Lafferty's Time-Travelling Spacefaring Dreamworld Arabian Nights

by Arthur B

Arthur enjoyed Sindbad: the Thirteenth Voyage, by R.A. Lafferty, but wonders whether it isn't very slightly offensive.
Having thoroughly enjoyed a short story collection of his, I was quite keen to read the novels of R.A. Lafferty, but The Devil Is Dead just ended up annoying me. So it's with some trepidation that I came to Sindbad: the Thirteenth Voyage, another volume of Lafferty's that I obtained on the cheap when Blackwell's sold off most of their stock of imported SF and fantasy.

As is frequently the case with Lafferty, The Thirteenth Voyage takes a fantasy concept (the world of the Arabian Nights), dresses it up in fancy SF clothes (Lafferty posits a medieval Arabia regularly visited by spacemen and time travellers) and then treats it as a fantasy anyway. Essindibad Copperbottom is the original Sindbad, a starfarer from the blissful planet of Kentauron Mikron who is sent to track down Harun, the Boy-King of frequent reincarnations, but soon realises that the Boy-King's nature is far more sinister than he remembers. John Scarlatti Thunderson is a boy genius who, at the tender age of 16, invents Open-Ended Analytical Geometry, allowing him to construct an Almost-Anything machine to transport him to the medieval Arabia he is so fond of, and who soon enough supplants Essindibad as the True Sindbad. Scheherazade, the story-teller of the Arabian Nights, is a struggling writer from Chicago who was taken back in time to magical Baghdad by Harun, who has become Caliph of the Muslim world. Mamun the Great is a Caliph who comes to the throne after the abdication of his father, Harun, and the death of his brother.

These four share the duties of narration, Essindibad taking care of most of it (and framing the others' stories), John's diaries accounting for about a quarter of the book, Scheherazade only being permitted to directly narrate one portion, and Mamun getting only a short speech at the end. Based on the prelude, I get the impression that Lafferty may have originally planned to give more prominant roles to Scheherazade and Mamun, but didn't have space to in the less than 160 pages the novel unfolds over. This isn't too much of a problem though - the two Sindbads are quite capable of holding a story on their own. The differing narrative viewpoints allow Lafferty to introduce interesting contraditions to proceedings, as well as letting him gloss over certain areas which none of the narrators seem inclined to discuss. Like the early, superior segment of The Devil Is Dead, the plot unfolds according to a sort of dream-logic. By the end, it makes intuitive sense that the escape of the devils from Hell and their dispersal to all the worlds of the universe isn't such a terrible thing, and a happy ending may be had after all, but I can't put my finger on why.

While this book is prime Lafferty, I do have to take issue with one thing: its unsympathetic treatment of Islam. Lafferty depicts an Arabia where the installation of a new Caliph entails the use of a hundred gallons of Christian blood (peacefully donated, but still), and three hundred severed heads (not peacefully donated, obviously). Scheherazade speculates at one point that she lives in an alternate timeline, and that in the "real" world there was never any such thing as Islam at all, and the world ended in the year 1000 AD with the Second Coming of Christ unfolding according to plan. It is possible to overlook or excuse much of this - Lafferty may be depicting an alternate, fantasy Islam of the sort imagined by Westerners reading translations of the Arabian Nights, or indicating the corruption of the Caliphate under the influence of the sinister Harun - but one man's exotic foreign culture is another man's cultural background. I imagine that Lafferty, a devout Catholic, would be made decidedly uncomfortable by a book in which the investiture of a new Pope involved mass bloodshed, or in which Catholicism is written off as a historical accident. I hope I'm not being too sensitive about this - in every other respect the book is excellent - but while I would recommend it to everyone, I can't recommend it entirely without reservation. It's kind of like the older Tintin stories in that way...

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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 11:11 on 2008-05-01
I certainly don't think it's oversensitive to have reservations about an especially bigoted or ignorant treatment of religion!
Arthur B at 12:13 on 2008-05-01
I think it is more bigoted - or at the very least dismissive - than it is ignorant. I don't think Lafferty genuinely believes that the installation of Caliph was an especially blood-soaked affair, or that Islam is a historical accident; I do, however, think that he decided to treat Islam as part of the Arabian Nights fantasy, and felt free to play around with it in the same manner as he was playing around with, say, Ifrits and talking flying ships and whatnot.

It's especially irritating because it's so needless, and doesn't even really fit the spirit of the Arabian Nights. To my knowledge, the Nights, whilst playing with every other subject under the Sun, are - where religion is even mentioned - reasonably devout, and for most of the time religion doesn't even come into the proceedings. It's like writing a story based off of European fairy tales where the Church requires each worshipper to kill a Jew before receiving baptism, and where Catholicism is an enormous conspiracy to cover up Jesus's secret marriage to Mary Magdalen and the bloodline of his children; The Da Vinci Code doesn't really work in the context of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Wardog at 17:05 on 2008-05-02
Mmm...people really can get away with slightly too much in fantasy can't they? It's a genuine shame but no wonder it has so little respect as a genre. at 22:46 on 2014-10-15
Hi Arthur,

Greetings to a fellow Lafferty fan!

I just wanted to let you know that I interact with your review a bit here:


Arthur B at 02:40 on 2014-10-16
Thanks! Unfortunately it is so long since I read this book (or even possessed it) that I can't usefully engage with most discussions of it at this point.
James D at 03:52 on 2014-10-17
I haven't read this particular novel, but I have to say that Lafferty's style definitely seems to work best in the short story format. I've read Fourth Mansions, which I did like, but fuck was it dense and confusing. Tons of theological symbolism mixed with bizarre conspiracy theories and psychic powers and a caste of immortal elites who change their names and faces over the years but can always be recognized due to their "archaic ears".
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