The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Past Master

By the time Past Master was published in 1968, the first of three novels to appear that year, R.A. Lafferty was well-established as a writer of original and distinctive short stories. He was in demand from a variety of SF magazines, and his fellow writers were enthusiastic about the first chance to read Lafferty at full-length.
By the time I got to read Past Master, I was a confirmed and enthusiastic follower of Lafferty, anxious to grab any book of his I could find. It’s been like that ever since.
Lafferty tends to get classed SF, because that’s the field that embraced him and in which most of his work is published. Past Master plays to that assumption in that it is a novel set on a distant planet, Golden Astrobe, five centuries into the future and involves time travel. Q.E.D., you might say. But the SF framework is mere trappings for the philosophical underpinnings that are this book’s main preoccupations.
Golden Astrobe is the third and last great hope for mankind, after the Old World and the New World on old Earth. Astrobe is the home of the perfect society, the home of the Dream. But it’s also a place in crisis. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Astrobe citizens have abandoned its perfect world to live in misery, poverty, filth, deprivation, despair and danger in Cathead and the Barrio: slums expanded to the highest possible degree. And it is voluntary. At any moment, every single one of them could abandon Cathead, return to the golden life of Astrobe. But they don’t.
The three original Masters of Astrobe are gathered to discuss the best way of resolving this problem, of preventing Astrobe from failing. These are Cosmo Kingmaker, Peter Proctor and Fabian Foreman. Foreman is under threat from the Programmed Persons, mechanical beings who detect threats to the Astrobe Dream and set out to kill whoever is thinking them. Such as Foreman.
What’s needed is a new President, a President who will be an acceptable figurehead to the people, but who will accept the direction of the three Masters. Kingmaker and Proctor review the available men and dismiss them all. Foreman has one name, and one name only, a figure from the past who had one totally honest moment in his life, for which he was executed. This is Thomas More, Sir Thomas More. He will be summoned from the past to become the Past Master.
The Masters intend More to be a puppet President: after all, they know far more about Astrobe than he does, not to mention the fact it’s almost a millennium after More’s original death, for refusing to put the King ahead of God. More has no intention of being a puppet for anyone. He spends a long time after his arrival on Astrobe travelling the planet, seeing different parts of it, and intends to lead in his own fashion, but he end up being the puppet he’s expected to be, though not of Foreman or either of the others. That is, until he brings down upon himself his own execution. The President is expected to rubber-stamp laws into being, and if he vetoes one three times, he will be executed. Thomas More vetoes the same provision three times. It’s not explicitly defined, More and his Masters talk about it in roundabout terms without naming it directly, though they know what it is and so do we, if we know anything of More’s history or have access to Wikipedia. More refuses to ban the beyond, that is, the afterlife. Golden Astrobe is the afterlife, the last life there is, perfection. More is being asked to ban what little remains of the Church, and by Church Lafferty means, as he always will, the Holy Mother Church, the Church of Rome. In everything he writes, Lafferty writes from a deep and powerful belief and conviction as to the absolute importance of the Roman Catholic Church in which he believed in life.
Lafferty chose More, partly because of this parallel, but largely because More wrote the well-known book, Utopia, the work that gave its name and the initial impetus to uptopian fiction. Golden Astrobe is based upon More’s Utopia, but the joke is that, in Lafferty’s words, More wrote the book as a colossal joke, a bitter satire, never intending it to be taken seriously in the way that it has been ever since, and bemused to find it being used as the basis of a world that is humanity’s Last Best Hope.
Unlike later works, where he will be much more explicit, Past Master weaves Lafferty’s viewpoint into the story in a much less direct fashion. Things are identified and laid out to be seen, but not labelled as such. Cathead is many times described as a cancer, a black cancer on Astrobe, but this is always by the Masters, by those invested in Astrobe. Squalid and disgusting as it is, for More, even after he’s been seduced, it is a sign of life, of vigour, of robust vulgarity.
Astrobe’s enemy is Ouden, the great emptiness, the great nothingness. It is oblivion, ending, the extermination of life through, as much as anything, lack of use. More is invaded by seven snakes, implanted there to have him speak words that are his own, by Pottscamp, the Fourth of the Three, who is Ouden’s chief agent. Without them, the Programmed Killers circle him endlessly. Companions give up their lives to protect him, though that isn’t always permanently.
Like so many of his novels to come, Past Master has no definitive ending. Change comes, matters come to a head, but we are left to determine for ourrselves the effect of the climax. The Thomas is executed, for the same reason as his first death on Earth, which is yet to come. And at that moment, the worlds came to an end.
What comes next, what will follow, the implicit answer to the claim that Golden Astrobe is humanity’s third and last best hope, is discussed, broken at intervals by the admonition, cutting across the narrative, Be quiet. We watch.
This repeats. The last such admonition is different: Be quiet. We hope.
And with that, we have to be content.
Past Master is a very clever book. It’s not the best of Lafferty’s works, but it is the best of the three novels he would publish in 1968. It works more by indirection, but it has all the characteristics of his work, his unreproducible voice, his vigour, his rigour, and the ability to toss off lines that are unbelievable in a way that has you believing him (late in the book, the necromancer, Walter Copperhead, escapes from prison by walking through the walls: he describes it as a method that has been insufficiently tried, and you blink and wonder if you actually can…)
This book is currently available as part of the 2018 release Three Great Novels by R.A. Lafferty. As one of the other two is Fourth Mansions, you have no excuse for not buying this. A new American edition, with a foreword from Andrew Ferguson, of Continued on Next Rock , incorporating passages originally struck from the book as published fifty years ago, is due out next month, and you can expect a comment abut that once I’ve gotten my hands on it.

2 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Past Master

    1. Personally, I prefer Past Master to the other two novels published in 1968, and I find it astonishing when I read comments about Fourth Mansions that downgrade it. We all have our individual responses.

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