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September, 2008 : Criticism:

R.A. Lafferty, Sir Thomas More, and the Problems of Utopia

R.A. Lafferty is one of the great eccentric geniuses of science fiction whose work remains woefully neglected. Lafferty was a devout Catholic who started writing in his 40s, itself unusual in a genre filled with young fans and writers who tend to publish in their teens or early 20s. Despite his late start, Lafferty wrote 32 novels and over two hundred short stories, a great deal of which have only been published in small press chapbooks by enthusiastic fans and editors. No one knows exactly how much Lafferty wrote because much of his writing is too unusual for the commercial presses and remains in manuscript.

To obtain Lafferty's work, readers have to prowl used book sites and stores for battered paperbacks. The Wildside Press has done a service by reprinting several of his books, including the Hugo and Nebula award nominated novel Past Master, which is now available in a sturdy and large trade paperback edition. A careful examination of Past Master provides an opportunity to reassess Lafferty's writing.

Past Master has been neglected by fans but highly praised by writers and critics. Judith Merrill said of the novel:

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.

Samuel R. Delany commented:

The Lafferty madness is peppered with nightmare: witches, lazarus-lions, hydras, porsches'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.

The novel, a serious exploration of the Utopian genre and the collapse of values in the modern world, deserves the praise. Lafferty creates his own genre by combining science fiction, fantasy, tall tales, and even medieval allegory. Lafferty let his writing go wherever his wit and fancy led him, with little regard for narrative convention. Many readers—even experienced SF fans—find his work obscure and difficult as Lafferty ignores genre conventions and refuses to suspend disbelief or world-build. Lafferty's work—which is rarely realistic and relies on unusual narrative structures and events—should be approached like surrealism, with the expectation that anything can happen.

In Past Master, the desperate, perplexed committee that rules Astrobe, a futuristic attempt to create a Utopia, is overwhelmed by the planet's problems. The committee uses a time machine to bring Sir Thomas More from the past and make him world president because Astrobe needs an honest man and a symbol.

According to the committee, Sir Thomas More is a man who had a completely honest moment: when Henry VIII asked Thomas to support his divorce and the king's supremacy over the English church, Thomas refused to support it, even though it cost him his life. Thomas was made a saint by the Catholic Church because of his martyrdom. (1)

More was also the author of Utopia, the book that created the genre of imagining perfect worlds. Over the course of Past Master, he discovers that the strengths and weaknesses of Astrobe resemble his own imaginary world.

On Astrobe there is no sickness, poverty, misery, guilt, repression, or superstition. Justice is nearly perfect, requiring few courts since crime is rare. Humans enjoy freedom and every luxury. Citizens can pursue their interests in any of the arts and sciences. Travel over the planet is instantaneous. Even the weather is controlled.

When Thomas first sees Astrobe, he is astounded:

The riches of civilized Astrobe were almost beyond comprehending. Thomas had a quick eye and a rapid mind, but he was dazzled by the wonders. Here were the homes and buildings of many millions of people, grand city after grand city, all in luxury and beauty and ease. Nor was it only the buildings and perfected land and parks. It was the people. They were elegant and large and incredibly urbane, full of tolerant amusement for the rolling spectacle, of a superior mien, of a shattering superiority. They were the true Kings of Astrobe. Every man was a king, every woman was at least queenly (55).

Overwhelmed by the beauty and splendor of Astrobe, Thomas comments: "For good or bad, this is what all folks have wanted from the beginning" (55).

Strangely though, Thomas discovers that the people of Astrobe are discontented. Millions of citizens migrate to Cathead, the Barrio, and the feral regions, unregulated areas outside golden Astrobe where life is nasty, brutish, and short. Cathead has become the planet's largest city as people abandon the most pleasant life ever devised for an existence of misery. No one is forced to enter the poverty of Cathead:

The people had entered the Cathead thing by free choice, and they could give it up any instant they wished. The people who coughed up their lungs at the terrible labor there were low poor people who could be high rich people by sundown tonight if they wished. They were hard surly folks who had entered the slavery deliberately, and more were entering it all the time. They went out in the sea-harvest boats that made old-fashioned garbage scows seem like dream ships. They worked twenty hours a day on the noisome sea, and three years of such work would kill the strongest (155-156).

