Science Fiction

Philip Jose Farmer, RIP

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It's been more than two decades since I read anything by Philip José Farmer, the venerable science fiction writer who passed away yesterday. So you'll have to take the following words of praise with a caveat that applies to all the literature I enjoyed in my early teens: I can't promise I'd still like his books if I opened any of them again today.

But in my memory, Farmer was the sophisticate on the science fiction shelf. This wasn't just because he was one of the first scribblers in the sf ghetto to write directly about sex. It reflected the clever literary games he loved to play. Farmer tinkered with characters invented by everyone from Kurt Vonnegut to L. Frank Baum, plus some bona fide historical figures as well. (His Riverwold series threw dead men as varied as Mark Twain, Tom Mix, and Sir Richard Burton into the same setting.) I suppose you could call Farmer an exceptionally talented author of fan fiction. Like the most disreputable fanficcer, he often inserted stand-ins for himself into his stories—he conveniently gave them his own initials, the better for readers to recognize them as the author—though unlike the typical Mary Sue, the fictional PJF might turn out to be a villain or a fool.

Thinking back all these years later, two of his short stories stand out in my mind. One was about a mysterious object that appears in the sky and gradually begins to erase everyone's memory. It was written in diary form, as the narrator gradually regresses to childhood. The other was a double pastiche: an attempt to imagine what the Tarzan stories would have been like if they'd been written by William Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Google reveals that the latter tale is called "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod." That title alone should be enough to guarantee Farmer at least a minor literary reputation.

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  1. Been decades for me as well but much of his early/middle output stands up I’m sure.
    I loved his stuff when I was a kid.My 2nd favorite after PKD.

  2. I recently read the Riverworld books and found them delightfully fun. Even in spite of the often Malthusian hand wringing about over population and famine.

  3. I didn’t love the softcore porn stuff, but I’m with Vines & Cattle–Riverworld was great fun and deserves to be remembered along with Stand on Zanzibar and other 70s classics.

    Another one gone. Crap.

  4. My favorite of his was The Unreasoning Mask. SF with moral weight behind it is not a rare commodity, but an often overlooked one.

  5. On the tinkering note: Farmer wrote a novel as Vonnegut’s hack SF writer, Kilgore Trout.

    Venus on the Half-Shell.

  6. SF, got any short-story links for us today? Thursdays are dreadful and I finished your last assignment.

    Warning: a rickroll will be called and raised by 2girls1cup, setting off another whole day of shock-trumping. 🙂

  7. I could never get into Farmer. Maybe that’s because I tried him first at about eight years old and wasn’t really ready for it.

    Can we all indulge in some Piers Anthony hate, by the way? Talk about Mary Sue characters.

  8. Yo, fuck Piers Anthony.

  9. Can we all indulge in some Piers Anthony hate, by the way?

    The first 3 Xanth books hold up. Everything else is pretty much dreck, but my god he put out a lot of it. At some point, I just quit reading him. Life is too short to wade through reams of shitty puns and bad jokes for a formulaic plot and disposable characters.

  10. Everything else is pretty much dreck, but my god he put out a lot of it.

    I’d go into the book store or the library, and I’d start looking at the “A”‘s (author last name). I’d usually have to go through a few shelves before I got past Anthony.

    Xanth was a pre-Heroes, but much, much stupider.

    I kind of liked the Incarnations of Immortality stuff at first, until I realized how stupid it became. I also liked the Apprentice Adept stuff at first (The Game was kind of cool) but it just became so god damn repetitive. Robert Jordan-esque repetitive.

  11. FrBunny,

    This site has a lot of online SF. The excerpt from Alistair Reynold’s Chasm City is a neat rift on an old idea. The whole novel is, really.

  12. I liked the Xanth novels as a kid, so like I always do I, kept reading more and more of him. The Apprentice Adept series (1st half), Battle Circle trilogy, Bio of a Space Tyrant series, Incarnations of Immortality series, and the first 12 of the Xanth novels. Anthony is OK, as long as you realize he’s a children’s/young adult author who occasionally can’t help but injecting age-inappropriate sexual fetishes in his work.

  13. Going for the triple post: I was horrified to learn there are 34 Xanth novels.

  14. PFJ’s Wold Newton universe was the precursor of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, positing that not only did most pulp and adventure characters dwell on the same literary world, but that there in fact related. The numerous essays to this effect were as enjoyable to me as the actual fiction.

