The Man who wrote Lafferties: Space Chantey

Space Chantey was the third R A Lafferty novel to be published in 1968, though that has no bearing on when the book (or any of them) was actually written. Once again, it is, superficially, a straight, even hard SF story: a war has taken place in space, it has finished, a group of space soldiers set off home. The book is about their adventures on their journey home. Anything about this sound familiar?
What we’re looking at here is an SF version of the Odyssey, with Captain Roadstrum, the Road-Storm as Odysseus.
But this is not some cheap knock-off, some direct translation into SF terms. Lafferty is dealing with the complex subject of Myth, and how and in what way it can survive into the age of hard SF.
And Roadstrum and his crew are rampant brawlers, vulgar and excessive, not that Lafferty ever recognises the restriction embodied in describing someone or something as excessive. They treat danger and death casually, and there’s plenty of the latter as they career from planet to planet, as six space hornets, each with its own Captain and crew, reduces slowly to one, with two Captains and a reduced number of crewmen.
The book itself is not epic, running to a mere 123pp in the old Dobson Books hardback (Dobsons published a lot of Lafferty in the early Seventies, and I got them all at the time, which has saved me an enormous amount of money). It’s very episodic, and the stories are strung out between lines of ramshackle, rumbustious verse, bursting with gusto and relish.
Nor does Lafferty confine himself to Greek mythology, though this is the biggest part of the story. Early on, the crewmen land on a planet of giants who battle all day until all are dead in bloody conflict, only to be resurrected overnight: this is, of course, a version of Valhalla, only rendered as a wonderful demotic.
And those who remember Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz series in 2000AD will find themselves reading the original of the third Snazz story that Moore originally restricted reprinting, after realising he’d unconsciously stolen it from Lafferty. It comes from the installation of a wonderful device in Roadstrum’s hornet, which allows him to turn back time and select other options (especially in a casino), under the wonderful title ‘Wrong Prong. Bong Gong.’
There will be those who will criticise Lafferty for loose ends and imprecision, without taking into account that this is all part of his Tall Tales manner. More than once in Space Chantey, Lafferty tips his spacemen into impossible situations and gets them out with the equivalent of ‘With One Mighty Bound…’ Actually, he doesn’t even do that, he will just switch to another scene, another planet, another stage with nothing but a cheery and dismissive line about how nobody knew how they did it! This attitude to the impossible – i.e., completely ignore that it’s impossible and carry on – is fundamental to Lafferty and the reader who can’t take that in his stride is advised not to bother. Lafferty is about the implausible, about what in a lesser writer might be called miraculous.
Personally, I find Space Chantey to be the least of the three novels of 1968, although were I more familiar with the Odyssey as I ought to be, I may find more correspondences in it than I do. It was, of these three, the first I read, and I would end up getting this initial set in reverse order of publication, and in ascending order of depth and satisfaction.
But no Lafferty is worthless, and Space Chantey is at the very least fun and bemusement, and its ending differs from the Odyssey by not having the Great Road-Storm sink into peace, what, not a great Captain such as he, but returning to space, to adventure and a crashing conclusion. If you believe Lafferty’s closing verse, and not even he suggests it is to be taken as gospel…

4 thoughts on “The Man who wrote Lafferties: Space Chantey

  1. This is Good Stuff! I wrote a brief review of Space Chantey some years ago (, opening with my father’s reaction when I forced him to read it:
    “There are two kinds of silliness. Something can be frivolously silly or deeply silly. This is very deeply silly.”
    Thanks for taking on these reviews! I’m really enjoying them!

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