R.A. Lafferty – Past Master (1968) Review


The planet Astrobe, about five hundred years in the future. It is mankind’s last chance to make something for itself. The Old World failed, then we got the New World, America, which also failed, and now Astrobe is our last shot, but again things are going down the drain. A triumvirate of rulers, representing power, knowledge and luck, comes together to choose a new president, but no one qualifies. The three leaders decide that the best course of action is to resurrect someone from the distant past to lead humanity at its 25th hour: Sir Thomas More. Maybe More can now bring to life his ideas of Utopia from that book he once wrote?

But let’s not forget that this is a Lafferty novel. The master of the weird improvisational ideas and tall tales. Lafferty doesn’t take any obviously serious approaches to his writing – the rulers I just mentioned for example have names like Cosmos Kingmaker and Fabian Foreman – and much of it feels allegorical, but that doesn’t mean that underneath all the silliness there aren’t real emotions being explored. Writer Alexei Panshin said of this novel that it offered “easily the most real immediate problem of spiritual agony yet seen in science fiction.” But at the same time such explorations are hidden under a kind of frantic comedic writing that is more like Alfred Bester’s but more absurd, where on a page to page basis it is a joy to read with constant crazy invention. 

Astrobe is pretty much a utopia, even though many of its inhabitants choose to walk away from that so-called perfect society, the Astrobean Dream, and live in squalor. It’s actually a dystopia, because its Dream is so heavily policed that everyone must fall in line. Lafferty also adds some androids and aliens into the mix, and they threaten to either control or entirely replace humanity. Astrobe’s society is modelled on More’s Utopia (1516), but little did they know that More wrote it as a farce, as an angry humor piece (or so Lafferty has More explaining it that way). So when More arrives in this future world and is told that something is terribly wrong and is asked to fix the place as a frontman for a triumvirate of rulers, well, he has a whole journey ahead of him.

There is a lot of religious subtext going on in this novel. According to some reviewers, the plot lays out the points that mystery religions follow like the Rosicrucian Order, but I am not familiar enough with that to say much about it. Although there are secret inner circles in the book that claim to have the truth about the world. I see that Thomas More meets a monster as soon as he arrives on Astrobe and that it is pretty much the Devil. There are Adam and Eve figures mentioned. And More cannot escape the fate that is in store for him. In real life, he was executed for refusing the Oath of Supremacy that pretty much put the King above the Church, and in the novel there is a similar situation waiting for him, but one in which Golden Astrobe tries to restrict access to the afterlife. I think Lafferty chose More as a subject as much for his religious ideas and for the way his life ended as for his writing of Utopia. Lafferty was a devout Catholic (no wonder that Gene Wolfe is such a fan of his writing) and of all his books, this one is the most blatant in showing that interest. While these themes alienate me a bit, the book was nevertheless a pleasant read and the subtexts didn’t bother me that much.

The Thomas More that Lafferty creates here is not a static representation of an historical figure. He’s a real character in this book, with doubts and spiritual struggles. At first he falls in love with Astrobe, with the Humanist ideal that it tries to attain. But he is also drawn to the margins of it, to the places that its rulers don’t want him to see. He’s drawn to the people who opt out of the cloying, stifling society. He’s drawn to nature outside the ideal cities. He’s the Doubting Thomas who is both attracted to the Humanist ideal and upholds his Christian values and struggles to combine the two. For Lafferty, the ultimate solution to fix Astrobe lies of course in Christianity and he constructs the surrealist world that he creates here with allusions to Christian figures and metaphysics. I find this a false dichotomy to juxtapose a soulless dystopia with Christianity. Although Catholicism presents a world view that doesn’t mesh with mine, I can see the limitations of the Humanist ideal of Astrobe and how utopia can easily transform into dystopia. 

Ok, so maybe the subtexts did bother me a bit. The world that he constructs, which seems to behave like a dreamworld and not as our reality, also allows all sorts of Christian archetypes to pop up, for people to return from the dead and some of its metaphysics to be tangible. There is some confusing and outdated argumentation about consciousness in the final parts. But Lafferty’s style is so intriguing to read that I still finished the whole thing.

I was scared to read this book. I loved his short stories in Nine Hundred Grandmothers and his Best Of collection but they were so crazy and dense that I feared that his full novels would be exhausting and all but unreadable. Lafferty kept the craziness in check, though, and the novel was a smoother reading experience than I expected. I flew through it. Even so, there is a whole lot going on in this novel. On the surface it is about a complex dystopian sci-fi situation that is full of mirages and inner circles, and behaves like a weird dreamland, and the way the plot moves makes it an eccentric, cryptic work with many layers and subtexts. I’m not sure I understood all of it. I’m not sure if it is suitable as a first introduction to Lafferty’s work; the short stories do a much better job to that. 

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7 Responses to R.A. Lafferty – Past Master (1968) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Is there a Space Pope?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Why did you pick this as your first Lafferty novel? Sounds interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have an omnibus edition with three Lafferty novels, and this was Lafferty’s first novel. I’ll just read them in order. Next up are Space Chantey and Fourth Mansions. I’ve heard great things about them. Even though Past Master wasn’t totally to my taste, I love his writing style and it won’t stop me from trying out more of his work.


      • Paul Connelly says:

        I loved Fourth Mansions, which has the same fizzy, frenetic style, with what seem like Jungian archetypes thrown into the allegorical mix. The style got a little too frenetic for me in The Devil Is Dead, so I would rank Past Master and Fourth Mansions ahead of that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: R.A. Lafferty – Space Chantey (1968) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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