  15. there are 34 Xanth novels.

    He makes Jordan look like a lightweight.

  16. I kind of liked the Incarnations of Immortality stuff at first, until I realized how stupid it became

    Ditto. I like the concept, I cant stand the implementation. The worst part for me is changing our world to be one with a mix of science and magic. I think setting the stories in our actual world would work better, but would be much harder.

    BTW, did “The Santa Clause” owe him money or is stealing basic plot concepts the legal kind of theft*?

    *I say that with tongue firmly in cheek since I dont believe IP is actually property.

  17. Farmer, the sage of Peoria, Illinois, was a wonderful writer in many types of sci-fi. But my favorite of his many books are the World of the Tiers series, which may well be the best ERB-style sci-fi adventure books ever written. The opening line of “A Private Cosmos”, the third book in the series, says it all: “Under a green sky and a yellow sun, on a black stallion with a crimson-dyed mane and blue-dyed tail, Kickaha rode for his life.” Open the first volume, “Maker of Universes”, preferably on a cold Sunday in January when you’ve nowhere to go and nothing to do, and sit back and enjoy.

    PJF: Requiscat in pacem, and many thanks.

  18. PFJ’s Wold Newton universe was the precursor of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, positing that not only did most pulp and adventure characters dwell on the same literary world, but that there in fact related. The numerous essays to this effect were as enjoyable to me as the actual fiction.

    Yes. The faux-scholarly appendix to Tarzan Alive! arguing that all those pulp heroes were part of the same extended clan is one of the funniest things Farmer ever wrote. Quietly funny, but funny all the same.

    As for Anthony: In high school I had some friends who liked the Incarnations of Immortality series. So I read the first book, and found it fairly entertaining. Then I read the second book, and thought the author was going through the motions. Then I started the third book, put it down after a couple of chapters, and never waded into Piers Anthony’s prose again.

  19. Then I started the third book, put it down after a couple of chapters, and never waded into Piers Anthony’s prose again.

    I made it to book 5 out of stubbornness and ease of reading the books. I should have stopped at 3.

    I read ONE (1) Xanth book and liked it okay. I never picked up another. I also read Triple Detente – I dont even want to get into the fundamental immorality of the key plot element that is supposed to be a good thing. I would Godwin an otherwise good thread.

  20. positing that not only did most pulp and adventure characters dwell on the same literary world, but that there in fact related

    Did any of these essays mention Moorcock’s Eternal Champion concept, where Elric/Corum/Hawkmoon/etc were all manifestations of the same hero?

  21. At the time, middle adolescence, his “Riders of the Purple Wage” was the most astounding thing I ever read. Lots of great stuff followed but that was pure revelation. RIP

  22. I read one Xanth book when i was about 12, and even then i thought it was crap. Piers Anthony cold has a peter in his mouth.

  23. I read the first Incarnations of Immortality and enjoyed it enough on the first reading to read it a second time.

    Didn’t hold up well.

    I concluded that Piers Anthony writing about the problem of evil is like an imbecile juggling dynamite.

  24. My favorite Farmer story was “The Riders of the Purple Wage,” a great goofy pomo production that “takes on” (is that right?) the welfare state. Lots of strange sexual behavior, such as normed incest (“the family that blows, grows”). And it has something in common with all this seemingly extraneous talk of Piers Anthony: It is filled with goofy puns.

    I think the only Anthony book I have read is “Crewel Lye: A Caustic Yarn,” which I endeavored ONLY because of the doubled double pun in the title. For some reason, I was not enticed to read further into the Anthony oeuvre.

  25. I was horrified to learn there are 34 Xanth novels.

    Thus proving yet again that Ted Sturgeon was more right than he ever suspected.

  26. As for Anthony: In high school I had some friends who liked the Incarnations of Immortality series. So I read the first book, and found it fairly entertaining. Then I read the second book, and thought the author was going through the motions. Then I started the third book, put it down after a couple of chapters, and never waded into Piers Anthony’s prose again.

    Same here, for the most part. Read Pale Horse (Death) and really liked it. Read “Time” and still liked it. Read “War” and started getting sleepy. By the time I got to Fate I wasn’t interested all that much any more.

  27. Unless my memory is playng tricks on me, I recall a PJF book featuring Doc Savage and Tarzan that could only be described as homo-erotic.

    The only PJF book on my shelf at present is “Night Of Life”, which is excellent. I’ll have to track down some of his other works on Amazon for old times sake.

