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Monday, March 2, 2009

Tracking Phil Farmer's Influence—and Others

posted by Gary Wolfe @ 5:04 PM 

Thanks to a generous invitation from his grandson Tom Josephsohn, I said a few words at Philip Jose Farmer’s memorial service in Peoria Sunday. There were four speakers in addition to the pastor of the First Federated Church: Tom, who spoke on behalf of the family; Mike Croteau and Paul Spiteri, who have been centrally involved in bringing Phil back into print through Mike’s Farmerphile fanzine and several recent Subterranean Press volumes; and me. Predictably and unavoidably, we all mentioned his generosity, warmth, and wit, and Tom in particular presented a moving portrait of a playful grandfather—perhaps not quite what many of his readers would expect, but not at all surprising to anyone who knew him.

Even though we’d been friends for a quarter of a century, I think my role was more or less to talk about Phil’s importance to the SF world. What I said might have been a bit different had I been talking to an SF audience rather than a gathering of friends and family members from Peoria, and I’ll recapitulate a bit of it in the April issue of Locus, but there was one observation I wanted to test-drive here (and it comes partly from some conversations I had with Jonathan Strahan and Charles Brown long before Phil’s death).

The observation is this: there are some SF writers who seem to have an immediate and dramatic impact on other writers, and younger writers in particular. The early '50s saw a fair number of imitation Bradbury stories, and the '80s a fair number of imitation Gibson stories, for two examples.

But there are other writers who seem so idiosyncratic that it takes some time for their real influence to become apparent, as though their ideas and techniques have to seep into the groundwater of the field, or as though the field itself has to gradually mutate to accommodate them. Phil Farmer, I think, was one of these. His notion that you could take whatever you wanted from any genre in order to make the story work, that you could draw equally on James Joyce and L. Frank Baum, on William Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs, is almost familiar to us now that genre barriers have grown permeable, but when Phil started doing it, even from the beginning of his career, it must have seemed completely off the wall.

I can think of a few other writers whose influence seems to have grown more profound over the years—Jack Vance and Avram Davidson come to mind—but I wonder if there might be others. And I wonder if others see Farmer’s influence bubbling to the surface now in a far more visible way than it ever did during the '70s and '80s.


Blogger Graham Sleight said...

Can I suggest that Vance and Davidson ought to be joined in that category by R A Lafferty?

March 3, 2009 12:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

And may I suggest adding Cordwainer Smith to such a category.

March 3, 2009 8:14 AM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

I catch echoes of Phil's mix-it-up side every once in a while--among the books reviewed in the last year or so, Chris Roberson acknowledges his influence in End of the Century, and Charles Stross's Cthulhu-meets-the-CIA stories would seem to be candidates. Oddly enough, Macmillan's marketing copy for the Merchant Princes books invokes Phil's name only after invoking Zelazny, who of course was inspired by Phil. I suppose influence is really deep when the secondary sources are cited first.

March 3, 2009 9:35 AM  
Blogger Gary Wolfe said...

Chris Roberson is certainly one of the younger writers I had in mind, though Stross hadn't occurred to me.

Both Lafferty and Cordwainer Smith are excellent candidates, and it now occurs to me that if we look further back a few decades, both Hope Mirrlees and David Lindsay are good candidates for delayed-influence writers who now seem part of the groundwater. And maybe William Hope Hodgson as well.

Phil once told me that A Voyage to Arcturus was a seminal book for him, even though he didn't discover it until the 1960s.

March 3, 2009 9:47 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

I think I'm going to be the sceptic here. I think Farmer and Vance are proving to be enormous influences on the field. Sadly, I don't think Davidson, Smith or Lafferty have been enormous influences (despite the wonderful work they did). Some writers are simply too quirky, too individual, to be absorbed into the field in that way.

March 3, 2009 2:19 PM  
Blogger Paul Witcover said...

I agree with Jonathan. Individual writers will take from whoever interests them, but by and large I don't see Davidson, Smith, or Lafferty having an equivalent influence on the field to that of Vance and Farmer; actually, I wouldn't put Farmer up there with Vance at this point. He was certainly an early adapter of the postmodern magpie technique, but it seems a stretch to credit him for its invention or its popularity.

