In R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master, Thomas More is brought from 1535 to 2535 to save a “utopia” based upon his work. As Thomas finds out more about Astrobe, he begins to feel like a science fiction writer who lives in his own sour joke of a world. Judith Merril writes of Past Master:
“It is a minor miracle that a serious philosophical and speculative work should be written so colorfully and so lyrically. There is, happily, no way to categorize the book: it has elements of science fiction, of pure fantasy, of poetry, of historical fiction; it is sharply critical and marvelously gentle; very serious and irrepressibly funny; profoundly symbolic and gutsy-realistic by (unexpected) turns. A first-rank speculative work.”
The following extract is an hilarious episode lampooning, one might surmise, the liturgical changes happening in 1968 when the book was written. This scribe highly recommends delving into the Lafferty canon for his Catholic imagination is on par with Dante or Shakespeare.
___But one thing seemed to be lacking on Astrobe, and it puzzled Thomas.
___“Where do the people attend mass?” he asked as he stood in the middle of golden Cosmopolis.
___“They don’t, Thomas ; they havn’t for centuries,” Paul told him. “Oh, there are a very few who do sometimes. I do myself on occasions, but I am a freak and usually classed as a criminal. And in Cathead there has been a new appearance of the thing, along with other oddities. But not one person in ten thousand on Astrobe has ever attended.
___“Are there no churches at all, then?”
___“In Cathead and the Barrio and the feral strips there are a very few that might still be called by the name. Such buildings as remain in Cosmopolis and the other Cities are under the department of antiquities. Some of them have period statuary that is of interest to the specialist. While mass itself cannot be found in any of them here, the replica can be played on demand.”
___“Let us go to one of them.”
___After groping about in some rather obscure streets that Paul knew imperfectly, they found one. It was quite small and tucked away in a corner. They entered. There was the sense of total emptiness. There was no Presence.
___“I wonder what time is the next mass.” Thomas said. “Or the mass that is not quite a mass. I’m not sure that I understand you on it.”
___“Oh, put in a stoimenof d’or in the slot, and push the button. Then the mass will begin.”
___Thomas did. And it did.
___The priest came up out of the floor. He was not human, unless he was zombie human. He was probably not even a programmed person. He may have been a mechanical device. He wore a pearl-gray derby hat, swish-boy sideburns, and common green shorts or breechcloth. His depilated torso was hermaphroditic. He or it smoked a long weedjy-weed cigarette in a period holder. He began to jerk and to intone with dreadful dissonance.
___Then a number of other contrivances arrived from somewhere, intoning in mock chorus to the priest, and twanging instruments.
___“For the love of Saint Jack, what are those, Paul?” Thomas asked in bewilderment. “Are those not the instruments described by Dante as played in lowest Hell? Why the whole thing has turned into a dirty burlesque, Paul, played out with unclean puppets. Why, Paul why?”
___“Oh, it had really turned into such a thing before it died, Thomas. This is what the Church and the Mass had become when it was taken over by the government as a curiosity and an antique.”
___Well, the replica mass ran its short course to the jerking and bawling of the ancient ritual guitar. At sermon time was given a straight news-broadcast, so that one should not be out of contact with the world for the entire fifteen minutes.
___At the Consecration, a sign lit up : “Brought to you Courtesy of Grailo Grape-Ape, the Finest of the Bogus Wines.”
___The bread was ancient-style hot-dog rolls. The puppets or mechanisms danced up orgasmically and used the old vein needle before taking the rolls.
___“How do you stop the dirty little thing?” Thomas asked.
___“Push the Stop button,” Paul said. “Here, I’ll do it.” And he stopped it.
___“Why, I wonder how it all came about,” Thomas said. “That snake on a stick, is it meant to be the Christ? Is that leering whore holding the deformed monkey meant to be the Virgin? A dirty little burlesque, a dreary bit of devil worship. But even dirty burlesques are not made out of nothing. Had the mass really fallen so low?”
___“So I have read, Thomas. It fell to just this low estate before it became ritually frozen.”
More Praise for Past Master :
“Marvelously inventive…. Profound wit and high adventure are urged on by the Lafferty madness that till now we have only seen in his short stories. The vision is peppered with nightmare: witches, lazarus-lions, hydras, porche’s-panthers, programmed killers that never fail, and a burlesqued black mass. One hears of black comedy? There are places in PAST MASTER where humor goes positively ultraviolet.” – Samuel R. Delany
“I read it in one sitting; I couldn’t put it down. Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs. There is warmth, illumination and a certain joy attendant upon the experience. He’s good.” – Roger Zelazny
“Lafferty’s first full-length work is an event. As with everything the man writes, the wind of imagination blows strongly, with the happy difference that in a novel he can reach full gale-force, Lafferty defies categorization; his work is unlike anyone else’s. This is a great galloping madman of a novel, drenched in sound and color.” – Harlan Ellison
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