conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery
& suspense

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

by R.A. Lafferty

Essay by Ted Gioia
In Nine Hundred Grandmothers, R.A. Lafferty violates the most basic
rule of science fiction. Instead of leaping into the future, he descends
into the past. Where other science fiction authors fret about our final
destiny, Lafferty worries about our ultimate origins. Let Bradbury write
Martians, Heinlein of Venusians.  Lafferty, for his part, turns his
attention to grandmothers…and to the grandmothers of the
grandmothers…and to the grandmothers of the grandmothers
of the grandmothers, etc. etc.  

The nine hundred grandmothers appear in
the opening tale of this pleasing collection
of short stories, most of them originally
published in various sci-fi magazines
during the 1960s. The title story takes
place on the asteroid Proavitus, where
a team of astronauts is investigating the
terrain and inhabitants, primarily in
pursuit of lucrative trade deals. But
one of the expedition members, Ceran
Swicegood, is distracted by a peculiar
claim of his local informants. Hard as it
is to believe, the natives assert that they
never die—they only get smaller and
smaller as they age. Their old ancestors,
now very tiny, reportedly live in the
basements of their homes, where these miniature forebears spend
most of their time sleeping.

Any other researcher would be excited about the prospect of discovering
the biological basis for immortality. But Swicegood, like his author
R.A. Lafferty, cares about the past, not the future—and especially the
distant past. He is determined to find the oldest of the immortal
ancestors in order to ask the pressing question: "How did it all begin"
He sneaks unobserved into the basement of the home of his best
informant, and begins descending lower and lower through rooms
populated by smaller and smaller 'grandmothers'. I won’t give away
any spoilers, but merely point out that this outlandish concept—and
the overriding sense that the solutions to the mysteries of science
are buried in the depths of a forgotten history—recur again and again
in the imaginative writing of Mr. Lafferty.   

In the second story in this collection, "Land of the Great Horses," a
peculiar series of events around the world—involving migrations,
mirages and miracles—requires some sort of scientific explanation.  
True to form, Lafferty serves one up, but requires us to peer a
thousand years back into the past to grasp the implications of
these tumultuous changes. In the third story, "Ginny Wrapped in
the Sun," a different anomaly requires a similar excavation of long
distant events—but in this instance Lafferty takes us back a quarter
of million years to the time of Neanderthals. And just when you think
Lafferty can't sink any deeper into the streams of time, the fourth
story in his collection, "The Six Fingers of Time" even gives us a
glimpse back into the Garden of Eden.

This is science fiction, at least of a sort. But Lafferty's preferred
scientists are geologists, evolutionary biologists, forensic
archaeologists, and others who rarely look up to the stars—more
often they are found digging in the dirt. Even when Lafferty goes to
some trouble to construct a futuristic society, as he does in his story
"Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne," he builds his tale around a
group of scientists obsessed with time travel, and the possibility
of tinkering with events of the Middle Ages. Let other sci-fi authors
journey to the stars, Lafferty is too caught up in the intrigues of the
Carolingian Empire during the ninth century AD.  

But even if Lafferty is obsessed with the past, his writing is anything
but old-fashioned. His plots are ingenious, his tales well-told. At
times he seems to waver in his allegiances between the dramatic
and the comic, and for stretches he shows his affinity to Kurt
Vonnegut and Robert Sheckley, the masters of 1960s era sci-fi
satire. In truth, Lafferty could have built a career on humorous
tales of hapless protagonists. But he is more of a formalist than
either of those droll contemporaries. Lafferty would never sacrifice
pacing and structure in exchange for laughs, the way, say, Sheckley
does in
Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. Moreover, he has
too bright a disposition to indulge for long in dark satire. As Neil
Gaiman has aptly put it, Lafferty possessed "gravitas about things
that were light" and "antigravitas about important heavy things." But
I'm hardly surprised by that. Lafferty, after all, was that greatest of
rarities, a Roman Catholic novelist who found that his theological-
philosophical vision was compatible with a career writing genre
stories. In his worldview, even the apparently frivolous incident—
whether past, present or distant future—comes pre-equipped
with metaphysical significance.

This orientation may help explain why an author might aim to
unlock the meaning of future events by looking back a couple
thousand years, give or take a few millennia. Religion rarely
figures in Lafferty's plots—at least not overtly—and is hardly
even mentioned in passing by his characters.  But his overriding
notion that human destiny can be grasped by searching for a historic
revealed truth…well, let’s just say that science fiction authors hardly
that idea.

Lafferty's reputation, for its part, is enjoying a kind of posthumous
resurrection.  David Barnett recently announced in
The Guardian
that Lafferty, who died in 2002 at age 87, "might just be the most
important science-fiction writer you've never heard of."  But many
are hearing about him, nonetheless, if we can judge by the return
to print of his works. A few months back, a publisher released a
limited edition collection of Lafferty's stories, which sold out
almost immediately. The bottleneck seems to be copyrights and
permissions rather than lack of demand. In Japan, where Lafferty's
works have been more easily available, his books are still popular,
even more than a decade after the author's death.

Nine Hundred Grandmoters is still out print, but perhaps it
too will soon be available. "I'd love to see a Complete Lafferty in
print," Gaiman recently commented. "I used to give people his short
story collection Ni
ne Hundred Grandmothers, until one day it was
out of print and gone." My advice is: don’t wait for a reprint.
Second-hand copies can still be found, although at a sizable
mark-up from their cover price. Yes, perhaps you need to be a
bit of a persistent antiquarian someone with a pressing curiosity
and willing to dig around into the past, if you want to understand
the legacy (or just find copies of the books) of this author. But I
suspect R.A. Lafferty would have quite a bit of sympathy with
precisely that kind of reader.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 14, 2014
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction and
its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.