It's funny whose work falls away and whose percolates below the surface only to break out once more. Brunner, for instance, seems to be a swiftly dwindling figure, alas, despite the once-pervasive influence of books like Shockwave Rider and The Sheep Look Up. But a few years from now, who knows?

March 3, 2009 4:00 PM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

Depends on what we mean by "influence," I suppose. I wonder whether cyberpunk and its cousins would have looked quite the same without Brunner and Phil Dick and (to name another powerful influence) Alfred Bester playing godfather. Gibson might have galvanized a cohort of writers, but he didn't come out of nowhere and he interacted with, for example, Bruce Sterling, who is as responsible for that school of SF as Gibson is.

The influence champ for as long as I've been reading SF is Heinlein, and the reasons are pretty well rehearsed by critics and writers--he showed how it could be done. (He also identified and explored many of the best and most interesting tropes, but that's a different branch of the discussion.) And I might argue that Heinlein himself was a conduit for a body of writerly tools that pulp SF had never bothered to pick up--I certainly hear the voice and pace of the Thirties smartass/tough-guy/screwball school in his work.

Back to Phil and Jack Vance and the niche-audience writers: As Paul points out, writers will grab what looks useful or respond to what speaks to them, and while it would be a job subject to all kinds of subjectivity, I'd bet that a survey of writers' own heroes and role-models and gurus would reveal all kinds of interesting affinities, some rooted in "vision" and some in technique and voice.

The Children of Heinlein sometimes respond to his writerly chops, sometimes to his libertarian ideas, sometimes to his corner of the consensus SF worldview. The Younger Siblings of Gibson seem to focus on the Cool Stuff--the furniture and fashions of cyberpunk--more than on his very high-order writing skills. (One reason I got tired of second-tier CP long ago--mediocre writing in the service of an increasingly predictable consensus future--Influence as Trap.)

March 3, 2009 7:20 PM  
Blogger Christopher Paul Carey said...

Many of us who grew up reading the last big spat of Farmer mass market paperbacks in the 1980s are just now making our way into the industry, whether as writers or editors. I think we are possibly just at the beginning of the beginning as regards Phil's influence.

March 3, 2009 10:09 PM  
Blogger Paul Witcover said...

I wonder how many young writers in our field are conversant with the work of Heinlein, Bester, Sturgeon, Vance? And I don't mean in the sense of having read a story or two in an anthology, out of a sense of curiosity and obligation, but have actually sought them out, read them with hunger, and made an attempt to absorb their lessons. The influence of these writers has been so pervasive that I feel anyone writing spec fic today has kind of picked it up by osmosis.

March 4, 2009 7:13 AM  
Blogger Gary Wolfe said...

This is more or less what I meant by the groundwater metaphor--that writers can sometimes pick up influences without even being particularly aware of it. I suspect there are a number of younger writers, influenced by Gene Wolfe, who may be only vaguely aware if at all that they may also be picking up bits of Vance. This kind of subterranean or second-order influence is partly why I'd add people like Davidson to the list: no, he probably has had relatively little direct influence, but is widely admired by later writers who may themselves have passed on some of his modes and techniques.

March 4, 2009 8:22 AM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

Groundwater is something like an extension of the William Tenn jazz metaphor--trumpeters will use phrases and textures that go back to Louis or Miles without necessarily having heard the originals. (Thought well-schooled players will have done their homework and be aware of what they're doing.) In fact, a lot of musical material gets propagated this way: Nth-hand, picked up from somebody who stole Chet's or Les Paul's version of a Django lick, or even their older brother's version of Chet doing Django. It can get pretty attenuated after a while.

In SF, cyberpunk is probably the easiest subgenre to sift for bits and pieces--Bester, Ballard, Dick, Brunner, Ellison (and there must be others) strained through Gibson, Sterling & Co. and strongly reinforced by the imagery of Bladerunner. At some point, younger writers who have never bothered with the old farts don't know when they're blowing a Phildickian riff or copping a Harlanesque rant.

March 4, 2009 10:38 AM  

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