Friday, January 24, 2014

Ringing Changes 1: Parthen

For some reason, Ringing Changes (1984) is an often overlooked collection of Lafferty stories. It is not as even in quality as Nine Hundred Grandmothers, but it contains some of his greatest stories. Any collection that contains “Parthen,” “Old Foot Forgot,” “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” and “Been a Long, Long Time” is a major collection. The fact that this was a readily available paperback may have helped introduce vast numbers of readers to the strength and magic of Lafferty’s writing.


Ringing Changes starts off with a bang with “Parthen.” The aliens have arrived. Never has the spring been so beautiful, never has business been so grand, and never have the women been so beautiful! All this in spite of the fact that it is a brutal, cold, wet spring, business failures and bankruptcies are at record-breaking highs, and the women--never have the women been so beautiful. This is a perfect little Science Fiction piece about global takeover by hostile aliens told without ever showing what is actually happening, or even acknowledging that anything is going on. Yet he leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what is actually taking place.

Parthen also includes one of the best descriptions of a beautiful woman in all of SF (and also in a large part of literature in general). Consider for a moment, in Golden Age SF women were mainly damsels in distress that swooned and fell in love at first sight with their rescuers--what an author friend of mine referred to as “rescuable commodities.” Occasionally their moon-like pale faces were described, or their hair or eyes. Later, in New Wave SF, women were often described as tanned and glistening and then the narrator would jump to the sex scene (I think New Wave SF writers were often horny and frustrated).

Lafferty avoided outright sex in his stories--instead, he took his time describing his female characters with classical allusions and implied desire. Then he let the reader fill the rest in, the resulting narrative depending more on the quality and patience of the reader’s imagination. Lafferty only provided the framework. Thus only he could have described a beautiful woman with a passage like:

She was a golden girl with hair like honey. Her eyes were blue—or they were green—or they were violet or gold and they held a twinkle that melted a man. The legs of the creature were like Greek poetry and the motion of her hips was something that went out of the world with the old sail ships. Her breastwork had a Gothic upsweep—her neck was passion incarnate and her shoulders were of a glory past describing. In her whole person she was a study of celestial curvatures.

Should you never have heard her voice, the meaning of music has been denied you. Have you not enjoyed her laughter? Then your life remains unrealized.

Imagine the beauty he is describing--an image springs to mind quite easily, but he actually gave us very little actual physical description. To describe her legs as Greek poetry and the motion of her hips as reminiscent of the old sail ships doesn’t tell us exactly what they look like but what our reaction to seeing them would be like.

This description and the description of the other women as being at least as beautiful is pivotal to the plot. The conclusion to the story is never in doubt, and is not in itself a surprise. How he reaches the end and what he doesn’t tell us is where the surprises are.

Daniel Petersen has a characteristically brilliant blog post on the story here:


  1. I've never actually fallen in love with this story, even as I recognize the consistently high level of the prose within. The fault, I'm sure, is within myself; when I come round to this story I'll do my best to seek it out and eradicate it. (Actually even as I say it, I think I know it's this: I prefer the Lafferty women who are fun-loving, tart, and brilliant: the Dotties, the Anastasias, and so on.)

    Anyway, some quotes from editions of Parthen:

    del Rey, in his Best of the Year: "When you find a story where all the logic is somehow slaunchways but where the result is pure delight, you don't need to see the author's name; it will be by R.A. Lafferty. And under all the strangeness will be a curious reality."

    And Wollheim's blurb, from *his* Best of: "Here's a statement on women's lib to end all such statements. Lafferty, as usual, takes a different view of it. We doubt the ladies will object—and as for the gentlemen, they all seemed to enjoy it."

  2. My suspicion is that Ringing Changes gets lost in the shuffle because it gets pretty slow in the middle. Brain Fever Season isn't bad, but And Read the Flesh Between the Lines didn't live up to an excellent title, and the Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos and The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen aren't particularly memorable.

    Days of Grass, Days of Straw is probably in my top five all-time Lafferty stories, but he doesn't have many collections that lull for quite as long as this one does.

  3. Oddly enough, Ringing Changes was originally published in Dutch with "Days of Grass, Days of Straw" as the title story; only afterward was it published in English.

    I think part of the lull you feel may be because we get a bunch of Austro/Barnaby Sheen stories here, but out of order and without much clear logic (unlike the pretty clear progression in the Through Elegant Eyes volume released only a year or two earlier). The two stories you single out there are actually half of a quartet (with Hellaceous Rocket of Harry O'Donovan and Two-Headed Lion of Cris Benedetti); I'm still not sure why they get split up.

    1. Maybe that explains it. I just don't care for the Barnaby Sheen stories I've read so far. Slippery was fun, and a couple others with Austro and not much Barnaby ("The Funny Face Murders," "All Hollow Though You Be") were good, but the bulk of the Sheen stories I've read are the ones from Golden Gate, and none of them were particularly memorable to me.

      But perhaps it's the fault of the way they're collected and not of the stories themselves. Or maybe I just don't like Barnaby.

  4. Probably too late to converse with Andrew about this here, but I just wanted to say: I totally get what your saying about preferring other of Lafferty's women, Andrew, but actually Peggy Ronsard, though she has only a tiny role in a tiny story here, has always struck me as yet another of Lafferty's wonderfully strong and salty female characters. Her character, evinced in her few sparkling lines, flashes out potently. She's one for the books in my mind, a sister to Dottie and Valery and other gals that got larger roles.