The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Serpent’s Egg

In the late Eighties, very early Nineties, I was working in Altrincham. Just round the corner from our office, there was an independent bookshop, which I would pass at lunch, and look at what books they were promoting in the display. On one occasion, I came back to the office and mentioned to the Senior Partner that the new Kafka was out and it was a cookbook! The author, if I remember correctly, was named Barbara Kafka, but the joke fell flat, for he looked at me blankly and, once I’d explained, told me he’d never heard of Franz Kafka. So much for that.
But the biggest shock I had walking past that bookshop was the sight of an unknown hardback R.A. Lafferty novel, published by a British publisher in 1987. I was inside and buying it on the spot.
Serpent’s Egg was the first of two Lafferty novels published by Morrigan, neither of which appear on the Archipelago list of unpublished novels.
That day, I bought the standard issue, but a decade or so later, I traded up to the special edition, with a bonus short story, completely irrelevant to the novel, but when there is so much uncollected and unpublished Lafferty, it’s worth while grabbing what you can find. Besides, I got in before the rapid acceleration of prices for second hand copies.
This was the first of two late Lafferty novels published by Morrigan Publications, who were based in Bath. The book was limited to 1,010 copies, positively palatial compared to later publications, which numbered in hundreds. Mine is one of 250 signed and numbered copies, no 220, to be exact. It, and its successor, were the last of Lafferty’s novels to be published in hardback, with beautiful dust jackets designed by Neil McCall.
Like much of Lafferty’s later work, this is a difficult book to construe. His stories had become denser and darker, his symbolism more inwardly directed. The story is set in 2035, in a future vastly removed from our latter day present. Things have changed, in a manner difficult to summarise. Our world is subject to Government by the Kangaroo, and if you suspect a correlation to Kangaroo Courts, you’re on the right wavelength.
The population has changed, has become overwhelmed by ethnics to the point where regular people are rare. If you suspect that by ‘regular people’, Lafferty means white folks, you’re once again right. And that is unavoidably racist. Yet Lafferty is anything but racist, in any of his writings. He has a massive affinity with and sympathy for the Indians, and the distinction he draws here is not carried forward into the story in any way.
Nevertheless, it disturbs, even if it’s only meant to indicate the future expansion of a trend over the near fifty years between publication and story. And indeed the principal characters in the book cannot be any more diverse, without the least drawing of hierarchies amongst them.
These central characters are mega humans, children, a foursome of trios, each the ‘children’ of two experimenters. The foremost of these, in the sense that they are introduced first and in most detail, are Ruddy Lord Randal, Inneall and Axel, gathered in the ongoing experiment conducted by George Lynn-Randal and Iris Lynn-Randall. Lord Randall is a boy, son of George and Iris, Inneall (Irish for Machine) is a Mobile-Ambulatory computer that presents itself as a human girl, and Axel is a simian of the Axel’s Apes, also known as Smithy Apes, the blue-eyed Apes, and who may be the next presiding species on Earth, replacing humans. The trio have lived together as an experiment since birth, and are nearing their tenth birthdays, at which point mega-humans achieve their majority. They are charged with finding new ways of looking at the World, only not too cock-eyed new…
This is more a descriptive book than a narrative book, with Lafferty initially focusing on the Three, or rather the more unusual two of the three, the little girl computer and the Axel’s Ape. Strangely enough, though Lord Randall is clearly indicated to be a leader, he is the least described of the Three.
The starting point for the action, such as it is, is the start of Inneall’s Ocean. By means that Lafferty doesn’t even hint at (there is practically no science in Lafferty’s SF stories, he’s not that kind of science fiction writer), the little girl-identified computer creates an Ocean, which expands and expands until it threatens to consume the entire world. Inneall has a second personality as the Pirate Queen, Bloody Mary Muldoon, and pirates need an Ocean to sail upon, not to mention yachts, which Inneall commandeers from the midas Satrap Saint Ledger, who agrees this on condition Inneall becomes his daughter, which permits Saint Ledger a role as an adviser to the Twelve, and to all diminishing versions thereof.
Because this Three are not the only Three, the only experiment. There are three others, sets of three ‘children’ of incredible levels of intelligence, who come together on Inneall’s Ocean, for the Three Days of Summerset, the End of Summer. These are Marino, a young male seal, Luas, a young male angel and Henryetta, a young female human; Lutin, a young female python, Dubu, a young female bear and Schimp, a young male chimpanzee; and Gajah, an unborn female Indian elephant, Carcalou, a young male wolverine and Popugai, a young male parrot.
And ringed around this Twelve are the Dolophonai, assassins watching. Should any of these mega-persons, or any combination of them, be a Serpent’s Egg, they will be killed. They might be killed anyway, on the Third day of Summerset.
Amongst them, the most important might be Axel. It is his duty, after midnight, to wake the sleeping Axel’s Apes, who are God’s second chance. If they are not woke, they will sleep a further thousand years.
Like so many of Lafferty’s endings there is no real ending, except for a gustatious and self-congratulatory pun. By then, several of the mega-persons have been assassinated, despite being ten year olds, as Serpent’s Eggs and the Axel’s Apes sleep on, the book leaning very much more towards disaster and failure in a way that will start to appear common.
Some of Lafferty’s symbolism seems plain: the Twelve match (in number) the Apostles, Inneall’s Ocean threatens to be the Flood, and Satrap Saint Ledger is a Moses-figure, which would cast the book in religious terms, save that this time the cleansing of the world fails to occur. Which makes this a pretty bleak book in Lafferty’s terms, especially in the jokey epilog, exploding much of what we’ve read as lies.
In the end, we all take from Lafferty what we see. Serpent’s Egg is a difficult book, more diffuse in its narratives than earlier books. This is a common theme to these later books, and especially so with Morrigan’s other publication.

