21 August 2008

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Philip José Farmer

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, February 2008

The Best of Philip José Farmer, Philip José Farmer (Subterranean Press 1-59606-036-0, $38.00, 572pp, hc) 2006. Cover by Michael Komark.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer (Putnam, 221pp, hc) 1971. Cover by Ira Cohen. (Del Rey 0-345-41967-7, $13.95, 224pp, pb) 1998. Cover by John Stevens.

Lord Tyger, Philip José Farmer (Doubleday, 335pp, hc) 1970. Cover by Seymour Chwast.

Pearls from Peoria, Philip José Farmer (Subterranean Press 1-59606-059-3, $45.00, 773pp, hc) 2006.

On the face of it, it's one of the odder gestures in science fiction that Philip José Farmer is a dedicatee of Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). As writers, at least up to that point, they couldn't have been more different. Heinlein, as I argued here last August, was the hard-headed describer and advocate of the future. Farmer, on the other hand, was known for a sequence of SF works beginning with "The Lovers" (1952) characterised by sexual explicitness, fascination with the minutiae of the past, and a wild profusion of ideas. The first is the most obvious thing that they had in common, and what Stranger in particular owed to Farmer. The original shorter version of "The Lovers", collected in Subterranean Press's enormous retrospective The Best of Philip José Farmer, now reads a little oddly, but it's easy to see why it had the influence it did.

It opens in what seems a straightforward way. Humans are exploring a planet called Ozagen. Its inhabitants, insectoid "wogglebugs," are at approximately a 20th-century level of technology, and our human protagonist, Hal Yarrow, is assigned to find as much as he can about their civilisation. Hal is accompanied by a "gapt," a Guardian Angel Pro Tempore, whose role is to ensure that he doesn't infringe his society's moral codes. It's later explained that this is a normal part of Hal's society: state and church have been united, and every ten families on Earth have a gapt supervising them. In Hal's case, his gapt is watching for unsupervised contact with the natives, and for "that unreal conduct, punishable by exile to H and catalogued in the Sefer shel ha Chetim, or the Book of Sins, as Onanism. The long space voyage had resulted in the arrest of five men for that very unreality." So Hal comes from a society that could be described by our standards (and those of the 1950s) as puritanical.

The plot takes a little while to get going. Farmer's human and alien cultures are shown to us in some detail over the first twenty or so pages of this novella. But Yarrow, after a couple of fleeting glimpses in various places, finally meets a woman called Jeanette. She tells him that she's a human born on this planet — presumably as a result of earlier waves of exploration — and that she's fleeing from her home and the wogglebugs; Hal resolves to find a way to save her. Soon enough, he has taken her into his apartment in one of the cities of Ozagen and they become lovers. It ends badly, because of a failure to understand the gap between the two of them, and the story closes with Hal clearly a broken man.

That summary makes clear, I hope, how much the Farmer story can be seen as a template for many later stories of exogamy, like James Tiptree, Jr.'s "The Color Of Neanderthal Eyes" (1988). What sets it apart from all of its contemporaries and much of what followed is that Farmer doesn't duck describing sex and sexuality as a part of life. It's not that he's particularly interested in describing the mechanics of sex. He is, however, enormously interested in describing the emotional place that sex has within a life. So, for instance, at one point we're shown this scene between Hal and Jeanette: "They drank the purplish liquor. After a while he picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. There he forgot. The only disconcerting item was that she insisted on keeping her eyes open, even during the climax, as if she were trying to photograph his features upon her mind." That carries so many layers of meaning: a foreshadowing of what's going to happen to the two of them, a suggestion of her wariness, and a sign of the incomprehension that persists despite this intimacy. There are many other moments like this in "The Lovers", hardly any driven by dialogue: Farmer is extraordinarily good at describing the meanings communicated without words between lovers, whether or not they're making love. So what's remarkable about "The Lovers" is not only that it was the first SF story to put such material at the heart of its narrative, but also that it's so complex and moving.

