This is another of my In Short columns. It appeared in Vector 275, Spring 2014.
I am not now, nor have ever been, a Catholic. I accept, therefore, that there might be niceties of theology that may pass me by in some fictions by Catholic writers. Nevertheless, one thing I do not expect to come across in Catholic fiction is existential despair. The mercy of God, the hope of heaven, offer the chance of salvation no matter how bad things may get. There is always a way out. One of the two great Catholic science fiction writers of the late 20th century (by which I mean that their Catholicism was integral to their science fiction) was Gene Wolfe, and in his work there is always a new sun. But in many of the stories by the second great Catholic science fiction writer, R.A. Lafferty, there was no new sun. Time and again his stories trap us in endless repetition in which we can go back to the beginning and start all over again, but we cannot escape. There is no exit from stories like ‘All Pieces of a River Shore’ or ‘The World as Will and Wallpaper’ or, one of his finest stories, ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne.’ And the fact that these stories are cast as comedies only makes the inability to get out of the world, to find heaven, that much more suffocating.
‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ was first published in Galaxy in 1967. Much of Lafferty’s best work appeared in Galaxy and in Damon Knight’s Orbit, because these were the edgier, less conventional markets for science fiction in America at the time, and writers don’t come much edgier or less conventional than R.A. Lafferty. His usual technique was to present some extravagantly impossible situation – the actual banks of the Mississippi reproduced as a sideshow diorama, a narrow valley which warped space – and then have its consequences explored, often by members of a recurring cast who were more caricatures than characters. The grand idiocy of his invention and the silliness of his characters made the stories seem as if they were a joke on the genre. I suspect that is how many at the time would have read ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’, a comic exaggeration of a familiar time travel paradox. But I don’t think that was ever how Lafferty saw them. There was always something darker and more serious under the comedy. Which may be why, as a writer, he is so hard to pigeonhole.
The familiar names are all here: Gregory Smirnov, Willy McGilly, Audifax O’Hanlon, Diogenes Pontifex, Aloysius Shiplap. I used to wonder whether there was some significance in the fact that Raphael Aloysius Lafferty used part of his own name for a member of this repertory company of caricatures. Did he, perhaps, stand as in some way representative of the author? But in fact Shiplap is no less roughly delineated, no less silly in action or pronouncement, than any of his fellows. Lafferty was simply using his own name for comic effect. They are joined by Epiktistes the Ktistec machine, Lafferty’s baroque and at times rather incoherent version of an AI, that would feature in a number of stories and the novel Arrive at Easterwine (1971). Indeed, as this story makes explicit, Epikt (as the name was often abbreviated) was as much a fetish object as it was a piece of technology; but then, technology in Lafferty’s work was rarely separated from superstition. But even this hugely complex, hugely powerful device is made out to be comic: ‘Epikt had also given himself human speech of a sort, a blend of Irish and Jewish and Dutch comedian patter from ancient vaudeville. Epikt was a comic to his last para-DNA relay’ (171). Although Lafferty is, as always, at pains to point out that the assembly represented ‘the finest minds and judgements in the world’ (172), everything from their names to their petty behaviour undermines any confidence we may have in them. In Lafferty’s world, intelligence or genius is not necessarily something to be applauded.
Their plan is to change history: ‘We are going to tamper with one small detail in past history and note its effect’ (172). Specifically, Epiktistes will send an avatar back in time to kill the man who betrayed Charlemagne at Roncevalles in 778, and who thus effectively caused Christian Europe to be cut off from Islamic and Jewish scholarship. It is interesting to note that Lafferty is careless about the technology of his story. He has no interest in telling us anything about how time travel might be possible, not even using the sort of gobbledegook that Willy McGilly and Audifax O’Hanlon and their fellows commonly employ. It is, rather, a form of wish fulfilment. All it takes is for someone to say ‘Push the button’ and ‘From his depths, Epiktistes the Ktistec machine sent out an Avatar, partly of mechanical and partly of ghostly construction’ (175). And that is the extent of the scientific explanation that Lafferty offers. In contrast, he spends a good part of three pages detailing the delicate web of alliances that held across France and Spain prior to the battle of Roncevalles, and how the consequences of that battle changed the access to learning across medieval Europe.
As they are preparing for the experiment, Willy McGilly reveals that, when he was a boy, he went back in time and, with a dart made of slippery elm wood, killed: ‘King Wu of the Manchu, Pope Adrian VII, President Hardy of our own country, King Marcel of Auvergne, the philosopher Gabriel Toeplitz. It’s a good thing we got them. They were a bad lot’ (174). When the others protest that they have never heard of any of these people, Epiktistes backs him up: ‘Where do you think I got the idea?’ (174). In this exchange, it seems that we have the whole plot of this story laid out in advance. Someone changes history, and no-one can remember how things were before the change. Except that it isn’t quite like that: because obviously Willy McGilly remembers both histories or he wouldn’t have been able to recall his exploits; and Epiktistes, who played no part in the events, remembers it also.
