Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 2: The Six Fingers of Time

"He began by breaking things that morning." 
Bill Hader, in his much appreciated NYT article mentioned the first line of "The Six Fingers of Time" as an example of how engaging Lafferty Lunacy is. But in a way, what we have here is Lafferty in classic SF mode. This appears to be a simple story with a simple--almost Twilight-Zone-like twist at the end. Except that it isn't.

On one level, it is a very easy story, told in a prose style that is much more straightforward than some of Lafferty's more ebulliently effervescent efforts. The story proceeds and we keep guessing about 1/2 step ahead of the main character, but Lafferty still manages to surprise and delight us at the end. If that were all there is to this story, it would be a very good story.

But there is much more to the story. On another level, it is a story about ultimate temptation and choices. It asks if a man, Charles Vincent, the protagonist, is moral enough to choose faith and humanity when offered a chance to be a lord of time--to live a life as long as his mortal soul's and to therefore have power over time and fate--if only he'll chose to ally with certain powers that "smell of the pit". Ultimately Vincent chooses to reject the shadowy and perhaps demonic forces and to wrest that power from them for humanity. It is a valiant if doomed effort. On this level, it still uses the SF trope of the one clever man pitted against an organized army that holds all the cards in its hand. In the standard version of that story line, the one clever man succeeds, but in Lafferty's story, they continue to hold all the cards--beginning, middle, and end.

And on yet another level, it is the story of the forces that beset humanity. He hints at a conspiracy, far older than Humanity and far older than Humanity's current bargain with God in the Garden. This conspiracy lives on in vestigial form in modern Humanity--in this story taking the form of a mutation for six fingers on the hand. The members of this conspiracy claim that by right of prior occupation, they are exempt from such concepts as good and evil, salvation and damnation. The idea of a prehistoric, genetic conspiracy of an older race against mankind is the nexus of The Devil is Dead and Fourth Mansions. It seems to underlie a large portion of Lafferty's work, with the message that as humans we are beset, but we may just have the creativity, energy, and faith to overcome and eliminate these conspiracies.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was an early work of Lafferty's, finished in 1959, and first published in 1960. Consider the state of Science Fiction in 1960. Standard "Golden Age" storytelling was still dominant. Shows like The Twilight Zone were just getting started with admittedly very good writing and perhaps a sting in the tail. And here Lafferty gives us a story that is one on level a fun, easy story about a man learning a trick and being tricked in the end. On another level it is a battle within a human soul between temptation and ethics, and on another level, it is the introduction to an ongoing examination of the forces that metaphorically beset us , Mankind, in our journey toward spiritual evolution.

So the opening line of the story, I think applies very well to Lafferty's writing in general: "He began by breaking things."

By a combination of circumstances that Andrew Ferguson covers on Continued on Next Rock, "The Six Fingers of Time" is one of two Lafferty stories in the public domain. It is available on Gutenberg here: 

1 comment:

  1. Great entry. Not much to add, other than it came along just at the right time for me to quote and cite it.