Of course, this material was innovative within the SF field but not in comparison with what had been happening in the wider literary world. Writers of mimetic literature had been trying to describe the same experiences for some while. The pre-War works of James Joyce and Henry Miller, to name just two, are obvious precedents. And Farmer was clearly aware of their work, as what might be called "tribute stories" to both are included in the book. The Miller story, "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol" (1977) sits with the better-known "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" (1968), which recreates the Tarzan stories as if written by William, not Edgar Rice, Burroughs. Both are japes, exercises in having fun with another writer's concerns and styles, and huge fun when taken in that spirit. They're reminiscent of someone like Paul di Filippo: both he and Farmer are drawn to pastiche where everything is fair game, and nothing is too weird to describe.

The Joyce story is the far longer and more ambitious "Riders of the Purple Wage", from Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). It's an enormously dense dream-meditation on art, drawing in part on the approach of Finnegans Wake (1939). Its section titles are almost all puns (like the title), and it's with a mathematical inevitability that we realise that the last is going to be "Winnegan's Fake!" The setting is a grotesque Los Angeles of the future, and Chib, the protagonist, is a young man trying to make his way as an artist. The story allows him to gain some wisdom, most obviously in a closing lecture from his grandfather. But it's most memorable (even in an experimental body of work like Farmer's) for the intensity of its language and wordplay. Not many SF stories, even in the '60s New Wave, have gone this far towards the "difficulty" of modernism.

One of Chib's early dream-reveries in "Riders of the Purple Wage" is a pointer to Farmer's other interests. It goes like this:

Socrates, Ben Jonson, Cellini, Swedenborg, Li Po, and Hiawatha are roistering in the Mermaid Tavern/ Through a window, Daedalus is seen on top of the battlements of Cnossus, shoving a rocket up the ass of his son, Icarus, to give him a jet-assisted take-off for his famous flight. In one corner crouches Og, Son of Fire. He gnaws on a sabretooth bone and paints bison and mammoths on the mildewed plaster. The barmaid, Athena, is bending over the table where she is serving nectar and pretzels to her distinguished customers.

And so on. The first impression from that paragraph is how much fun Farmer had writing it. The second is that it was fun because of the attractiveness of the concept: wouldn't it be great to listen in on that conversation? And so (if you're a writer), the next question is how to find a fictional frame in which that can happen. Farmer had done, in the story "Riverworld" (1966), and then the sequence of novels beginning with To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971). The premise here is that the whole of humanity has been resurrected on the shores of a great river, which winds its way around a previously unknown planet. All are naked, and all are restored to the age of 25 or so. Their bodily needs are taken care of in various ways, and physical harm to them is quickly and easily repaired. So Riverworld is a venue where anyone can have adventures with anyone else. In the story "Riverworld", the protagonist is the cowboy Tom Mix, who meets a weirdly charismatic resurectee from New Testament times called Yeshua. In To Your Scattered Bodies Go, we mostly follow Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century explorer and writer, who encounters (among others) Hermann Goering. The Riverworld books aren't particularly interested in the traditional SF questions of how this place works and why it's there. (Or, rather, such questions are deflected so repeatedly that we, as readers, soon learn not to bother with them.) Rather, they're interested in the play of character and ideas, free from the constraints of realism, place, or time. Or, to put it another way, they're a venue for Farmer to talk about interesting stuff. And so long as you share his sense of what's interesting — semi-obscure historical figures, popular culture, big moral questions — you'll be fine in the stockaded paradise of Riverworld.