There follows a quick survey of the state of things before the change. There are eight humans plus Epiktistes; they are in a ‘middle-sized town with half a dozen towers of pastel-colored brick’ (174-5); there are two shows in town that Valery hasn’t seen; and the arts have never been in meaner shape. This means that, as soon as the change has happened, we can see the difference. There are, immediately, ten humans and three machines; they are in ‘a fine large town with two dozen imposing towers of varicolored limestone and midland marble’ (176); there are now two dozen shows that Valery hasn’t seen; and the arts have never been in finer shape. In other words, as we can see from outside the time of the story, the world has apparently been changed for the better. But our slightly revised cast of central characters are not aware of any change, even Epiktistes ‘can’t see any change in anything either’ (175). As Willy McGilly, so often Lafferty’s mouthpiece, sums it up: ‘The very bulk of achievement is stupefying … The experiment, of course, was a failure, and I’m glad. I like a full world’ (178, my ellipsis).
And yet, despite their evident satisfaction with the world as it (now) is, they decide to continue with the experiment. Abruptly, the moral underpinning of the story is transformed. Willy McGilly’s initial efforts to change history removed from the record characters who were ‘a bad lot’. The group’s first experiment was designed to improve the world by facilitating the spread of human knowledge and thus eliminating the Dark Ages. Even their target for assassination, a traitor whose actions brought about a massacre, was no innocent and so might be considered worthy of his fate. So far, what has been done can be presented as morally worthy. But the decision to continue with the experiment is not made for the betterment of humankind, but out of the sin of pride, and hang the consequences: ‘And if there is a present left to us after that, we will make a third attempt the following day’ (178). Even their new choice of target illustrates this moral compromise. John Lutterell is no traitor, no facilitator of mass slaughter, but rather the sickly former chancellor of Oxford University who, in this history, bested William of Ockham and changed the intellectual underpinning of European thought in the Middle Ages. It is clear that this choice is not only morally dubious, it is recklessly dangerous: ‘we would have liked Ockham. He was charming, and he was wrong, and perhaps we will destroy the world yet’ (179).
Interestingly, it is as they decide to reinstate William of Ockham’s thought within the philosophy of medieval Europe that we get the first hint of a bleed-through from the different timelines. As Gregory Smirnov says: ‘There is something amiss here, though. It is as though I remembered when things were not so stark with Ockham, as though, in some variant, Ockham’s Terminalism did not mean what we know that it did mean’ (178). Lafferty’s convoluted syntax here representing the convoluted temporal structure of the story. Naturally, this sense of dis-ease doesn’t stop anyone, and the presentiments of doom that have undercut this last section of course come to fruition.
Suddenly the group is reduced to four: ‘the three humans and the ghost Epikt, who was a kachenko mask with a speaking tube’ (181), and they are reduced to stone age conditions, ‘nude in the crude’ (181) as Lafferty puts it, such overt rhymes and rhythms being a characteristic feature of his prose. Again Lafferty both extols and undermines the intelligence of his characters, the three humans are the ‘finest minds in the world … (the only humans in the world unless you count those in the other valleys)’ (181, my ellipsis). While Epiktistes the AI is here reframed as a cult object: ‘We made his frame out of the best sticks, and we plaited his face out of the finest weeds and grasses. We chanted him full of magic and placed all our special treasures in his cheek pouches’ (181). Even at its most technologically advanced, Epiktistes is as much magical as scientific, so this new version seems to belong with the two versions of Epiktistes we’ve already encountered. Science, in Lafferty’s stories, is never differentiated from magic, and the work of the characters he apostrophizes as ‘the finest minds’ is as much ritual observance as it is any sort of scientific endeavour. Lafferty was probably the most anti-scientific science fiction writer of the latter part of the twentieth century, but then, his work is only classed as science fiction because it does not really fit anywhere else.
The scene that follows in this third version of reality, therefore, is in many ways an encapsulation of all that has gone before. The humans are reduced to basics, eating hickory nuts and ‘rump of skunk’ (181), helpless despite, or perhaps because of, their intelligence. They are unable to see their world, unable fully to function within it, because of their desire to change it. And the endless regressive trap has been sprung by the fetish Epiktistes, the object of their own manufacture in which is invested all their scientific belief and endeavour (here recast as superstition), and which can address them only when they provide the voice. They are the architects of their own despair. It is, in John Clute’s term, a godgame, but a game in which god is absent, replaced by the false god Epiktistes. And because god is absent, unlike, for instance, in the godgames of Gene Wolfe, there is no way out of the trap. It is a totally enclosed world, a world that can only represent existential despair.
In this stone age reality, the three humans recall the legend of the folk hero Willy McGilly who used a dart of slippery elm wood, and with this model in mind send the ghost Epikt back in time to kill the original Avatar of the original Epiktistes. And suddenly everything is restored to what seems to be how things were when the story began. As before, there is an ill-formed sense of how things had been otherwise: ‘“Is it done?” Charles Cogsworth asked in excitement. “It must have. I’m here. I wasn’t in the last one.”’ (183). Yet this suggestion of slippage between realities is immediately contradicted by the fact that, as ever, they have no awareness that anything has changed. They do not even know if they tried to change history.
‘Push the button, Epikt!’ Diogenes barked. ‘I think I missed part of it. Let’s try again.’
‘Oh, no, no!’ Valery forbade. ‘Not again. That way is rump of skunk and madness.’ (184)
But is it? If no-one knows whether they have changed history, no-one can know that they shouldn’t do it. The godgame can only be repeated.
Quotations taken from ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R.A. Lafferty, in Nine Hundred Grandmothers, New York, Ace, 1970, pp171-184.