaiman. Ursula Le Guin. Samuel Delaney. Different sci-fi writers, in different phrases. R. A. Lafferty has at all times been, then, a sci-fi author’s sci-fi author—a blurry, far-out place to search out oneself in. When comedians hang around, they famously should commit acts of borderline criminality, often involving nudity and nice heights, to get one another to bust up. So simply assume what absurdities a sci-fi author has to conjure forth to gobsmack his fellow sci-fi writers—sci-fi writers who truly are, by a lot wider consensus, a few of the finest in the world.

The descriptor they have a tendency to resort to, as if by no different selection, is sui generis, dusty previous Latin for “certainly one of a sort.” It’s most likely the most typical phrase related to Lafferty (by the way a self-taught scholar of Latin), and it seems not as soon as however twice in The Best of R. A. Lafferty, which Tor revealed earlier this yr to nonexistent fanfare and which, in step with the man’s self-aggrandizing humorousness, ought to’ve been referred to as The Best (of the Best) of R. A. Lafferty. Every of the 22 quick tales is launched by a author typically much more well-known than Lafferty, together with Gaiman and Delaney, and in addition John Scalzi, Jeff VanderMeer, Connie Willis, and Harlan Ellison (who’s useless; his piece was initially revealed in 1967). Ellison—whose fellow Ellison, Ralph, wrote Invisible Man—says this of Lafferty: “He is the invisible man.” Good.

It’s now time to show you to a few of Lafferty’s writing, which can additional illuminate his power invisibility. A lot of his output is dangerously unquotable exterior its instant context, as a result of it relies upon for its impact on the phrases flying madly round it, however often a paragraph pops up that makes about as a lot sense inside the story as with out, and is due to this fact safer for the plucking. Right here’s one, from “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies,” Lafferty’s alternate historical past, revealed in 1978, of tv:

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