Past Master PDF Print E-mail

R.A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)

Reviewed by John Hertz
December 2009

Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Collecting Science Fiction Books; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.

      The expression is “passed master” — one who has presented his masterpiece, has been examined, and has been accepted.  But here is a master from the past.

      In the year 2535, on the planet Astrobe, Thomas More is brought from the year 1535 on Earth.  Humankind has lived on Golden Astrobe five hundred years.  Life is perfect: only it isn’t.  Maybe More will help.

      Or maybe he won’t; maybe he will do something else; and what does who mean by help?  That is the plot of this book, that is the satire.  The book, standing on those feet, rises higher.

      Past Master was Lafferty’s first novel, after three dozen short stories in Galaxy and If and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; he published about thirty, about two hundred short stories.

The three big men were met together in a private building of one of them. There was a clattering thunder in the street outside, but the sun was shining.... the mechanical killers.... shook the building.... The three men.... each believed that he controlled the other two.... "This is Mankind's third chance," said Kingmaker. "Ah, they're breaking the doors down again." [ch. 1]

By 1968 we had been fearing political dominators, predatory drones, for a while. One of these fearsome men is named Kingmaker — Cosmos Kingmaker. Who are the others? Brutus Truthtwister? Simon Faithseller? No, they are Peter Proctor and Fabian Foreman. Lafferty can lay it on, but the hand is the hand of an artist.

"We must agree [says Kingmaker] on our candidate for World President." "We want a man [says Proctor] who can serve as a catchy symbol, a man who can be manipulated by us."

By 1968 this was recognizable stage-setting.

"We need not limit ourselves [says Kingmaker] to men now living. Chronometanastatis has been a working thing for a dozen years. Find a dead man who once led well. Let him lead again. It will catch the fancy of the people."

How short these words are, except the one Lafferty makes up; how simple, except it and the two signals of the speaker's sophistication, or his sneaking, limit and fancy.

Foreman wants More. The others agree. Foreman sends a pilot named Paul, through space and then through time. Astrobe, five light-years from Earth, is by Hopp-Equation Travel less than one Earth month. But the Law of Conservation of Psychic Totality will not be abridged. There are years of psychic awareness to be compressed into a month, and it forces its compression into dreams.

Every poignant thing that ever happened, every comic or horrifying or exalting episode ... is still drifting somewhere in space. One runs into fragments (and concentrations) of billions of minds there; it is never lost, it is only spread out thin. [ch. 2]

As it happens other time-travelers have visited More. To make sure we have his book Utopia in mind Lafferty has him tell Paul, "I coined the word and the idea Utopia." More comes along. Through time and then space Paul pilots. They arrive in a tumult. Through and through the book are killers. The two men survive. When Paul comes to, both are in a barrio. Twenty years ago Astrobe was completely beautiful and civilized; then these places appeared.

"But, Thomas, everybody in Cathead and the Barrio is here by choice. They left civilized Astrobe of their own free will to set up these giant shambles. They can return to civilized Astrobe today, within the hour, and be cared for and endowed with property, and settled in ease. And they'd be rid of the mechanical murderers also."
"God over my head! Why don't they do it, then?" [ch. 3]

To colossal Cosmopolis, the capital. There is a Convocation. The Exaltation Trumpets blast. Thomas More wins an Ovation like a pouring ocean. "It is the Past Master," the people everywhere say.

A precis machine gives More general information. He talks back.

"I remember now who it was who limned this all out before," said Thomas. "It was myself. What other man makes a joke about a tree, and the tree bears fruit?... It was a joke, I tell you, a bitter joke. It was how not to build a world." [ch. 5]

Against the advice of his mentors, More travels. He has a loose retinue. Amid strange places and creatures, improbably persons and animals, he becomes a strong advocate of the Astrobe Dream. Yet he wants to look more deeply. He finds the feral lands and climbs Electric Mountain. He spends days in Cathead and meets the Bishop of Astrobe — the Metropolitan — the Pope — a very old thin black man.

