Philip José Farmer
|Born||January 26, 1918|
Terre Haute, Indiana, U.S.
|Died||February 25, 2009 (aged 91)|
Peoria, Illinois, U.S.
|Pen name||more than a dozen(below)|
|Occupation||Novelist, Short story writer|
|Genre||Fantasy, science fiction|
Farmer is best known for his sequences of novels, especially the World of Tiers (1965-93) and Riverworld (1971-83) series. He is noted for the pioneering use of sexual and religious themes in his work, his fascination for, and reworking of, the lore of celebrated pulp heroes, and occasional tongue-in-cheek pseudonymous works written as if by fictional characters. Farmer often mixed real and classic fictional characters and worlds and real and fake authors as epitomized by his Wold Newton family group of books. These tie all classic fictional characters together as real people and blood relatives resulting from an alien conspiracy. Such works as The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973) are early examples of literary mashup.
Literary critic Leslie Fiedler compared Farmer to Ray Bradbury as both being "provincial American eccentrics" who "strain at the classic limits of the [science fiction] form," but found Farmer distinctive in that he "manages to be at once naive and sophisticated in his odd blending of theology, pornography, and adventure."
Farmer was born in North Terre Haute, Indiana. According to colleague Frederik Pohl, his middle name was in honor of an aunt, Josie. Farmer grew up in Peoria, Illinois, where he attended Peoria High School. His father was a civil engineer and a supervisor for the local power company. A voracious reader as a boy, Farmer said he resolved to become a writer in the fourth grade. He became an agnostic at the age of 14. At age 23, in 1941, he married and eventually fathered a son and a daughter. After washing out of flight training in World War II, he went to work in a local steel mill. He continued his education, however, earning a bachelor's degree in English from Bradley University in 1950.
Farmer had his first literary success when his novella The Lovers was published by Samuel Mines in Startling Stories, August 1952. It features a sexual relationship between a human and an extraterrestrial and he won the next Hugo Award as "most promising new writer" (his first of three Hugos). Thus encouraged, he quit his job to become a full-time writer, entered a publisher's contest, and promptly won the $4,000 first prize for a novel, Owe for the Flesh, that contained the germ of his later Riverworld series. But the book was not published and Farmer did not get the money. Literary success did not translate into financial security so he left Peoria in 1956 to launch a career as a technical writer. He spent the next 14 years working in that capacity for various defense contractors, from Syracuse, New York to Los Angeles, while writing science fiction in his spare time.
He won a second Hugo for the 1967 novella Riders of the Purple Wage, a pastiche of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as well as a satire on a futuristic, cradle-to-grave welfare state. Reinvigorated, Farmer became a full-time writer again in 1969. Upon moving back to Peoria in 1970, he entered his most prolific period, publishing 25 books in 10 years. His novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go (a reworked, previously unpublished version of the prize-winning first novel of 20 years before) won him his third Hugo in 1971. A 1975 novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, created a stir in the larger literary community and media. It purported to be written in the first person by one "Kilgore Trout," a fictional character appearing as an underappreciated science fiction writer in several of Kurt Vonnegut's novels. The escapade did not please Vonnegut when some reviewers not only concluded that it had been written by Vonnegut himself, but that it was a worthy addition to his works. Farmer did have permission from Vonnegut to write the book, though Vonnegut later said he regretted giving permission.
Farmer had both critical champions and detractors. Leslie Fiedler proclaimed him "the greatest science fiction writer ever" and lauded his approach to storytelling as a "gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present and to come, and to spew it out again."Isaac Asimov praised Farmer as an "excellent science fiction writer; in fact, a far more skillful writer than I am...." But Christopher Lehmann-Haupt dismissed him in The New York Times in 1972 as "a humdrum toiler in the fields of science fiction."
The Riverworld series follows the adventures of such diverse characters as Richard Francis Burton, Hermann Göring, and Samuel Clemens through a bizarre afterlife in which every human ever to have lived is simultaneously resurrected along a single river valley that stretches over an entire planet. The series consists of To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), The Fabulous Riverboat (1971), The Dark Design (1977), The Magic Labyrinth (1980) and Gods of Riverworld (1983). Although Riverworld and Other Stories (1979) is not part of the series as such, it does include the second-published Riverworld story, which is free-standing rather than integrated into one of the novels.
The first two Riverworld books were originally published as novellas, "The Day of the Great Shout" and "The Suicide Express," and as a two-part serial, "The Felled Star," in the science fiction magazines Worlds of Tomorrow and If between 1965 and 1967. The separate novelette "Riverworld" ran in Worlds of Tomorrow in January 1966. A final pair of linked novelettes appeared in the 1990s: "Crossing the Dark River" (in Tales of Riverworld, 1992) and "Up the Bright River" (in Quest to Riverworld, 1993). Farmer introduced himself into the series as Peter Jairus Frigate (PJF).
The Riverworld series originated in a novel, Owe for the Flesh, written in one month in 1952 as a contest entry. It won the contest, but the book was left unpublished and orphaned when the prize money was misappropriated, and Farmer nearly gave up writing altogether. The original manuscript of the novel was lost, but years later Farmer reworked the material into the Riverworld magazine stories mentioned above. Eventually, a copy of a revised version of the original novel surfaced in a box in a garage and was published as River of Eternity by Phantasia Press in 1983. Farmer's Introduction to this edition gives the details of how it all happened.