There's another cluster of Farmer works in The Best of Philip José Farmer, which a modern movie-producer would doubtless describe as "high-concept." That is, they have a single great idea at their heart that can be explained very quickly. Riverworld is one such idea, and so is that embodied in "Sail on! Sail on!" (1952). The story follows the NiƱa and the Pinta as they sail for the New World. We're clearly in an alternate universe of some kind: the ships have lightbulbs and primitive radios, and the Turks are advancing on Austria with zeppelins. But only at the end of the story are the ships granted the real revelation: "they had run out of horizon." The world is flat, and the ships and ocean are toppling off the edge. It's the sort of fantasy story that's endured because it's not reducible to an allegorical "meaning." The ships may "stand for" scientific hubris, or colonial/religious arrogance; but that's not as important as the fact that they're falling off the edge of the world. And SF questions (Where does all the water go to? How do the oceans refill?) are beside the point. It's in that sense that I argued at the start for the difference between Farmer and Heinlein, or at least early Heinlein. (The late Heinlein, with the multiverses of his work all converging in the author's skull, is actually quite a bit like Farmer in some ways.) For Farmer, the effect or image or transgressive idea is always the most important thing.

The same is true of "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World" (1971), which was later the seed for Farmer's Dayworld sequence. Here, we're in a world so overpopulated that only a seventh of its population can be awake on any one day. For the rest of the week, they are drugged into a stupor, so that Tuesday and Wednesday people can never meet. The story follows the classic SF rebellion storyline of someone trying to break from one day into another. But, again, you feel he's more interested in the image: the abstract and metaphysical idea of days of the week made concrete for the whole of humanity. It's Farmer at his closest to Philip K Dick.

There are many other strands to be picked out of Farmer's work, but perhaps the most important is his interest in pulp heroes like Tarzan and Doc Savage. I've already mentioned "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod", and Farmer has a sequence of reimagined Tarzan novels beginning with A Feast Unknown (1969). To me, though, the most interesting is Lord Tyger (1970), which again sees Farmer playing reality-games. What looks like a mere retelling of the story, through the eyes of the preternaturally able (and highly sexual) jungle lord Ras Tyger, turns out to be more like a meta-fictional comment on what Tarzan means in our culture, and what people do with him as an icon. That makes it sound like a drab read, which it's not: it gives you both the primitive excitement of the source material and a far more sophisticated commentary on them.

More than most writers, Farmer is one whose personal idiosyncrasies shine through (and sometimes govern) his work. So he's a more suitable candidate than others for a volume of miscellany like Pearls from Peoria (2006). This collects stories, poems, non-fiction (including sections on Doc Savage and Tarzan), and fragments of autobiography. Farmer reveals himself to be the sort of person you might expect from the fiction: formidably well-read, often generous (for instance in a piece defending Heinlein's Methuselah's Children from political criticism), and deeply interested in the historical antecedents of his work. One of the most instructive pieces here is a relatively impersonal one on "The Journey as Revelation of the Unknown", from The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1988). He traces a lineage from the Epic of Gilgamesh to SF works like Aldiss's Non-stop (1958) and Anderson's Tau Zero (1970). In doing so, he makes it clear that he thinks SF works derive much of their power from their mythic underpinnings. It's not a new point — at least as old as Jung and Joseph Campbell's The Hero with A Thousand Faces (1949) — but they didn't apply their ideas in such detail to SF.

So it's not a surprise that Pearls from Peoria also contains a section of "Myths and Paramyths", and that's one final way of seeing Farmer's work. Almost everything he's written makes clear what its sources are and what the writer thinks of them. So "The Lovers" can be seen as a vastly more adult take on the first contact stories that had been written in SF up to that point, and Riverworld gives Farmer the chance to have his favorite historical figures get into the arguments they never had when they were alive. In fact, the word that springs to mind — and I hope one can use it without the pejorative these days — is fan fiction. Farmer has written searching and energetic fan fiction about Tarzan, Richard Burton, and science fiction itself. Good fan-fiction revises and challenges the assumptions of the original, just as Farmer does. But ploughing through the glorious excess of the two Subterranean books, you have to add one qualifier to that: his enthusiasm isn't limited to one root story or setting. Farmer's most enthralling characteristic is the range of his enthusiasms: he seems like a fan of everything.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and became editor of Foundation at the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of eight regular Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


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