"Kingmaker, cannot something be done about the Programmed Killers? They nearly had me again last night.... I am not a threat to the Dream! I love it.... I also in all honesty could blazon on my breast I have not been false to the Vision. There is something wrong with the programming of these things." [ch. 9]

He takes office as World President. The job is amazingly easy. Bills are drawn up, agreed on and submitted by the Lawmakers. How can you go wrong when the answer is always yes? There is an additional reason to assent. A president of Astrobe who three times vetoes any proposal adopted by the Lawmakers is sentenced to death. This is Chapter 11, "Nine Day King".

From Earth, where on July 6, 1535, he would have been put to death for refusing to get with the program, he has come to Astrobe, where on July 6, 2535, he is put to death for refusing to get with the program.

Science fiction in 1968 was athrob with protest. There is no sign Lafferty marched to that drummer then nor does this book seem to now. In the resonance of Past Master his warnings are neither because of nor despite what other people cry. He speaks in a voice singularly his own.

"I don't know how to strike a medal for it," the man said.
"If you find someone who does, tell him to strike a medal for it," the Emperor said [we are with Charles DCXII in the feral lands]. "Put my own fine hand on it, and the motto They Come to Me Like Eagles. Why, here is a dead saint from Old Earth, the Devil-Kid of Astrobe, a necromancer of unlikely powers, a transcendent ansel [named Rimrock, improbably a person and animal], a priest of Saint Klingensmith, an avatar who burns up bodies, and pilot Paul who is a broken-faced old warlock. Not for thirty reigns have there been so many grand people at court at one time...."
"How long a time has the thirty reigns been?" Thomas asked him.
"It has been what we call a rapid year," the Emperor said. [ch. 7]

How could More be taken in? Even today his own book is sometimes made out to be some kind of sweet. He tells Paul, "There is something very slack about a future that will take a biting satire for a vapid dream [ch. 2]." But the prospect of relief from suffering softens the heart. In the barrio he groans, "Is there no compassion in the civilized sections of Astrobe? Can they do nothing to alleviate the misery here [ch. 3]?" Also domination can be subtle.

"You were talking nonsense, you know," Paul told him after that particular speech....
"Paul, I said words and I said words, but there were other words that I did not say.... Somebody else spoke those words out of my mouth."
"Oh, that! I suspect they've been doing it to you for a long time, and you just haven't been paying attention. You've been saying many things, publicly and privately, that don't sound like you. It's one of the oldest and easiest tricks of the Programmed. They crawl into your mind at odd moments and take control." [ch. 9]

Is this tale a tragedy? Is it More's? In history he is first impressed with the Government program and furthers it, then has second thoughts and stands by them. He has years rising in the offices of his country and the favor of its great until he realizes he can no longer do as he is asked. In Lafferty's book he starts there. He suspects and distrusts the ways of Astrobe. Yet he comes to support them. In the end he revokes his recantation. But too much has happened, and he is crushed by the motion he helped perpetuate.

Or is the tragedy humankind's? In biblical theology the Egyptians were punished, not just the Pharaoh, because they went along. When he said "Hurt the Israelites" no one said "No," or "Who are you?" In Past Master we see a little of the great, a lot of the dissatisfied. Their turning from official joy troubles the top. Yet the bottom stays down. Surprising numbers of it vote with their feet, walking into real pain away from unreal pleasure, indeed working far harder in Cathead than is offered in Cosmopolis: but whose hands does this leave on the levers? At the end a coup too late to save More is still advancing.

Well, does it happen? Does the reaction become the birthing? What does it look like?
Will we see it now, in face and rump, the new-born world?
Be quiet. We hope. [ch. 13]

Grinding away all but the satire, and even the structure, would leave a very flat book. Lafferty's imagination, his poetry, and his artist's hand fill it with fire. He was one of the most original authors we have known.

Last Updated ( Monday, 11 April 2016 )
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