Thomas's initial reaction to Astrobe is perplexity: how can the people of Cathead reject happiness when they have been offered it on a platter? Why choose misery over a golden life? The people of the slums inform Thomas that a miserable life is better than no life at all. As he asks questions and explores this brave new world, Thomas discovers that the best people on the planet, those of finest intellect and judgment, have migrated to Cathead.

Thomas falls in love with the golden dream and is contemptuous of those who reject it. He promises to pull Cathead down brick by brick and remove the cancer. He "spent entire days marveling at the wonderful ways of Astrobe. And yet he wanted to look more deeply into the workings of the thing, to examine its more distant roots and sources" (85-86). Although Thomas is enthralled, he's an independent-enough thinker to examine it root and branch, and finds himself wondering if is it possible the dissenters have a point that he just can't see.

According to an educational computer, the précis machine, everyone in Astrobe lives

in constant ecstasy. We come to have a single mind and a single spirit. The people of Astrobe do not dream at night, for a dream is a maladjustment. We do not have an unconscious, as the ancient people had, for an unconscious is the dark side, and we are all light. For us there is no future. The future is now (80).

In its reiteration of Astrobe's perfections, the educational computer has alerted us to its flaws. Humans do not want to live in a world without dreams, or without an unconscious, or even without a dark side. The future should never be now, because then there is no opportunity for change, creation, or achievement. Astrobe maintains its perfect, unchanging world by crushing individuality and molding everyone into a single mind. Telepathic, programmed killers patrol the planet and kill anyone whose thoughts run against the Astrobe dream, thus creating a world where even thought is not free. Lafferty demonstrates one of the problems of the Utopian genre: maintaining a perfect world often requires totalitarian measures that destroy the perfection.

On Astrobe: "There were no individuals with sharp edges, there were no dissenting or pernicious elements, there was the high flat plane of excellence in all things. What can you say against a world that has gained every goal ever set? And there was pleasant termination available as soon as a touch of weariness set in"(82). Strangely though, Thomas had "to hold onto [himself] with both hands every time [he] pass[ed] a termination booth" (82).

Why does Astrobe weary its citizens until they flee to slums or clamber into termination booths? As Thomas attempts to unravel these mysteries, he discovers that politics on Astrobe have degenerated into a sorry joke, and spectacle: the recent World Presidents include Mr. X, the Masked Marvel, the Asteroid Midas, and the Hawk-Man from Helios, names reminiscent of Roman gladiators or "medieval" American wrestlers. The committee that brought him to Astrobe plans to use him as a front. Thomas is introduced to the people as the "Past Master," another short-lived entertainment for a sodden mass that has few interests other than meaningless pleasures. Yet Thomas insists that he will not be a puppet for powerful men, or the planet's machines; he will preside.

As the novel progresses, Sir Thomas More develops into the most complex and well-rounded character in Lafferty's corpus. Lafferty tends to create characters that are symbols more than people, but Thomas comes through as an interesting person: a rational Renaissance humanist with an agile, open mind, and an earthy sense of humor. (2) More also is an ethical and honest man who would rather die than support something that goes against his conscience.

Lafferty's More bears an interesting relation to the historical figure, who has fascinated a number of writers, including Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons (which was also made into an excellent movie). More is remembered as a writer because of Utopia, a book that is partly a traveler's tale and partly a philosophical dialogue between More, his friend Peter Gilles, and an imaginary traveler Raphael Hythloday. Raphael describes Utopia: an island he visited in the New World where the people have created a rationally planned state where religious tolerance is practiced, divorce because of mutual incompatibility is accepted, a communist economic system is enacted, and the aristocracy is abolished. Everyone works six hours a day, and the material benefits are spread equally throughout the population. More coined the word "Utopia" by punning on two Greek phrases, "no place" and "good place," making it difficult to discern whether More meant his Utopia to be an ideal world, or an entertainment describing an impossible world.

