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Philip Josť Farmer: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted June 19, 2011, with later edits

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He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, but spent the majority of his life in Peoria, Illinois. A voracious reader as a child, he decided at an early age he would be a writer. The idea that would later be the genesis of his novel Maker of Universes (the first of his World of Tiers series) was originally conceived when he was a teenager. He was also a lettered athlete and National Honor Society student at Peoria Central High School, and he entered the University of Missouri in 1936 with the intention of studying journalism. However, his studies were cut short due to family financial difficulties and for several years he worked at Illinois Power and Light, for which his father also worked, in order to help his father pay off his debts and save up money for a return to college. He married in May of 1941 and shortly thereafter joined the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet. He washed out of flight training, was discharged from the Army, and in spite of the beginning of World War 2 was not drafted into any other branch of the service. He spent the next ten years or so working for Keystone Steel and Wire, a manufacturer of fencing and other metal products, located in Dillon, Illinois.

At the urging of his wife Bette, he took night clases at Bradley Polytechnical Institute in Peoria, changing his major to English literature with a minor in philosophy. Later he returned to UoM to study classical Greek, a subject not available at Bradley. He also wrote several stories, with "O'Brien and Obrenov" selling to Adventure magazine in 1946. It is not SF and I've never read it. It has only been reprinted three times, in two different fanzines and then in a very limited edition story collection by Subterranean Press. It involves the dilemma faced by U.S. and Soviet forces about which of them has jurisdiction over a captured high-ranking German officer. It would not be until 1952, at the age of 34, that Farmer would burst upon the SF scene with a remarkable and shocking (for the time, and certainly for SF) story. "The Lovers" was first submitted to John W. Campbell at Astounding, who rejected it, as did Horace Gold of Galaxy. But Sam Mines at Startling Stories recognized the talent and figured the controversial story would generate some interest for his lower circulation magazine. He was right. Not only did the story receive many complimentary letters to the publication over a long period of time, it also garnered Farmer his first Hugo award, as "Most Promising New Writer" in 1953.

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I doubt it was the first SF story that ever mentioned sex, but certainly not in such a frank manner. Set on the planet Ozagen, it tells the story of a human male who falls in love with an alien female and thus is ostracized by both civilizations. I would say it is tame by today's standards but I can understand the furor it caused at the time, and about the only thing that would have made it more controversial then would have been both characters being of the same gender. It helped set the course of Farmer's career. I cannot think of another writer who consistently challenged himself and his readers with such an unfettered imagination and willingness to explore once taboo subjects. Robert A. Heinlein acknowledged the influence of "The Lovers" on his decision to tackle sexuality in Stranger in a Strange Land, and Farmer is one of three to whom he dedicated that novel. I am pretty sure I have never read the original version of the story, but have read the expanded novel published in 1961 (revised again in 1979 and 2008). As far as I've been able to determine, the novella has only been printed twice since its original appearance in Startling Stories in 1952. The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy is in print but exorbitantly priced because I think it is marketed as a textbook for colleges with SF studies programs, and Subterranean Press' The Best of Philip Josť Farmer was a limited edition but out of print. Even for used copies the cheapest I found online was around $50 for the former and $80 for the latter. Unless I can find either at the library I doubt I'll get the chance to read the shorter version. The last revised novel version is currently available from Baen Books in the collection Strange Relations.

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On the basis of this sale and a few others which would be published the following year, Farmer was encouraged to try his hand at full-time writing, although that would not last long. He entered a novel in a contest with Shasta Pulications which had an extra contract with Pocket Books for paperback printing. As detailed in my look at the Riverworld saga, even though Owe for the Flesh won that contest, the publisher used the prize money for other expenses but went bankrupt before it could print the book. The financial hardship caused Farmer to abandon his idea of writing full time, which he would not be able to return to until 1969. He worked for a short time as a laborer at a dairy, later at various companies as a technical writer, including for Motorola's military electronics division in Arizona and McDonnell-Douglas in Los Angeles, but continued to write fiction in his spare time.

It can be argued that the majority of Farmer's work is as much social satire as it is SF or fantasy. He wrote in so many genres and sub-genres, possibly inventing a couple himself. Not only is human sexuality a recurring theme, but also religion and philosophy, as well as the concept of the hero. His Father Carmody series details the exploits of a renegade priest and his adventures on various planets, and because of a phrase in one of the stories is said to have influenced Jimi Hendrix in writing "Purple Haze." Flesh (1960, revised 1968 and again 2008) was also considered shocking when first published. Astronauts returning to Earth realize 800 years have passed since their departure, and the ruling parties are matriarchal in nature with a focus on primitive mating rites and orgiastic celebrations. It is also included in the currently available collection Strange Relations mentioned above. In my Riverworld piece I stated that To Your Scattered Bodies Go might have been the first of Farmer's work I had read, but upon further reflection I think it must have been "Riders of the Purple Wage," a novella that first saw print in Harlan Ellison's landmark anthology Dangerous Visions, and for which Farmer won his second Hugo. A stylistic tour-de-force full of explicit sex and scatalogical content, it concerns an artist's struggle to survive on the public dole in a future utopian (dystopian?) society, and I have even seen it described as a pastiche of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