The series is set within a number of artificially constructed parallel universes (of which Earth is one), created tens of thousands of years ago by a race of human beings not from Earth who had achieved an advanced level of technology which gave them almost godlike power and immortality. The principal universe in which these stories take place, and from which the series derives its name, consists of an enormous tiered planet, shaped like a stack of disks or squat cylinders, of diminishing radius, one atop the other. The series follows the adventures of several of these godlike humans and several "ordinary" humans from Earth who accidentally travel to these artificial universes. (One of those "ordinary" humans was Paul Janus Finnegan (PJF) who becomes the main character in the series.) The series consists of The Maker of Universes (1965), The Gates of Creation (1966), A Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), The Lavalite World (1977) and More Than Fire (1993). Roger Zelazny has mentioned that The World of Tiers was something he had in his mind when he created his Amber series. A related novel is Red Orc's Rage (1991), which does not involve the principal characters of the other books directly, but does provide background information to certain events and characters portrayed in the other novels. This is the most "psychological" of Farmer's novels.
Farmer's work often handles sexual themes; some early works were notable for their ground-breaking introduction of such to science fiction literature. His first (with one minor exception) published science fiction story, the novella The Lovers, earned him the Hugo Award for "most promising new writer" in 1953, and is critically recognized as the story that broke the taboo on sex in science fiction. It instantly put Farmer on the literary map. The short story collection Strange Relations (1960) was a notable event in the genre. He was one of three persons to whom Robert A. Heinlein dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a novel which explored sexual freedom as one of its primary themes. Moreover, Fire and the Night (1962) is a mainstream novel about an interracial romance; it features sociological and psychosexual twists. In Night of Light (1966), he devised an alien race where aliens have only one mother but several fathers, perhaps because of an unusual or untenable physical position that cannot be reached or continued by two individuals acting alone. Both Image of the Beast and the sequel Blown from 1968-1969 explore group sex, interplanetary travel, and interplay between fictional figures like Childe Harold and real people like Forry Ackerman. In the World of Tiers series he explores Oedipal themes.
His work also sometimes contains religious themes. Jesus shows up as a character in both the Riverworld series (in the novelette "Riverworld" but not in the novels, except for the mentioning of him dying early in The Magic Labyrinth) and Jesus on Mars. Night of Light (1957, expanded 1966) takes the rather unholy Father John Carmody on an odyssey on an alien world where spiritual forces are made manifest in the material world. In Flesh (1960) astronauts return to an Earth 800 years in their future dominated by a pagan Goddess-worshiping religion. Other examples include the short stories "J.C. on the Dude Ranch", "The God Business", "The Making of Revelation, Part I", and the novels Inside, Outside (1964) (which may or may not be set in Hell) and Traitor to the Living (1973), among many others.
Many of Farmer's works rework existing characters from fiction and history, as in The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), a far-future sequel to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973), which fills in the missing time periods from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days; and A Barnstormer in Oz (1982), in which Dorothy's adult son, a pilot, flies to the Land of Oz by accident.
He has often written about the pulp heroes Tarzan and Doc Savage, or pastiches thereof: In his novel The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes team up. Farmer's Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban series portray analogues of Tarzan and Doc Savage. It consists of A Feast Unknown (1969), Lord of the Trees (1970) and The Mad Goblin (1970). Farmer has also written two mock biographies of both characters, Tarzan Alive (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), which adopt the premise that the two were based on real people fictionalized by their original chroniclers, and connect them genealogically with a large number of other well-known fictional characters in a schema now known as the "Wold Newton family." Further, Farmer wrote both an authorized Doc Savage novel, Escape from Loki (1991) and an authorized Tarzan novel, The Dark Heart of Time (1999). In his 1972 novel Time's Last Gift, Farmer also explored the Tarzan theme combined with time travel, using the transparently reverse-syllabled name of "Sahhindar" for his hero (and the book's initials, TLG, as code for "Tarzan, Lord Greystoke"). A short story on this theme is "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" (1968): "if William S. rather than Edgar Rice [Burroughs] had written Tarzan," Farmer also wrote Lord Tyger (1970) about a ruthless millionaire who tries to create a real Tarzan by having a child kidnapped and then brought up subject to the same tragic events which shaped Tarzan in the original books.
In his incomplete historical Khokarsa cycle -- Hadon of Ancient Opar (1974) and Flight to Opar (1976) -- Farmer portrayed the "lost city" of Opar, which plays an important part in the Tarzan saga, in the time of its glory as a colony city of the empire of Khokarsa. One of the books mentions a mysterious grey-eyed traveller, clearly "Sahhindar"/Tarzan.
Farmer wrote Venus on the Half-Shell (1975) under the name Kilgore Trout, a fictional author who appears in the works of Kurt Vonnegut. He had planned to write more of Trout's fictional books (notably Son of Jimmy Valentine), but Vonnegut put an end to those plans. Farmer's use of the pseudonym had caused confusion among many readers, who for some time assumed that Vonnegut was behind it; when the truth of Venus on the Half-Shell's authorship came out, Vonnegut was reported as being "not amused." In an issue of the semi-prozine The Alien Critic/Science Fiction Review, published by Richard E. Geis, Farmer claimed to have received an angry, obscenity-laden telephone call from Vonnegut about it. Thereafter Farmer wrote a number of pseudonymous "fictional author" stories, mostly for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These were stories whose "authors" are characters in other stories. The first such story was "by" Jonathan Swift Somers III (invented by Farmer himself in Venus on the Half-Shell but inspired by one of the dead voices of Spoon River Anthology). Later Farmer used the "Cordwainer Bird" byline, a pseudonym invented by Harlan Ellison for film and television projects from which he wished to disassociate himself, and perhaps related to the name Cordwainer Smith, a pseudonym used by Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.
In a writing career spanning more than 60 years (1946-2008), Farmer published almost 60 novels, over 100 short stories and novellas (many expanded or combined into novels), two "fictional biographies" and numerous essays, articles and ephemera in fan publications.