R.A. Lafferty: The Cranky Old Man from Tulsa

Wide-ranging and resistant to classifications of genre or style, R.A. Lafferty can best be labeled, with little room for argument, as brilliant. He spent the better part of his life collecting stories, from the South Pacific during his years in the army to working class yarns from his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. These would later be incorporated into the short stories for which he is best known, frequently bridging science fiction, tall tales, and historical fiction. Folktales and myth animate his characters, whether they be persecuted robots or vagrant mathematicians scratching theorems onto butcher paper in a meat market’s back alley. His three dozen novels chronicle everything from the Fall of Rome to the decline of futuristic utopias not yet born.

R.A. Lafferty
Photo by Beth Gwinn

A signature off-kilter voice put Lafferty on the short list for Hugo, Nebula, and other top-tier science fiction awards. He challenged readers to keep up with his references to historical figures and the occasional quotation in any one of the languages in which he was conversant, but instead of holding his audience at an academic arm’s length, he drew them in with his charming hucksters and poverty-stricken geniuses who demanded sympathy.

Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, and Harlan Ellison are counted among the many influenced by his work before he fell out of the genre zeitgeist. Today his fanatical readership, refusing to let him be forgotten, publishes a regular fan magazine and hosts annual conventions, that is when they are not swapping old copies of Not to Mention Camels to be horded in private collections. If the reverberations of his influence and the enthusiasm of his devotees are any indication, Lafferty is long past due for a revival.

 

The Locus SF Foundation is currently working to bring the novels of Lafferty plus his abundant short fiction back into print and ebook production in 2017. A Best of volume is also in the works, and a volume collecting his previously unpublished short fiction.