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

However you read him, you can’t read Lafferty quickly, because he literally won’t let you. He speeds up his stories, his sentences, his mythopoetic thoughts so that you all but have to slow yourself down. In “The Primary Education of the Camiroi,” he documents the education system of a neighboring planet, whose students can outthink Earthly postdocs by the equivalent of their elementary school. When a young Camiroi girl is asked how rapidly she can read, she says she used to read an astonishing 4,000 words a minute. “They had quite a time correcting me of it,” she then admits. “I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

You begin to see why people, even professional wordsmiths, fumble their way toward talking about Lafferty, a writer’s writer who wants to retrain the way his readers read. So instead, they invoke phrases like sui generis—or, just as often, can’t help but use the name of the artist to describe the work itself. A Laffertarian might refer to Lafferty’s short stories as Laffervescent Lafferties in the Laffertian genre of Laffertiana at the annual Laffcon. All of those eponymous autologies have been used by real people in real writing about Lafferty, seemingly because no other words would do.

Lafferty would Lafferlove this (#laffoutloud). Among his many intellectual hobbies was etymology, and he had, he once said, “a rough reading knowledge of all the languages of the Latin, German, and Slavic families, as well as Irish and Greek.” One of his favorite writerly moves was to force his readers to think about where his words were coming from: “Thunder-struck,” he once wrote of certain imperiled characters, “they were literally astonished (which is the same thing latinized).” Huh? What’s that mean? Then you look up the word astonished—and realize that it literally comes from the Latin for “to thunder.”

Nothing about Lafferty’s style is ordinary. He averages approximately one exclamation mark a page. He likes to address his readers as people. His favorite words, based on frequency of use, include shaggy, ensorcel, and obtain. Not obtain in the obvious, transitive sense of “to get,” no no, but in the less familiar, more philosophical, intransitive sense of “to succeed” or “to prevail.” As in, Lafferty does not obtain for most readers, perhaps because he often invents words outright. Novanissimus. Mithermenic. Runningest. Giganticals. Some are weirder than others. All are, in theory, parseable. But you don’t have to work them out if you don’t want to. In fact, is all this linguistic babble—this “silvery gibberish,” as Lafferty would say—making it sound as though he’s difficult to read? Torturous? Impenetrable? Here’s the secret, people: He’s not. Not really. In some ways, he’s the easiest of them all.

Unlike, say, a Neil Gaiman type, Lafferty did not grow up reading much science fiction and fantasy. Nor did he dream of becoming a writer—he wouldn’t publish a word until his mid 40s. Born in Iowa in 1914, he was 4 or 5 years old when his family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and, with the exception of the time he spent fighting in World War II, he lived there for the rest of his life.

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