  28. I enjoyed PJF’s books and still do.

    Maybe I have a high tolerance for atrocious puns or maybe it is simple nostalgia, but I remember Piers Anthony’s books fondly. I initially read them when I was too young, and in retrospect I haven’t read one since I was in my early teens. I suspect I wouldn’t enjoy them now….

  29. When I was about 12 I read his books suggesting that all those pulp heroes, Tarzan, Doc Savage, etc. had been real people who were all related due to a meteor hit in England which started a family of folks with powers. A rather extended literary joke which, being 12, I swallowed completely and took utterly seriously. Also being 12 and having no inhibitions about making an ass of myself, I found PJF’s phone number in Cleveland or wherever he lived, and called him. He must have been staggered to find someone who actually took that stuff perfectly literally and seriously, but he was gracious and put up with my questions for about ten minutes. A few years later I really couldn’t read him any more, but I’ll always think fondly of him as a man for his indulgence of a young, impressionable reader.

  30. The trickster Kickaha (Paul Janus Finnegan) rides the Amerind plains again.

  31. I found PJF’s phone number in Cleveland or wherever he lived, and called him

    Much cooler than my high school phone conversation with the lt governor of South Dakota.

  32. Damn! RIP, Mr. Farmer.

    This may be viewed as sacrilege to some, he will certainly be missed, but the state of the art in SF continues to improve in spite of the passing of all the pioneering masters of the genre.

  33. Wikipedia article on Mary Sue contained many variations of which I was previously unaware, though we are clearly in need of another, ‘Barry Sue.’

  34. This is sad. Philip Jose Farmer lived in Peoria, IL. That might explain his imagination.

    People might want to check out Samuel Matthews books as well. He’s from the Peoria tradition also.

  35. We will see you on the River, Phil….thanks for everything.

  36. “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” might be my favorite short story ever. I know know if that’s because or in spite of the fact that I’m not a big fan of either Burroughs.

  37. I read Maker of Universes when it first came out and fell in love with Kickaha. I got busy with life but eventually found the rest of The World of Tiers and read them all. The wrapup was pretty lame, but overall good reads.

    I read To Your Scattered Bodies Go and liked it, but it got lamer and lamer as the series continued. The final book was, IMHO, the grossest example of deus ex machina in modern literature. He’d totally written himself into a corner with no way out. Quite disappointing.

    Much of his short stuff mentioned here was pretty good. The Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes shtick was okay for a while, then just dribbled out. (I may never get the Tarzan/Doc Savage ‘cockfight’ scene out of my head. Thanks soooo much for bringing it back to mind.)

    He was nothing if not prolific, and his good stuff was among the very best.

    RIP, PJF.

  38. PJF made me wan to be a SF writer when I grew up. I am not half as talented, but in my best moments I hope I am as wacky. He is as good as Michael Chabon or Donald Barthelme on the “literary side” of the aisle.

    Don Web

  39. Very sad to hear that he has died. His writing went through good and bad phases, so sometimes it was brilliant, and other times it was complete garbage. But when he was on his game, he was really good! Here are a few books I thought were winners:

    Most of the world of Tiers books (not the last one)

    To your scattered bodies go and the Fabulous Riverboat

    Dark is the Sun
    The Unreasoning Mask
    Night of Light

    Those were the best, IMO. If you give those a read, you won’t be disappointed!

  40. I read To Your Scattered Bodies Go and liked it, but it got lamer and lamer as the series continued. The final book was, IMHO, the grossest example of deus ex machina in modern literature. He’d totally written himself into a corner with no way out.

    I agree. (Or my teenage self agreed, anyway.) I liked the first two books a lot, and then it started sliding downhill.

  41. Piers Anthony?

    Evil is Live Spelled Backwards was great softcore spanking porn. I thought Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale was a pure ripoff of it.
    In the Barn was kind of entertaing back when I was 11.

  42. Mike DeSoto said:
    >Unless my memory is playng tricks on me, I >recall a PJF book featuring Doc Savage and >Tarzan that could only be described as homo->erotic.

    You’re thinking of “A Feast Unknown” which featured character who were – not quite – Tarzan and Doc Savage. The sequel, “The Lord of the Trees and the Mad Goblin” was actually a pretty good pastiche, and lacked the blatant homo-erotism. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make as much sense if you haven’t read “A Feast Unk own” first.

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