The Man who Wrote Lafferties: How Many Miles to Babylon?


Half a dozen Lafferty novels remain to be considered in this series. All exist only in very limited editions, most of them chapbooks. Three stand in one relationship or another to the ‘Argo’ mythos that stands behind The Devil is Dead trilogy. The first of these is How Many Miles to Babylon?
I have concerns about including this story in this series. It is named in the Archipelago checklist as a novel, it is listed as such in Wikipedia, but in chapbook form it consists of thirty-six pages. That’s not a novel. It’s possible that the Babylon we lucky few know (my copy is numbered 10, though I have no idea out of how many) is but a portion of a longer work – Archipelago was itself much reduced from its original form – though I have never heard any suggestion of this.
But the checklist page could only have been compiled with the direct assistance of Lafferty himself, and upon his authority I take this to be warranted. Yet the publishers call it a novelette.
Enough! If we argue like this, we shall never have the time to read this story, let alone admit it to the Argo cycle, and the Finnegan cycle, assuming these not to be the same thing.
How Many Miles to Babylon? comes in two parts, the first little more than a page and a half, described both as a ‘letter’ and as Notes on the Finnegan Cycle, written by Absolom Stein. In either state, it first appeared independently as ‘Interglossia to The Devil is Dead‘. It is a short account of Finnegan’s many deaths, the evidence for them and the unreliability of evidence for that ending, coupled with the unreliability of Finnegan’s own evidence as to his not dying. Nevertheless, the last of these, in chronological time, as attested to in the Cycle, is the shootings of Archipelago.
The major part of the story begins in Melchisedech Duffey’s Walk-In Art Bijou in New Orleans, with which we are not yet, in this series, familiar, with the arrival of the painting ‘The Resurrection of Count Finnegan’. It’s clearly a John Solli, Solli being one of the real names of Finnegan, but Finnegan has been dead five years by now and the painting is of his resurrection, and that of Cardinal Joseph Hedayat of Antioch. Finnegan and Hedayat do not resemble one another now, but the painting is of them thirty years hence, in the style of Finnegan after thirty years more, and then they are identical. How this can be, though it is a fact, is much debated by those we have already met in Archipelago, including Stein.
Lafferty elides to that resurrection, and to the multiple assassins lying in wait to wreak it ruin. For in thirty years a thing is being driven out of the world, a thing unwanted and unneeded and thus needed all the more. X is involved again, Monsignor now rather than Mr, playing the triple Agent. Thirteen men are to be killed, thirteen men who have doubles, including Hedayat and his double, Count Finnegan.
The thing that is to be killed is the Church and the thirteen are the remaining Cardinals, but their doubles survive, to meet under the North Shore of San Simeon, the San Simeon ruled by the Balbo family, Gaetan Balbo of Arrive at Easterwine (remember: it is all ‘A Ghost Story’…)
But is it principal or double that has been killed and is it principal or double that meet in Conclave, to do as Conclave’s have always done, and elect from the Cardinals present a Pope? Pope Finnegan the First.
Consider this episode a part of the Argo Cycle, and as such to be studied and considered of equal worth to those remaining episodes we are yet to read.

6 thoughts on “The Man who Wrote Lafferties: How Many Miles to Babylon?

  1. OK, I have to re-read How Many Miles to Babylon. I’ve read it once, and did not particularly enjoy it. I think I was put off by:
    1. the glee with which he portrayed the gruesome murderous jubilee when they tried to strangle the last philosopher with the entrails of the last priest (or was it the other way around?),
    2. and more so the presenting of Finnegan as some sort of superman or nearly indestructible myth figure. What I loved about Finnegan in Archipelago and The Devil is Dead is that as an individual, he was never certain or sure. That made him more human even while revealing himself as a teras. This made him the perfect crossover, as deeply human as Rimrock the Ansel while being a monster masquerading in human form. Making him invincible robs us of our ability to identify with him as a path into understanding the story.

    Once again, though, I loved certain elements of this books, like the ships bells all ringing at once to signal the conclave.

    ISFDB says there 150 signed + numbered copies: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?304662

    My copy is marked as one of 10 un-numbered printed for Lafferty’s personal use. I bought it from a friend of a friend of Laffierty’s who had been given a copy.

  2. Yes indeed, How Many Miles is a full brother to Not to Mention Camels in that respect, gaining only in its brevity. And I take the point about Finnegan as Superman, though the notion of Finn the Gin as the last Pope, the rebuilder of the Faith, feels oddly appropriate given the boy’s mulitiple lives. I wish there had been more of the Argo cycle.

    Thanks for the info as to print numbers. I am seriously envious of you having a copy that comes from the great man himself.

  3. The point you raise that I most love is that his texts do change between readings! They are alive in a way that I cannot quite fathom. Even his short stories can evolve over time, but his novels much, much more so.

    One of the best reviews of Reefs of Earth I’ve read said about the book: “It’s hard to describe in words, which is strange because it _is_ words/”

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