The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage


Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage was the last Lafferty novel to be published as an orthodox paperback, albeit a small press paperback. It was published in 1989, though whether before or after How Many Miles to Babylon? I know not.
This is an oddity for me, even amongst all of Lafferty’s works. It’s almost certainly a limited edition, though there’s no confirmation of that, or of any possible print run, and it’s not the last of Lafferty to be published, but though I have no recollection of hearing about it in advance, nor of how or when I found it, nor have I ever heard of another copy, my impression of it is of it being the last, and a removed last at that.
Last novel, that is. I have managed to collect nearly all the chapbooks of short stories, without bankrupting myself over them, though there’s still a couple to be watchful for. But Sindbad is the last of them until a deal is struck to publish the unpublished novels.
As such, it has always had a forlorn atmosphere to it for me, as if it is an outlier that’s not wholly lodged in Lafferty’s oeuvre.
Just as Space Chantey was an SF reinterpretation of ‘The Odyssey’, the title gives away that this is Laff being playful with the Voyages of Sindbad, the Master Mariner of the Arabian Nights, Sindbad of the Twelve Voyages and the fabulous adventures that Scheherezade related. This is an invented Thirteenth Voyage, a voyage into space, to discover the reborn Caliph Harun Al-Rashid and bring him home. Harun, the Boy-Caliph of Baghdad, trickster, cruellest of practical jokers.
And Lafferty incorporates those Voyages of legend and myth into his game, suggesting these are coded versions of other space voyages, some of which were to Gaea-Earth, for this Sindbad is Essindibad Copperbottom of Kintauran Mikran. Oh yes, we are once more playing fast and loose with oh so many things.
Not to mention that there are more than one Story-Teller involved in telling this Master Narrative. As well as Essindibad, and his wife the Grand-Dame Of-the-Seven-Musics Goodlife Tumblehome, there is Scheherezade Carillo y Krinski, and there is another Sindbad, a seventeen year old boy from Gaea-Earth, John Scarlatti Thunderson of North Chicago, whose words interleave with those of Essindibad, and who is intent on becoming the real Sindbad even if he has to usurp the real Sindbad from the whole of his own life.
It doesn’t take long for Essindibad and Grand-Dame Tumblehome to find the boy Harun, landing as they do in the land between the Two Rivers, Mesopotamia of old, though at first he is in disguise. Nor does it take long to discover that they are not the only spies here to find the boy-Caliph, one of whom is Thunderson.
But Harun is uncontrollable. He is a trickster, a player of practical jokes of astounding cruelty and destruction, without remorse or conscience. He can do any fabulous thing.
The story, in so much as there is a sequence that binds this tale together, is that Harun, who may be a fictional character, has two sons (supposedly fathered when he was six and seven respectively). Harun has withdrawn from the day to day rule of his Kingdom, leaving this to his two sons as co-Caliphs, although the two rule different parts of the kingdom, with different preoccupations.
Harun abdicates in favour of his elder son, Al-Amin, who shapes up to be a wise and benign ruler, with progressive policies that will transform the land between the two rivers into a terrestrial paradise of justice, equality and wealth for all.
But everyone knows that Al-Amin will only rule for one day, that his younger brother Mamun will depose and kill him the second day, and that Mamun will be a more traditional kind of Caliph.
Meanwhile, Thunderson’s interpolations into the master Narrative have him falling in love with the beautiful Azraq-Qamar, or Blue Moon, who is a wonderful conversationalist (she has only one line, ‘That is just what I think, you wonderful man’). But Blue Moon is actually a mechanical woman, kept alive by winding a key in her back, not that Thunderson-Sindbad cares, even after he learns this.
Once she has a new voicebox installed, enabling her to say anything she wishes, she starts scheming with her husband to replace the true Sindbad, including the removal of the green ferns Sindbad has growing at the fork of his body that are his identification, and the preventing of their ever re-growing.
The book has an awkward and anomalous ending. Al-Amin dies. Mamun succeeds him and marries Scheherezade, although she tricks him into a bottle, like a genie or Ifrit. The true Sindbad is deposed as Sindbad, and presumably Thunderson takes over the role, but this does not come about by any action taken by Thunderson and Blue Moon, but the unforeshadowed action of Grand-Dame Tumblehome who, inspired by Scheherezade, captures Sindbad in his own bottle.
Apparently she’s just lost interest in him, and besides, it was all a joke and he’s lost her respect for falling into the trap. Either way, Sindbad ends a prisoner in a bottle and the book ends with this, leaving at least one reader both puzzled and somewhat disappointed.
Perhaps it is this sense of a non-conclusion, and not a non-conclusion leaving we readers to consider what alternate future we might meant or expect to see, that contributes to the air of finality about this book as part of Lafferty’s oeuvre. It wasn’t final. We still have four novels to look at, all of which, incidentally, appear in the Archipelago check-list, where there is no mention of Sindbad.
But it feels like an ending. An unexpected, unwanted, incomplete ending, like the uncompleted A Ghost Story that Lafferty believed all his works belonged to. After this, there is nothing. You know that feeling.

9 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage

  1. I need to reread Sindbad. I remember loving many of the individual scenes and exchanges, but feeling a similar disappointment to yours with the ending. I recall liking Scheherezade and wishing we could have seen more of her character.

  2. I’d have to look at my actual files, or what’s left of them, to be sure, but my recollection is that the first (and only) printing of the Broken Mirrors Press edition was 1050 copies. It was not ‘limited’, just never reprinted, at least not by me. How Many Miles to Babylon probably came out first, as I’m pretty sure that when we had the publication party for Sindbad at Noreascon 3 (which Ray came to), I was still waiting for books to arrive from the printer.

    1. Thanks for this information, Bryan. Every bit of publication information I can get is invaluable. So an unplanned edition restricted to 1,050 copies, roughly similar to Serpent’s Egg and East of Laughter. Pretty much as much as was selleable by then. Speaking of editions, i have had the colossal luck to buy a copy of The Back Door of History yesterday, leaving only Cranky Old Man from Tulsa and Anamnesis to find…

      1. It was reprinted by WildSide Press with the same cover art in 1999. I do not know how many copies they printed. Bryan, did WildSide work with you, or at least have contract with Virginia Kidd?

  3. I have no idea what Wildside’s deal was. The cover art was done by Lisanne Lake, who is in the EoL group, so I suppose we could ask if they got permission from her.

  4. I can’t remember when, where or how I got my copy. I did get a lot of Lafferties by mail order in the Nineties, just before the prices went insane but I don’t think this was one of them. The three parts of More than Melchisedech, yes.

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