The first and most obvious remark to make about this novel is that it is a science fiction retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. But that is also the most annoying, tedious reflection to present to you, because it immediately raises a lot of associations and expectations. You probably immediately picture a series of adventures with references to Homer, and will therefore decide to like or dislike the very idea of such a retelling. And yes, the novel is like that. But for Lafferty novels it doesn’t really matter whether he pays homage to an existing story or whether he comes up with a new story. Because it is a Lafferty novel. Therefore it will be full of invention. The most important thing to know is whether you like his style.
Lafferty elucidates one reason for writing a sci-fi odyssey in the first paragraph: “Will there be a mythology in the future, they used to ask, when all has become science? Will high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code? […] The myth filter was necessary […] And the deeds were too bright to be viewed direct. They could only be sung by a bard gone blind from viewing suns that were suns.” Every chapter starts with a few lines of funny epic poetry, as if the whole novel is sung by a bard, and sometimes this conceit is broken like a reverse fourth wall break, such as when Captain Roadstrum tries to hook up with a woman and his whole crew is chanting the “The Lay of Road-Storm” and claiming that it is a popular epic composing itself in real time.
Lafferty wrote this in the same year he wrote his very first novel: Past Master (1968). I see a common theme emerging where Lafferty sets his stories in the future, but looks back in time at the traditions of religion and mythology to give meaning to his future stories. Past Master was set in the future, but the story was about Humanism and Catholicism, and for Space Chantey it was the Odyssey’s turn. I think Lafferty had a specific idea in mind about the use of this mixing of old and new that differed from his contemporary Roger Zelazny, when Zelazny mixed myth with science fiction in books like This Immortal (1965) and Lord of Light (1967). Zelazny looked at the particulars, the individual gods and attributes, as curios, while Lafferty kept his eye focused at the shapes of the stories, and accentuated the saving power of mythos and religion in his stories, to the extent that the science-fiction setting doesn’t have to be taken seriously. It is the mythological storytelling that takes centre stage and the science fiction elements are just candy; clay to play with and make jokes with.
When Captain Roadstrum crashes on the planet with the cyclopes, for example, the giants turn out to be Norwegian trolls. They travel around on floating slabs of rock, which they make lift through static electricity by rubbing their felt boots on them. Two of Roadstrum’s crew are so ugly that they join the trolls. And in the episode with the crashing rocks, Roadstrum finds himself in an asteroid field. The asteroids are multiplying, and the crew brands marks on them, and it seems as if the rocks have cow eyes, and then there’s an asteroid stampede and Roadstrum rides a rock by the horns through the Vortex, and afterwards they have a space campfire with roasted asteroid and play harmonica. Does it make sense, no, but Lafferty somehow found a way to overlap Greek mythology with American Western and science fiction all at once.
The men all gave voice to varieties of barking and hooting, and the calf-rock was bawling. The dust was deep and stifling and smelled of flint sparks. “It’s a thing too tall for my reason,” Roadstrum slung out, “but I get the high excitement myself.”
The overblown masculinity of the hero figure is perfect for Lafferty to make fun of. Captain Roadstrum and his manly men are the best at everything, straight as a rod, salt of the sky. He “suffers from the heroic sickness every third day about nightfall.” Lafferty is probably satirising E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Kimball Kinnison from the Lensman series, which deserves to be satirised, and Roadstrum’s rollicking ride through the heavens has similarities to the Lensman adventures. At the same time, there is a running joke going on that Roadstrum isn’t all that intelligent.
Space Chantey is the missing link between Lafferty’s short stories and his full novels. Because Roadstrum’s odyssey is so episodic, each chapter is set up as a short adventure. And each is very unique and entertaining. I can’t fathom Lafferty’s brain, how he seemingly effortlessly switches between narrative frames at high speed and how he can turn a whole story on its head on the flip of a dime. Frequently funny and never boring, the book as a whole is a delight.