Sunday, May 10, 2009

Goodbye, Philip José Farmer

I have great affection for the writing of Philip José Farmer, who died February 25 at age 91.

Farmer wrote in the science fiction field, and was up front about his influences. He loved old pulp magazines like Doc Savage and writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who created and wrote the Tarzan novels.

From Farmer's "history" of Doc Savage, in Doc Savage, His Apocalyptic Life, published in 1973 when he was 55, he wrote: "There is a fifteen-year-old in my brain and he loves Doc. There is also a seven-year-old who still loves Billy Whiskers, a nine-year-old who still loves Oz and the heroes of ancient Troy and Achaea, a ten-year-old who still loves John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Rudolf Rassendyll, King Arthur, Og, Son of Fire, Umslopogaas and Galazi, the Ancient Mariner, Captain Nemo, Captain Gulliver, Tom Sawyer, Hiawatha, Jim Hawkins and Sherlock Holmes."

A few years ago Farmer was given permission to do a new Tarzan novel, The Dark Heart of Time. It was probably the only Tarzan novel not to have the name Tarzan in the title, and might be the reason it was the first and last Tarzan novel from Farmer, unless you count his pastiches like Lord Of The Trees or Lord Tyger. He even placed a Tarzan pastiche in sex novels like A Feast Unknown.

What made Farmer's name in the early '50s was sex, and his novelette (later expanded into a novel), The Lovers. Up to that time sex and science fiction didn't mix like say, sex and hardboiled detective novels. Sex wasn't necessarily taboo as a science fiction theme, but it was generally avoided.

For me, Farmer's magnum opus is To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first novel in the Riverworld series. Sir Richard Francis Burton is the main character. All of the people who lived on earth are resurrected on a large planet bisected by a river. There is a plot by an alien race regarding earth people, and the secret is in the tower at the head of the river. This book is one of the most original novels ever written in any genre. It's the ultimate fantasy. What would you do if you woke up in such a world with everyone you knew scattered somewhere along a river that stretched for thousands and thousands of miles? Burton finds that if he dies he is resurrected somewhere else along the river, so he drowns himself over and over.

The whole premise of the Riverworld series is so mindboggling that my attempts to describe it fall totally flat. It defies an easy or brief synopsis.

A TV miniseries was made of Riverworld. I watched the first half hour and turned it off. The concept is so huge it just can't be reduced to a television program.

There is a fine Philip José Farmer website with articles and a bibliography of everything he ever wrote. He had a long career, he broke new ground several times with his themes, but it was his imagination, his ability to take me into very alien places or introduce concepts that got my attention 45 years ago and continue to fascinate me to this day.


1 comment:

Si's blog said...

Never saw any Farmer books in the carnal vein. Somehow, my mind has trouble coming up with an image for a "carnal vein". Anyway, looks like I need to read more of his books.