There are so many writers that I can do Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta articles on that it usually doesn’t take much to tip me toward a specific author. The impetus for this article was too good to pass up. Jason Kehe has a recent article on Wired that is making the rounds about how R. A. Lafferty is the best science fiction short story writer that you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: I had heard of him. As Kehe argues, if you come across the name R. A. Lafferty it tends to stick with you, and indeed it did, as I recalled the name from browsing my vintage sci-fi anthologies. But even then I only knew him as one name among many, so after reading Kehe’s article I dug through my collection, using Kehe as a guide, and selected three stories. Each is mentioned at least in passing in Kehe’s article, and each was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine and is available for free on the Internet Archive! Which means you can join me in the fun this time, if you were so inclined.
Let’s dig in!
Primary Education of the Camiroi
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1966
Read in same
Kehe describes Lafferty’s writing as kind of punch-drunk satirical. I have to say that reading these stories I didn’t get the sense of his writing not making sense, as Kehe implied. I’ve read some 1970s sci-fi that is more about syllable beat than good sentence structure (I’m not a fan, for the most part), but I didn’t get that impression from Lafferty. In fact, I really liked his writing and found it had a nice poetic cadence. I absolutely did experience Lafferty’s timeless satire, especially in this story. I don’t often burst out laughing when reading, but I did during this story. The basic premise if that a group of humans travel to the Camiroi homeworld to observe their system of education at work. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve ever talked with any parents stuck up about how their kids go to the best schools… well, there’s a pretty clear indictment of cultural superiority complexes here. It felt as accurate and timely now as I’m sure it did in 1966. My only real criticism is that about a third of its ten page length is dedicated to a Camiori syllabus, which is little more than a bullet list. It got a bit tedious for me, but I did find some laughs throughout. I chalk that more up to the evolved taste of modern science fiction, as I’m pretty sure it was jabbingly clever in 1966.
Slow Tuesday Night
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1965
Read in same
This is oddity on full display. The sci-fi premise is dispensed with very quickly and in a sentence or two; some achievement blocker in the human brain has been removed in everyone, so now our full brain power is unlocked. Not the most original premise, but read enough science fiction and original premises are extremely rare; the trick is what an author does with it. Lafferty uses “unleashed human intellect” to describe a world where every night is an opportunity to live a lifetime. Fortunes are made and lost in minutes. A homeless man becomes the richest man on Earth seven times in a single night. The storytelling is factual and unemotional, which heightens the satire to an expert level. I consider satire the highest form of comedy, and science fiction the highest form of fiction (it’s my blog and I’m entitled to my opinions), so this story was stand out for me.
Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1967
Read in same
Kehe calls this one of Lafferty’s best, so of course I ended the trifecta with it. Again a satire, here I did start to see a bit of the confusing side of Lafferty’s writing, particularly in the climax. Essentially a protracted joke about the “smartest people on Earth” trying to alter history and watch it change before their eyes, only failing to realize that changing history changes their history as well. Kind of a “time travel for dummies” idiot plot, but rendered in a satirical way so as to be fun, not frustrating. (For more on idiot plots see my article on Damon Knight, which I admit is not a flattering statement.)
One thing that struck me about all three of these R. A. Lafferty stories is just how short they were – around ten pages each. He clearly realized his own talent at the short story form, and by my accounts he was a master at it. Kehe is right, it really is a tragedy that more science fiction readers aren’t familiar with Lafferty, and I’ll definitely be reading every one of his short stories that I can get my hands on. Kehe’s article seems timed to coincide with the release last month of Tor’s The Best of R. A. Lafferty which features a list of introductions that reads as a who’s who of not only sci-fi but Western culture: Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Harlan Ellison, and Patton Oswalt, to name a few. (I can see Patton Oswalt totally loving Lafferty, the style fits.) So here’s my plug. Read the above stories for free, and if you liked them, consider picking up that new Tor book. Despite having quite a few Lafferty stories randomly sprinkled through my collection I’m strongly considering ordering it at my local book store. There’s something nice about a curated collection.
It’s been a few months since my first round of recommendations for the horror streaming service Shudder so I thought I’d throw together another five films to watch if you’re looking for some clever entertainment off the beaten path. Most of these are either Shudder Originals or exclusive to the streaming site, but a few are also on Amazon Prime or available to rent, so check around.