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Serpent’s Egg

  1. I would like very much to leave a meaningful, or at least somewhat insightful comment on Serpent’s Egg, but I still don’t really know what to make of the book. I’ve read it only once so far. I loved lots of moments within the book, and I kind of understand some of the overarching ideas, but I have trouble assembling all my impressions into an understanding of the book as a whole.

    The idea that man will be replaced as the primary creature on Earth goes back to his story “And Name my Name.” Here it happens in increasingly rapid succession at the end. Was the entire book written after the fact by sea lice?

    The Kangaroo strikes me as dismally similar to the totalitarian anti-establishments of “Ishmael Into the Barrens” and “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire” (DOJP’s favorite story). At least is wasn’t as vicious a swipe at hippie culture this time.

    The idea that machines could bring something into existence merely by thinking strongly enough about it is an idea Lafferty has toyed with in various forms over his entire career–that faith sufficient can bring a world into existence. From Atlas having to perceive the entire universe for it to exist in Space Chantey to the Scribbling Giants writing reality into existence in real time in East of Laughter. It’s what he charged the SF writers of the world to do in his speech “The Day After the World Ended.”

    Time to re-read! Thank you again for this series, I am deeply enjoying reading your posts.

  2. Your continued interest, and that of the other major Lafferty commentators is more than reward. When i wrote this series of essays, it was for my personal pleasure, and in the hope of attracting at least one more new reader. I saw myself as, at best a gateway, an amateur enthusiast with some analytical skills who could share opinions with those who knew Lafferty not. To be taken seriously in the way I have been is astonishing. Like the time I was part of UK Comics fandom, had written a review of a reknowned Alan Moore story and, when I subsequently introduced myself to him: his face lit up, he stuck out his hand and said he’d wanted to meet me. *He* wanted to meet *me?* The Universe was turned on its head in that moment.

    1. It is indeed a glorious and bizarre situation. But in Lafferty fandom, except perhaps for DOJP, Andrew Ferguson, and Gregorio Montejo, we are all amateurs. Enthusiastic and verbal amateurs to be sure.

      I had a kind of similar situation. When we released the first Feast of Laughter, Neil Gaiman blogged about it. This was before I’d actually read any Neil Gaiman–therefore, Neil Gaiman read my work before I’d read any of his!!!!! I still chuckle about that.

      But as for being taken seriously, I’m really enjoying reading your blogs, and your perspective is really valuable to me and the rest of the fans. If you do Facebook check out the East of Laughter group.


      If there’s any chance you can get across the ocean this coming June, Please join us for LaffCon the second Saturday of June in Lawrenceville, New Jersey!

  3. Thank you once again, Kevin. I like your Gaiman story!

    And thank you for the invitation to LaffCon. I would love to go, but my financial circumstances are limited and short of a mystery relative I’ve never heard of leaving me a legacy, the chances are practically nil. But never say never.

  4. When this was released, I bought it directly from a CA mail order catalog put out by Mark Ziesing, who also published some fine books (1st editions by PKD, Gene Wolfe, Lucius Shepard, Howard Waldrop, Joe R. Lansdale, Neal Barrett Jr., John Shirley, etc.). It introduced me to Morrigan, and I picked up most of their books. In addition to East of Laughter, when that came out, I bought their James Blaylock books and, more importantly, an hc collection and a chapbook by Keith Roberts that featured stories not available elsewhere.

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