Thursday, October 22, 2009

Middle Shelf Story: R.A. Lafferty's "Golden Trabant"

The man who entered, though quiet and soft-stepping, was none of your tame animals. He'd kill for the one thing he wanted and couldn't get enough of; but he hardly knew what to do with the packet of it he had under his arm. The man had a slight green tinge to him, and Patrick T. K. guessed that what he carried would have it also.
Good authors possess distinction. When you read their works, you can scarcely mistake them for another's. Sometimes it comes through in description, in a particularly poetic turn of phrase. You may find it in a reoccurring type of character, a preoccupation with a particular theme or a preference for certain types of settings. Fans of R.A. Lafferty easily identify his writing through its quirkiness, a tendency to slide into drollness and absurdity even in its darkest interludes. And "Golden Trabant" certainly qualifies as dark, a grim fable about greed that features as its protagonist not a person but a metal.

"We have a nice sketchy catalog of every asteroid down to about that size," said Grinder. "Nobody knows much about their details, but they are numbered and given their relative positions and speeds in the asteroid stream. Can you tell us which it is?"

"Can't. Won't," said Szild. "But I'll take you there."

Szild had known that he would have to play his ace on the first round. After he had taken them to it, they would have no reason to keep him alive: but he had gambled his life before.
Only four men knew where the gold came from. Well, five if you count the one who bought the first batch, a 120-pound package little larger than a loaf of bread. But he only had a general idea. You see, he could determine any ore's provenance simply by looking at it, could tell the place where it had been pulled from the earth, be it Africa or Canada or California. He'd never seen gold like this before, which meant there was only one logical conclusion: It hadn't come from earth at all. An absurd supposition, utterly ridiculous. The world laughed at the idea. Deep-space mining was infeasible at current levels of technology. They were decades away from realizing it, maybe longer. But the world didn't laugh for long, because the gold kept coming. And coming. And coming.

If one small shrew is put into a warren of mice or rats, it causes panic. The shrew is smaller than any of them and it may be one against hundreds. But it will eat them; it will eat them alive. And given time, it will eat them all.

Something like this happened to the green money, the white money, the rainbow-colored money of the world. Token shrivels before the thing itself. It could not stand up to free and growing gold.
The finer points of currency manipulation don't usually feature front-and-center in speculative fiction, but that's exactly how Lafferty employs them, to great effect. Even if you snored your way through macroecon, you'll likely find fascinating the implications of turning the oldest determiner of value loose on an unsuspecting global economy. The result isn't pretty. Indeed, by the end the quirkiness of "Trabant" surrenders to horror of a type that students of history know all too well. Left to itself, unfettered greed always becomes a root that flowers into all sorts of evil.

You can read "Golden Trabant" in Does Anyone Else Have Something Further To Add?


Peter Rozovsky said...

I hadn't heard of this guy, but there's some good stuff in the selections you quoted. Thanks.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Loren Eaton said...

De nada, sir! Lafferty is something of a forgotten gem, which means it's very difficult to find his stuff in print. His mode of storytelling reads like you blended tall-tale folklore with science fiction and threw in some very odd allusions.

Peter Rozovsky said...

You should mention him on Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten Books, if you haven’t already.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Loren Eaton said...

I wasn't at all familiar with Patti's blog. Am adding to my RSS reader now ...

Todd Mason said...

Indeed. Rafferty, a genius, would write so as not to Drink. A retired electrician, he broke into the little magazines and the sf and fantasy digests more or less simultaneously in 1959/1960 (rather like Carol Emshwiller a year or so previously, others likewise, but Emshwiller rather similar in some ways), won a Hugo for one of his lesser stories in the early-mid '70s, and had some difficulty finding publishers for some of his later work, so that much of that first came to light in little chapbooks published by longterm book dealer Chris Drumm...some of those novels published a chapter or two at a time, over a small slew of Drumm Booklets. His historical novel OKLA HANNALI was kept in print a good long time by U OK Press, iirc. Peter, if you don't find him before the next Noircon, I'll have a copy of NINE HUNDRED GRANDMOTHERS, at least, to pass along...DOES ANYONE ELSE HAVE ANYTHING FURTHER TO ADD? might be even better, but it's close...and PAST MASTER and..."Fog in My Throat" is one of the lifetime favorite horror stories for me. Though most of his work is more like modernist tall tales, Donald Barthelme wedded to John D. MacDonald and often funnier than either chose to be.

Loren Eaton said...

I got interested in Lafferty after reading Neil Gaiman's "Sunbird," which he said he specifically modeled after Lafferty's stories. He's can be a little bit of a challenge to read (some of his shorts truly go off of the surrealist deep end), but when he nails it it's magic.

Thanks for mentioning "Fog in My Throat," Todd. I like a good horror story and would love to see what Lafferty does with the genre.