If my memory serves me right, and more and more I suspect it seldom does, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” was the first story I ever read by R. A. Lafferty. I’m pretty sure I read it in World’s Best Science Fiction 1967. The last scenes. where Ceran Swicegood is winding his way down into the hill seeing smaller and smaller grandmothers is what stuck with me. I vaguely remember being somewhat charmed and feeling somewhat WTF. This was weird science fiction, but it was amusing. The next thing I read by Lafferty, was half of an Ace Double called Space Chantey. I passed this book to my friend Connell and George and the three of us got a lot of laughs out of it. After that, I read Lafferty’s stories but none of them were as much fun as these two. I often wanted to like them, and sometimes I was mildly amused or even somewhat impressed but never entirely loved.
This time when I read “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” I was far more taken with the story than any of the other times. Maybe it was because I was listening to When You See Yourself by the Kings of Leon and they were putting me into a receptive state. Music sometimes does that for me when I’m reading. Or maybe the story fairy sprinkled magic reading dust on me. Who knows, but this time I enjoyed “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. That’s always wonderful when it happens.
Check out these opening paragraphs to see if you’re charmed by Lafferty’s words:
Ceran Swicegood was a promising young Special Aspects Man. But, like all Special Aspects, he had one irritating habit. He was forever asking the question: How Did It All Begin? They all had tough names except Ceran. Manbreaker Crag, Heave Huckle, Blast Berg, George Blood, Move Manion (when Move says “Move,” you move), Trouble Trent. They were supposed to be tough, and they had taken tough names at the naming. Only Ceran kept his own—to the disgust of his commander, Manbreaker. “Nobody can be a hero with a name like Ceran Swicegood!” Manbreaker would thunder. “Why don’t you take Storm Shannon? That’s good. Or Gutboy Barrelhouse or Slash Slagle or Nevel Knife? You barely glanced at the suggested list.” “I’ll keep my own,” Ceran always said, and that is where he made his mistake. A new name will sometimes bring out a new personality. It had done so for George Blood. Though the hair on George’s chest was a graft job, yet that and his new name had turned him from a boy into a man. Had Ceran assumed the heroic name of Gutboy Barrelhouse he might have been capable of rousing endeavors and man-sized angers rather than his tittering indecisions and flouncy furies. The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 502). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
There are times in my life when I also tried to contemplate how it all began so I can’t help but identify with Ceran Swicegood’s quest. I’ve always thought there should be nothing — our existence should be impossible. I wish Lafferty could have given us the explanation. I’ve always concluded that because we’re here, that means never-existing-nothingness is an impossible state. From that assumption, I assume reality is the unfolding of every possible state of being. And that includes a dimension where a guy name Ceran Swicegood visits a planet where there’s an infinite number of grandmothers that might know the real reason.
R. A. Lafferty knows the pain of contemplating our existential origins and considers it a big joke.
“Tell me,” he pleaded in agony. “All my life I’ve tried to find out how it began, how anything began. And you know!” “We know. Oh, it was so funny how it began. So joke! So fool, so clown, so grotesque thing! Nobody could guess, nobody could believe.” “Tell me! Tell me!” Ceran was ashen and hysterical. “No, no, you are no child of mine,” chortled the ultimate grandmother. “Is too joke a joke to tell a stranger. We could not insult a stranger to tell so funny, so unbelieve. Strangers can die. Shall I have it on conscience that a stranger died laughing?” “Tell me! Insult me! Let me die laughing!” But Ceran nearly died crying from the frustration that ate him up as a million bee-sized things laughed and hooted and giggled: “Oh, it was so funny the way it began!” And they laughed. And laughed. And went on laughing…until Ceran Swicegood wept and laughed together, and crept away, and returned to the ship still laughing. On his next voyage he changed his name to Blaze Bolt and ruled for ninety-seven days as king of a sweet sea island in M-81, but that is another and much more unpleasant story. The Big Book of Science Fiction (p. 507). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I was only sixteen during this period in my life when I first read these stories. I attended Coral Gables High School in Miami, Florida, and worked at the Coconut Grove Kwik Chek bagging groceries. I was into science fiction, rock music, space exploration, and the counter culture. It was a time when I was discovering new science fiction as it was published after several years of reading old science fiction books I got from various libraries. Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov were my big three during the 1964-1966 years. My next big three were Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, and Roger Zelazny. Plus I was discovering all kinds of new writers in the annual anthologies edited by Donald Wollheim and Judith Merril. It was during this period, I began subscribing to F&SF, Galaxy, and Analog, and joined the Science Fiction Book Club. By then I was a science fiction addict.
For over forty stories I’ve been waiting to reach this period in the VanderMeers’ anthology. And in just a few stories we’re going to zip right past this time period I love so much. I wish we could stay much longer. Plus, there are some other stories from 1966-1967 that people really should know:
- “The Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw
- “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock
- “For a Breath I Tarry” by Roger Zelazny
- “The Keys to December” by Roger Zelazny
- “The Last Castle” by Jack Vance
- “Neutron Star” by Larry Niven
- “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick
- “Faith in Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick
- “Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritiz Leiber
- “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany
And that’s not counting the memorable novels from those two years:
- Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
- Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
- The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard
- The Dream Master by Roger Zelazny
- Mindswap by Robert Sheckley
- The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Roberg A. Heinlein
- Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
- This Immortal by Roger Zelazny
- Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Using Lafferty’s idea from this story, I wish humans made a little copy of themselves from each year of life. I’d love to have a shelf of little Jims that perfectly remembered each year. That way I could ask my former selves what really happened.
James Wallace Harris, 11/16/21