Have you ever been to an art museum and you wander into to the "modern" "art" section and you see some giant work that fills you with emotion — that emotion being WTF? That happens to me a lot. Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate weird modern artsy stuff, but I have too much appreciation and respect for classical art to write off its style, craftsmanship, and heritage as non-essential.


Of course critics of my criticism will point out that I’m probably just an uncultured philistine who is too dense to understand these rich and complex works. And that is undoubtedly true. Sometimes. But if you make art that is unapproachable by the vast majority of people, even people who quite like art, there may be room for improvement.

I heard about this book, Past Master by R. A. Lafferty, in some forum where clever people try to signal their cleverness by saying how much they like things that most people really don’t like. Or something like that. Not having heard about this book, I figured the glowing praise heaped on it combined with its apparent unusualness made it worth taking a look at.

The book is set in the year 2535, exactly 1000 years after the execution of Saint/Sir Thomas More. Well, that’s certainly a weird factoid to include, you’re thinking! The book is set on some not-Earth planet — like the kind Kirk’s Enterprise would visit — and the people there are having some kind of problem. The exact nature of the problem was kind of nebulous but there should not be any problems because the society is supposed to be a utopia.

Anyway, to solve the problem the rulers there get the great idea to go back in time and snatch up Sir Thomas More! Brilliant! No need to use time and space travel for more sensible purposes when you’ve got a 16th century lawyer in the house! Look, he was really good. Not only that, it turns out that Sir Thomas wrote the book Utopia in 1516 and coined that word itself therein. So he’s kind of an expert on utopian societies.

At first there is a little bit of plot intrigue as the elites who scheme to bring Sir Thomas in from the past reveal to the reader that they’re really just doing it for the optics. They have no intention of letting this old relic actually have any power.

Sir Thomas duly reports for duty and, uh, I think R. A. Lafferty then proceeds to drop a lot of acid. Ya. Really. And the story is just weird in a hard to read way. I was surprised that this short (190pp) book took me a couple of weeks to slog through. When I read it I often became very sleepy almost immediately. And that’s the problem with a near random level of arbitrary chaos; it’s a bit like reading the digits of a trigonometry table.

Again, maybe I’m just too dense to "get it" but… well, I didn’t.

Let’s run through my checklist.

  • Style - It was ok really. It was kind of baroque and literary, sort of like Gene Wolf, but not quite.

  • Organization - Also ok. Reasonable chapter lengths. Divided in to sections sensibly. Fine.

  • Character names - Mostly ok. Sometimes they were pretty weird but generally pronounceable for English speakers. Some examples: Proctor, Evita, Father Oddopter, Pottscamp.

  • Believable characters - Er, hard to say here. What do people, or worse, aliens really do when they’re tumbling through a drug trip? I never identified with any of the characters and just found all of their actions weird.

  • Natural dialog - No. It was stilted (perhaps deliberately) and weird. Right out of the gate you’ll be wondering how well Sir Thomas' pre-Elizabethan English holds up a millennia later; glossed over.

  • Plot complexity - I’d have to say, low. Maybe there’s a lot going on in the second half of the book. But I’ve really divulged most of the plot as near as I could discern it.

  • Plot resolution - Probably. I don’t know. The climax would be Sir Thomas maybe getting beheaded (mirroring his life on Earth) or maybe getting rescued. The text was so gloopy and distorted, I actually can’t remember the outcome despite reading it less than an hour ago! And worse — I don’t care.

  • Erudition - Good. There were probably obscure subtle references to Thomas More’s life, the House of Tudor, 16th century politics, etc. but of course I’m no expert in such things and I would miss that.

  • Gems - Very few if any for me.

  • Immersion/world building - Certainly this was a goal of the book. It definitely had a go, but everything was so weird and unpredictable, you could never know if a city was a city like you imagine when you hear that word or the intestines of some giant whale or some other incongruous thing.

  • Believable tech - This story was pretty low on the tech. Much of it was just taken as given with no explanation. The assassin robots that were very good but not too good — their inner workings never explained. The time and space travel to bring back a guy from 16th century Earth, also never fully explained.

  • Imagination/creativity - It’s easy to credit this kind of story with a lot of imagination, but really a computer can write stories that make no sense and are filled with random elements. Here, I’ll show you what I mean: "Corolla sabotaged the treaty, dispensed with stashing the immigrating dullards. Laurel’s internment’s antics catalyzed the Delphic nicknacks." That came from choosing words at random from my spelling dictionary. That is how much imagination and creativity this book had for me.

$ shuf /usr/share/dict/words | head

I usually don’t review books that I find lacking but this one was nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo award. In some ways, I’m really reviewing those accolades. Maybe another kind of reader would appreciate the drug trip incoherence of Lafferty’s writing but I need a more cogent and clever plot.

I’ll end with a fiction writing tip: Never ever have a character remark on how unbelievable the fantastic situation is. This is like having characters in a movie, or especially a stage play, yawn. The example that reminded me is from p141.

"It is beyond belief that this world should be true," he said again to himself.