Thursday, January 23, 2014

Space Chantey

The Lay of Road-Storm from the ancient Chronicles
We give you here, Good Spheres and Cool-Boy Conicals, 
And perils pinnacled and parts impossible
And every word of it the sworn-on Gosipel. 
Lend ear while things incredible we bring about
And Spacemen dead and deathless yet we sing about: -- 
And some were weak and wan, and some were strong enough,
And some got home, but damn it took them long enough!
Something different this week. Not a Classic; not a Hugo-Winner; not a work by one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction. But Space Chantey is something special; a rollicking epic from a quirky writer who elevated the tall tale beyond the stratosphere.

R.A. Lafferty was a contemporary of Roger Zelazny. Like him, he was a part of the "New Wave" that overtook science fiction in the '60s and '70s. His writing was greatly influenced by oral storytelling and does not easily fit into the usual categories of science fiction, even by the iconoclastic standards of the New Wave.

What attracted me to Space Chantey when I encountered it in my Dad's collection of SF paperbacks in our basement was probably it's cover and interior illustrations by the legendary underground cartoonist Vaughn Bode. And the peculiarity of it's format: it was published as an "Ace Double", a peculiar "flip book" format that Ace Books experimented with in the 1960s. Space Chantey's companion on the other side was Pity About Earth by Ernest Hill, which did not impress me as much when I first read it, but which I probably should revisit one of these days.

Space Chantey probably could have been entitled "Space Odyssey" had Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke not already been using that name, for Lafferty's book is nothing less than the wanderings of Odysseus, fitted with rockets and hurled into the depths of space, as told by Burl Ives. But the book's opening can describe it better:
Will there be a mythology in the future, they used to ask, after all has become science? Will high deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code? 
And after the questing spirit had gone into overdrive during the early Space Decades, after the great Captains had appeared, there did grow up a mythos through which to view the deeds. This myth filter was necessary. The ship logs could not tell it rightly nor could any flatfooted prose. And the deeds were too bright to be viewed direct. They could only be sung by a bard gone blind from viewing suns that were suns.
The "bard gone blind" of course is a reference to Homer; but it could also be a shout-out to Rhysling, the blind poet of the spaceways in Heinlein's short story "The Green Hills of Earth". Lafferty's tale is punctuated by lines of verse whose bawdy exuberance is certainly worthy of Rhysling; heroic couplets that may be ragged and doggerelly, but are the more heroic because they are about heroes. There is music in Lafferty's prose as well as his verse and his extravagant preposterous rhymes are more joyous than any bloodless vers libre.

The tale begins with a group of soldiers ready to go home. The war has lasted ten years, but now it's over. There are six Captains, commanders of small hornet-class spaceships, and their crews, "the saltiest, most sulfurous men who could be combed out of the skies." One of the captains is named Roadstrum, and he states the matter plainly:
"I would say let us go directly home. We were boys when this began, and we are not boys now. We should go home, but I could be talked into something else. 
"Dammit, I said I could be talked into something else!"
Something else turns out to be the planet Lotophage. "They say it is Fiddler's Green and Theleme rolled together," Captain Puckett says. "...If we don't like it we can leave at any time."

Had Roadstrum known more of the ancient languages of World, he might have remembered that Lotophage means "Lotus-eater" and been more wary. Then again, it might not have made any difference. And so, Roadstrum's great Odyssey begins.

They escape the deadly trap of Lotophage, the planet which is Utopia, Hy-Brasail, the Hesperides, and the end of every road -- because Roadstrum isn't ready for his road to end.

They encounter the joyous giants of Lamos, or Valhal as the natives call it, who inexplicably speak a dialect of Old Norse, who spend every day in feasting and killing each other -- and who then come back to life the next morning to do it all again.

They pass through a swarm of asteroids which act strangely like cattle -- and taste like cattle too -- which bear a brand that looks like the Sun. They soon come to regret eating of that celestial herd.

They hear the song of the Siren-Zo, an insidious ear-worm which drives men to madness because it's final note is missing. They wrestle with a big guy standing at the Center of the Universe who holds all of reality in his powerful mind. They land on Polyphemia, a pastoral world where the sheep walk on two legs and speak, and where the natives have unspeakable dietary habits. They fall under the spell of Aeaea, the enchantress whose song turns men to beasts and whom they escape only by committing a brutal and unspeakable crime.

Feminists be warned: These are testosterone-filled tales of rough and rowdy men doing rough and rowdy manly things. The only significant female character is Margaret the Houris, an immortal, amoral party girl. Then again, since Margaret can play as rough as the boys at the boys' own games, I suppose she's a feminist in some respects herself.

Throughout their adventures, Roadstrum occasionally comes across the legend that is already growing around his exploits, in the form of "The Lay of the Road-Storm" the epic ballad interspersed between chapters. "It is so long a time since we have had a certified hero in our place," says the leader of the giants of Lamos while taking a break from battle. "You think we be so nice to you if we do not know who you are?" In another chapter, Roadstrum hears a bard telling a tale:
"Puckett, Puckett," he wispered avidly, "just listen to this great stuff. Listen how it goes. What I would not give to be in on a campaign like that one! What I would not give to meet such a leader." 
"Roadstrum, Roadstrum," Puckett chided. "It is yourself and ourselves he talks about; our own epic.... It's part of our own story he tells." 
"Oh, I know that, Puckett. But he tells it so much better than it happened!"
The final chapter tells the story of the Return of Odysseus, as Roadstrum arrives back on World. His crew, those who have survived, have all scattered, and he faces his homecoming by himself. He meets his once-infant son, now twenty years older. Neither one is terribly impressed. The World has changed since he went off to war a lifetime ago. He runs into a few of his old shipmates: Margaret, who has changed her name to Charisse because it's artier and that's how fashions are on World these days; Crewman Trochanter, who still speaks to some of the others, but can't always tell whether they are real or ghosts; and Hondstarfer, the trollish son of the Lamosian giants, a mechanical genius who once fixed their stardrive with his stone hammers.

Oh, and he returns to his wife and kills her many suitors. "It seemed to be what was expected of him. It was fun while it lasted. You know how these things are."

He is now back with his home and family and everything he ever wanted. There's just one thing...
Honor, respect, enjoyment, peace, conjugal love, ease, peace, benignity, peace, perfection, honor, peace. What was wrong with one of the words? 
Peace. How does that sound again? Peace. 
It exploded inside of Roadstrum. He erupted out of the building in a place where there had never been a door, strewing sheets and beams of the building after him. 
"Peace?? For me?? Roadstrom, man, it is yourself you are talking about. Let you not hang it around your own neck! I am great Road-Storm! Peace is for those of the other sort!"
He gathers up the remnants of the old crew he can find, including Margaret, who has decided it would be more fun than becoming a Clarisse, and an old junked spaceship that Hondstarfer can fix up and together they all back to the stars and to adventure.

And what then?

Alas, we have the terminal report of him!
The coded chatter gives the sighted mort of him,
How out beyond the orb of Di Carissimus
His sundered ship became a novanissimus.
His soaring vaunt escapes the blooming ears of us,
He's gone, he's dead, he's dirt, he disappears from us!
Be this the death of highest thrust of human all?
The flaming end of bright and shining crewmen all?
Destroyed? His road is run? It's but a bend of it;
Make no mistake, this only
the end of it.

1 comment:

kurt wilcken said...

As I posted this, I realized that in this piece I make some slighting reference to vers libre. I just want to make clear that I do not intend this as a slam against Bald Minnesotan Poets who are known for their deep souls and their sense of humor.