At the end of the book, More disputes many of Raphael's points, claiming that without private property people will not work hard, and without an aristocracy a society cannot achieve greatness. More left his Utopia deliberately ambiguous—in sixteenth century England, someone expressing radical ideas could be hung, drawn, and quartered, so even if More agreed with Raphael's points it would be politically injudicious to admit it. Putting the description of Utopia into the mouth of an imaginary traveler and then denying its more controversial features gave More plausible deniability.

Interpreting More's Utopia is complicated by the fact that his behavior as a public figure contradicted the ideals of his book. He was a heresy-hunter rather than a religiously tolerant man. He supported the aristocracy and worked for the king most of his life. He eventually lost his head because he refused to support a divorce that most of the political and religious authorities of his day endorsed.

The ambiguities of Utopia and More's life have fascinated commentators for centuries. Socialists have often read Utopia as a "good place", a blueprint for a communist society, whereas Catholics tend to view it as "no place", an impossible world that satirizes the evils of its time.

Lafferty's novel—partly a response to More's book, and partly an examination of utopias in general—attacks the socialist reading of More's novel. In Past Master, More claims that he "wrote in bitter and laughing irony of that sickest of all possible worlds"(33), and is surprised that his book has been misunderstood. When the précis machine tells More of the material plenty and the socialist egalitarianism of Astrobe, More responds, "I invented [Utopia]. It was a bitter joke. It was how not to build a world" (81).

As Thomas finds out more about Astrobe, he feels like a science fiction writer who lives in his own sour joke of a world. The flaws of Utopia and Astrobe are similar in that they both destroy individuality and privacy.

In Utopia everyone shares the work, eats in communal dining halls, and lives in identical houses and cities. All houses are open to the public and devoid of privacy. In More's Utopia, despite the apparent justice and equality, inhabitants suffer from a complete lack of personal freedom: they cannot travel without permission, and everyone watches everyone else. Many of the minor, frivolous pleasures of life are banished; for example, clothing is uniform and devoid of ostentation. (3)

On Astrobe the lack of privacy and individuality is even more pronounced: computers read your thoughts and kill you if you deviate from the Astrobe ideal. The Open Mind Act is a law that gives anyone on Astrobe the right to use a telepathy machine and "dial up" another citizen and read his or her mind so that even one's thoughts are not one's own. Maintaining the egalitarian, unchanging worlds of Astrobe and Utopia requires constant spying and regulation of the citizen's movements, actions, words, and even thoughts.

Thomas announces early in the novel that he will study Astrobe until he finds the real king, the puppeteer pulling everyone's string. He discovers—as is common in Lafferty's work—conspiracies within conspiracies. At the beginning of the novel, a small committee of powerful men appears to control the planet, but Thomas peels away layers of deceit to discover that the mechanical, programmed men really run the world, and that most humans have become as programmed and mechanical as their masters.

The machines horrify Thomas by informing him that neither they nor people have consciousness. Thomas feels that without consciousness human existence has no meaning or value, whereas to the machines humans are nothing but cogs in a mechanical universe. The great theme of Lafferty's writing is the collapse of values in the modern world, and in this novel he portrays a machine-dominated world drowning in nihilism. The pervading sense of meaninglessness drives millions to abandon the material plenty of Astrobe for Cathead, where they feel their existence can have some purpose, despite the poverty.

Astrobe's rational machines cannot understand many facets of human consciousness; creativity and faith have largely been banned from Astrobe. For all its material progress, Astrobe only offers half a life, with no room for creativity, dreaming, or art. The wellspring of human consciousness, the unconscious, is banished by the rational machines as an aberration. Lafferty does a remarkably good job portraying a society in which humans are given every luxury and pleasure, but find their existence miserable.

Science Fiction is always as much about the author's own time as about the future, and Lafferty's future "Utopia" is a critique of the modern world as a time of material plenty and spiritual impoverishment, in which politics and values are degraded into spectacle.

Lafferty's concern with nihilism undoubtedly derives from his Catholicism. One of the problems of Astrobe is the death of religion. No one on Astrobe attends Mass; it is out of place on a world so rational. Even before the Church died it degenerated into a joke and a spectacle. The only believers in the Mass abandoned Astrobe for the miseries of Cathead and the Barrio. However, Lafferty's opposition to nihilism is based on a broader set of concerns than religion. He feels that the modern world has caused a deterioration in all values, producing people who don't believe in anything.

