Ace Double Reviews, 22: Space Chantey, by R. A. Lafferty/Pity About Earth, by Ernest Hill (#H-56, 1968, $0.60)
by Rich Horton
Both these novels are discursive, essentially humorous, stories set in a totally unrealistic far-future Galaxy, with spaceships flitting from star to star, outré happenings pretty much made up as the author goes along, and plenty of winking at the reader.
The Ernest Hill novel is almost unknown. The author is from the U. K., and was born in 1915, and is still alive according to all the references I can find (not that those are definitive) -- as such, he is one of the oldest living SF writers. Hill published a dozen or so stories and three novels between 1964 and 1976. The stories appeared in New Worlds, Science Fantasy, New Writings in SF, Galaxy and IF. As far as I can find out, this Ace Double edition was the only publication of Pity About Earth. It is about 57,000 words long, and it was his only Ace Double, and as far as I can find out his only U. S.-published novel.
R. A. Lafferty, on the other hand, was one of the SF field's originals, a true master with a very distinctive individual voice. He was born a year before Hill, in 1914, and died only last year, after spending his last decade or more in terrible health. He started publishing short fiction in 1959 in New Mexico Quarterly, and by 1960 was publishing his offbeat stories in SF magazines like Galaxy, If and Future. His reputation grew through the decade, but it wasn't until 1968 that he published his first three novels, almost simultaneously: Past Master, The Reefs of Earth, and Space Chantey. Space Chantey, which was Lafferty's only Ace Double, is about 50,000 words long. It is probably the least known of Lafferty's early run of novels, the seven that appeared through 1973, the other three being Fourth Mansions, The Devil is Dead, Arrive at Easterwine, and Okla Hannali. (A number of other novels were published starting in the early 80s, mostly from small presses.) Space Chantey, to my knowledge, has only been reprinted once, by the English publisher Dobson in 1976.
I enjoy much of Lafferty's short fiction, but I have found his novels harder to get into. The structure seems slack, and the narrative style and tall-tale humor get tiresome at length. Much of this applies to Space Chantey, though I found it reasonably enjoyable. Though its structure is episodic, it is reasonably coherent, partly because it is explicitly based on the Odyssey.
The Odysseus figure is Captain Roadstrum, who heads back to his home on World (i.e. Earth -- indeed, Tulsa, Lafferty's own home) after 10 years of war. He and another Captain and their motley crews take a couple of ships, and decide to take a brief stop at the planet Lotophage, where it is always afternoon. Well -- you can see where that's going. This is of course the planet of the Lotus Eaters. They continue to various other planets loosely modelled on places Odysseus visited, most of the crewmen dying multiple times, only to mysteriously return to life. Roadstrum battles giants, a witch, androphages, Atlas, and so on. Lafferty mixes in offhand semi-SFnal details, and bits of Norse myth and other stories, and leads his hero eventually back to World, only to give a slight, and effective, twist to the ending. The story is throughout told in Lafferty's familiar, over the top, voice, and it is augmented with lots of bouncing doggerel representing some future Homer's goofy retelling of Roadstrum's story. I didn't love it, but it was fun and original and fairly effective.
Pity About Earth is a bit more overtly satirical. Shale, the Advertising Manager for a Galactic newspaper publisher, heads for the planet Gromworld to deliver some papers along with his trusty super-intelligent, naturally servile, alien servant Phrix. It is some 30,000 years after Earth was destroyed -- pity about Earth -- but humans represent the "Ruling Races" of the Galaxy.
He diverts to the planet Shorne to visit his mistress Metita, one of a thoroughly amoral race that lives only on Shorne. But she is plotting with a man from a rival newspaper to kill Shale and allow the other man to take over his position. Shale escapes to the laboratories where Metita's father controls various gruesome experiments on humans and modified humans. Soon he is in a three-way power struggle between himself, his would-be murderer, and his servant, who has been appointed the new Advertisement Manager on the assumption that Shale must be dead. Shale must gain the assistance of various experimental subjects, particularly an ape-woman who just wants to be loved, to have a chance to make his escape. And when he does, he and Phrix both make a trip to the mysterious planet Asgard to confront the never seen Publisher and resolve the future of the Galaxy and the fate of human and alien life.
That description makes it sound almost serious, but it's not at all. It's a very cynical and satirical look at an advertising dominated future of idleness and waste. I was reminded a bit of John Sladek, but Sladek is far the better, funnier, more original writer. Pity About Earth isn't awful, and there are some OK ideas, and some gasp-inducing cynically funny bits, but on the whole it's a pretty minor and rather forgettable novel.