R. A. Lafferty’s 1968 Past Master is a standalone science fiction novel.
The planet of Astrobe was planned as a utopia, but it is collapsing into lethal civil discord. Determined to preserve their vision, the triumvirate who regard themselves as Astrobe’s governing committee — rich Cosmos Kingmaker, lucky Peter Proctor, and smart Fabian Foreman — do what any concerned person might do in their place: they resort to time-travel to yank a great man out of history to deal with Astrobe’s problems.
And which historic figure has the unique combination of virtues needed to manage the crisis? None other than Thomas More.
More accepts the offer of a trip to the year 2535 with surprising equanimity; perhaps that reflects an essential adaptability, or perhaps he’s all too aware that matters in his native time period were trending in a direction inconsistent with his head remaining on his shoulders. He is swiftly conveyed to a world a little over a parsec away but a thousand years in the future.
He finds a world of contradictions. On the one hand, nobody needs ever go hungry on Astrobe. The authorized cities are splendors of urban perfection. The government is selected by the very best of methods, no longer hobbled by imperfect democracy. Its laws are enforced by automatons that do not waver and cannot be bribed; thus, justice is inevitable.
And yet, many people reject utopia. The largest city on the planet is an unsanctioned vast slum, to which people move despite its inherent poverty and squalid conditions. Violence is rife (not helped by the fact the manufactured persons charged with enforcing the law are extremely keen on the death penalty). How could this be?
Popped into place as global President, More sets out to better understand his adopted world. He may not be able to grasp the problem. Failure to do so may result in a violent death — his.
The current edition of Past Master pitches Past Master as “Wolf Hall meets The Man in the High Castle, ”presumably because Wolf Hall also features Thomas More — albeit cast in a less flattering light than that offered by Past Master —while Castle features drug-sodden woo-woo mysticism . I suspect, however, fans of the Mantel book, at least, won’t find anything that they’d like in the Lafferty production.
The author to whom I might compare Lafferty would not be Mantel or Dick (who I suspect were chosen in the hope that potential readers have heard of them, or at least the television shows and movies based on their work) but the much more obscure A. E. Van Vogt. Past Master has the same frenetic pacing and the same forceful presentation of confident nonsense as cosmic truth as a number of Van Vogt’s … um, struggling for the right word here … productions.
Readers fifty-three years ago loved this or at least enough fans did that the novel landed on the Hugo ballot. Enough writers did that Lafferty garnered a Nebula nomination. It’s hard to argue with such broad support from readers and colleagues and yet … here we are. Presumably the nominators saw something in this book that was invisible to me. At least the book was short.
1: “Was he on drugs when he wrote this?” seems likely to be answered in the affirmative for Dick. I am not so sure Lafferty needed drugs to come at reality from a 90-degree skew.