Lafferty's More replicates his historical end by dying a martyr. The novel telegraphs that ending through obvious foreshadowing; suspense was never Lafferty's strong point, and he's much more interested in his theories and ideas than in the plot. More opposes a law the Programmed People create banning any belief in a beyond, either God or an afterlife. Since Astrobe is perfect, the Programmed People argue there is no need to desire anything beyond, that belief is regressive much like the unconscious or dreams. More prefers to die rather than sign that law, which has as its real purpose to crush the small remnants of the human spirit.

Thomas's martyrdom results in the people rioting against Astrobe, and overthrowing the rule of the programmed persons. More's sacrifice shows the people of the future that dying for a set of values is better than a pointless life, even if that life has every material satisfaction. There was a tradition among Renaissance humanists that the value of a person's life is determined by how he or she faces death. A man willing to face death and meet his/her maker has lived a just life. Michel Montaigne's essay, "To Philosophize is to Learn to Die", is an excellent analysis of that tradition. By bringing that Renaissance tradition into his future world, Lafferty contrasts the hollow, pleasure-filled lives of the Utopians to a devout person willing to die for a set of values. More's death helps humanity survive a dire period and offers the possibility for humans to create new meaning and new societies in the future.

Past Master is a novel laden with ideas, theories, and a colorful robust future. It offers innovative narrative techniques, and criticizes the genre of Utopianism for obsessing over material progress at the expense of inner development. Overall, Past Master is a novel so dense with ideas that it rewards both careful reading and rereading.


  1. Sir Thomas More's honesty is an important part of his historical reputation. Sir William Roper—who was married to More's beloved daughter Margaret—wrote the Life of More, a lively biography that emphasized More's religious devotion and tends towards hagiography (so some of its claims should be taken with a grain of salt). According to Roper, More was one of the few great men of his time who did not enrich himself through bribes. He told one of his sons-in-law, "if the parties [of a legal case] will at my hand call for justice, then were it my father stood on one side and the devil on the other side (if his cause were good), the devil should have right" (237 Life of More). In at least one legal case, More ruled against another of his sons-in-law when he was in the wrong, and this occurred at a time when justice was generally dispensed by family connections and bribes.
  2. An aspect of More's personality that Lafferty portrays well is his renowned sense of humor. When he was a youth, he would amuse the court of Cardinal Wolsey by walking on stage during plays and creating impromptu parts for himself. He was immensely fond of court jesters or fools, which were certainly an example of the coarse, earthy humor of the day. Thomas's comments and jests in the novel illustrate this side of his character.
  3. More was attracted to the Utopian scorn for luxury because of his religious upbringing. He spent part of his youth in a monastery and developed great respect for the monks' devotion. More considered joining the religious orders until his father pushed him into the law, and wore a hairshirt most of his life, even as his successful career brought him much wealth. When More's favorite daughter Margaret visited him in the Tower during his imprisonment, he told her: "I believe, Meg, that they that have put me here think they have done me a high displeasure. But I assure you on my faith, mine own dear daughter, if it had not been for my wife and you that are my children, whom I count the chief part of my charge, I would not have failed, long ere this, to have closed myself in so narrow a room and narrower too [he meant a monk's cell]" (Roper, Life of More, 261). More's Utopians were as austere as he was. The Utopians were contemptuous of gold and jewelry. Children were given gold as baubles, but they were expected to outgrow them. Criminals and slaves were weighed down by gold because wearing gold or jewelry was considered a sign of immaturity and infamy.

Works Referenced

Lafferty, R.A. Past Master. Wildside Press: Berkeley Heights, N.J., 1999.

More, Sir Thomas. The Utopia of Sir Thomas More including Roper's Life of More and Letters of More and His Daughter Margaret. Modernized Texts, with Notes and Introduction by Mildred Campbell. Classics Club: Roslyn, N.Y., 1947.

Copyright © 2008, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.


Sep 2, 05:33 by IROSF
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