Past Master

R. A. Lafferty
Past Master Cover

Past Master


Past Master was R. J. Lafferty's first novel. I hope that has something to do with why I found it unreadable. After several years of short story publications, he issued Past Master in 1968. That same year he published The Reefs of Earth, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. But Reefs is almost a novella, and it has the sparkle of Lafferty's short stories. Past Master was a chore I was not up to.

In a distant galaxy on the planet Astrobe, The Masters are witnessing the collapse of their fourth attempt at making humanity a viable project. As both humans and programmed men attack their citadel, The Masters argue among themselves about which of the four should take on the hapless job of leadership. The decision is to go back in time and get a worthy human from their previous earth-based experiments. They settle on Sir Thomas More, the 16th century catholic saint and Renaissance humanist. His authorship of Utopia recommends him for the job.

Sir Thomas is fetched from the past, but what The Masters do not realize is that he wrote Utopia as a "sour joke;" and, that although he often feels the stirring of faith in the morning, they have usually dissipated by the afternoon. Once on Astrobe, he puts together a ragtag group of followers, and they set off to climb some mountain, and yes this all sound like fun, but about this point in the story I just wanted everyone to shut up. Pages of declamatory dialogue did me in. Lafferty's recondite vocabulary was irritating rather than fun, his jagged, syncopated prose stilted and awkward. Once I realized I dreaded returning to the story for a third day, I admitted it was time to bail.