I watched this one prior to its appearance on Shudder, but I was happy to see it show up there. More of a suspenseful sci-fi drama than a horror movie, Coherence follows a group of friends at a dinner party that just happens to coincide with the passing of a comet that turns out to have the ability to shatter the walls between parallel universes. Past wrongs, personal failings, and dark secrets collide in this creative and well executed indy film. Fans of Buffy may get a kick out of Nicholas Brendon’s performance, especially if they’re familiar with the actor’s personal history. Looks like this one is also available on Amazon Prime, and can be rented.
The Mortuary Collection
A movie so fun I watched it twice. Within a week. A great anthology film with an even better framing sequence tying it all together. Excellent writing, directing, acting, and music… yeah, it’s basically perfect. Fans of the original Creepshow movie will love this one. Evidently my opinion is not an island, as there are rumors of a sequel – or even a franchise – in the works. Yes, please.
Probably the weakest entry on this list, it is still a film worthy of your time, but to explain why I feel that way might require a short rant. (This is a blog, after all.) My biggest peeve when watching a movie is bad writing. This isn’t, as you might suspect, because I’m a writer. It is a pure economic objection. Beyond a doubt, when it comes to filmmaking the absolute cheapest component is the script. To hire even three actors will generally cost more than the script. The time investment of the cast and crew is immense. Supplying sets? Expensive. I contend that this scales. Big budget movies are built on big names and big set pieces. Small movies are built on small names and small sets. No matter the scale though, the writing is the cheapest part, and is only limited by one or more people sitting around imagining and typing. Knowing that immense time and money is going to go into filming the script, what’s the justification for a crummy one? I’ve seen five minute films that were better than some two hour Hollywood “blockbusters.”
Okay, so Head Count. This is not a perfect movie, and to be honest I didn’t love the ending. That being said, I have a soft spot for any film that even closely approaches a one room drama (it is probably worth mentioning that Coherence also fits into this category). Head Count largely takes place in an Air BnB vacation home occupied by a bunch of college kids. The college kid drama is actually minimal, and we’re shown a generally welcoming group of young adults who are partying on spring break. Into this scene comes a supernatural entity, invited through a minimalistic – though clever – plot technique. What ensues is a fun head scratcher with lots of enjoyable twists and turns, with quality writing and directing. Also available on Amazon Prime.
Color Out of Space
Adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories are perhaps more numerous than the stories themselves, but good adaptations are more rare than an unracist Lovecraft story. One exception to the quality aspect is adaptations of The Colour Out of Space. It is undoubtedly one of his best stories, and easy to adapt while still being true to the original. The basic premise is that a weird-noncorporeal-space-thing comes down from the stars to live in a farmer’s well, poisoning the land and his family. Of course, we’re talking Lovecraft here, so the poisoning is of their minds and souls. That story presents a very fertile ground (pun intended) to play in. Add to that setup the possibility of another film featuring a screaming mad Nicholas Cage (re. Mandy, also available on Shudder) and you have the makings of one hell of a crazy ride. This one is classic Lovecraftian fun, and is actually a great movie on its own.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another outstanding Colour adaptation which precedes this one. Die Farbe is an underappreciated German adaptation which delivers a much more toned down and sinister experience. To my knowledge this one can only be seen if purchased as a DVD from the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society store, but if you’re a die hard Lovecraft fan and movie buff it’s worth it.
One Cut of the Dead
My opinion of this film is summed up in two points. First, it is a perfectly executed ode to passionate filmmaking that is practically a masterpiece. Second, this is not a zombie movie. It’s hardly even a horror movie, but given the fact that humans like categories a horror streaming service is the natural home for this film. This Japanese film was made on a slim budget of $25,000 with an unknown cast. At last estimate it had grossed nearly $27,000,000 internationally. This is exactly what I was ranting about: it has a stellar script, quality acting (from prior unknowns), and skilled directing. One of its claims to fame is that the movie starts with a single camera – uncut – 37 minute long zombie film. This is a real uncut sequence, not some camera trickery, and it is incredible. That gets you about 40% of the way through the film, so what is the rest of the runtime about? That’s where the genius of this movie comes in. I’m not going to spoil it because I knew nothing but the above going in, and the discovery was a lot of fun for me. What I do think has to be said is that there are no “real” zombies in this movie, since we’re talking about a movie about making a zombie movie. This means that all the tropes familiar to zombie movie fans don’t play out, but I can’t hold that against such an amazing accomplishment. Highly recommended.
That’s all for now, but I managed to sneak more than five movie recommendations into this post, so I’ve left you all with plenty of extra credit work.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.