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Pastiche is a description that could be used for a lot of Farmer's work, or you could call some of it professional "fan-fiction." He wrote multiple takes on the Tarzan character, at least one of which (The Dark Heart of Time) is a direct sequel to Edgar Rice Burrough's work and sanctioned by that author's estate. Some of the stories are parody; "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" is Tarzan as written by William S. (rather than Edgar Rice) Burroughs, and he wrote Tarzan Alive: The Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke as if the character was a real person. The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (written under the pseudonym John H. Watson) details the meeting of Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes. Some consider this part of the Wold Newton sequence that concerns the exploits of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban (alternate versions of Lord Greystoke and Doc Savage), along with several other fictional characters (James Bond) and historical figures (Jack the Ripper) which used Joseph Campbell's The Hero of a Thousand Faces as a guideline in exploring the heroic myth in fiction.

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I am not sure if the edition of Peerless Peer that I link to is the original version or if it is a combination of various other stories. Amazon.com says it is to be published in print and for the Kindle on June 21, 2011. There had been another reworked version of the story, titled "The Adventure of the Three Madmen," in which Tarzan was replaced by Mowgli, the Rudyard Kipling character from the Jungle Book tales. Another character that enters into the Wold Newton sequence is Kilgore Trout, the fictional author from several Kurt Vonnegut books, which Farmer also used as a pseudonym when he wrote Venus on the Half Shell. That was originally sanctioned by Vonnegut, but he later regretted giving Farmer permission when several critics compared it favorably to some of Vonnegut's own work. Lord Tyger (1970) is only tangentially connected to these works, since instead of Tarzan it is about a multi-millionaire who attempts to create his own version of that hero by having a child kidnapped and raised in conditions similar to Burrough's character. Other books that are definitely of the pastiche variety include The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (Jules Verne), A Barnstormer in Oz (L. Frank Baum) and The Wind Whales of Ishmael, an SF sequel to Moby Dick.

As if his other forays into his character's sexual proclivities wasn't enough, Farmer also contracted with "literary porn" publisher Essex House for a trio of fantasy novels. Dubbed the Exorcism Trilogy, this began with 1968's Image of the Beast, which is a parody of both detective fiction and gothic horror tales. It is another of his books I haven't read, and based on a couple of descriptions I've seen I'm not sure I want to. It was followed by Blown, or Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind, and both of those were later printed in one volume. The third Exorcism novel, Traitor to the Living, was actually published in paperback by Ballantine in 1973, but the Essex contract was fulfilled with 1969's A Feast Unknown, which was the first Grandrith/Caliban book, part of the previously mentioned Wold Newton sequence. It is also an exploration of the subtext of sado-masochism inherent in much adventure fiction.

These are all very important works to consider in placing Farmer's work in context with the rest of his SF peers, but most reader's know him for much more mainstream work. The Riverworld series is foremost among those, spanning five novels (six if you count River of Eternity, a later version of Owe for the Flesh) and several short stories. The individual novels are To Your Scattered Bodies Go & The Fabulous Riverboat (both 1971 and now available in one volume), The Dark Design (1977), The Magic Labyrinth (1980) and Gods of Riverworld (1983). On my latest re-read of the first two books I was struck by quite a bit of needless and repetitive exposition, but other than that I think the story holds up very well today, and is one of the best examples of how mind-expanding and challenging SF can be.

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The previously mentioned World of Tiers series is more overtly fantasy, detailing a collection of pocket universes all stacked on top of each other like the tiers of a wedding cake. The universes are apparently the creation of The Masters, possibly gods, and their intricate nature and the rules that govern their technologies are explored by different people from Earth that have been inextricably trapped inside them. As in Riverworld, where Farmer placed himself into the story as the character Peter Jairus Frigate, he does the same here with Paul Janus Finnegan. All of the individual novels are currently out of print. They include The Maker of Universes (1965), The Gates of Creation (1966), A Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970) and The Lavalite World (1977). I have all of these in a Science Fiction Book Club one-volume omnibus, but they had also published a two-volume set before that. Amazon.com shows trade paperback copies of The World of Tiers, Volume 1, which includes the first three of the books, and Volume 2 consisting of the last two along with another (More Than Fire) that I had not heard of before. The searchable contents page on their site shows its copyright date as 1993. A few years ago I reviewed a book by another author, and at the time it didn't occur to me, but now research for this article and thinking back on The World of Tiers makes me think that it could have been an influence on Gene Wolfe in his creation of the multi-level worlds in the Wizard Knight duo.

One last book sequence I'll mention is the Dayworld Trilogy, which began as the short story "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-on-Tuesday World," first printed in Robert Silverberg's original anthology New Dimensions I in 1971. Imagine a world so crowded that the population is divided into seven different segments, each only allowed to live one day a week. The other six days are spent in suspended animation bubbles, alternately nicknamed their "coffins" or "stoner cells." A very unique proposal to confront what was a common anxiety of the late '60s and early '70s, but one which presents yet another problem when many wish to change the day on which they are allowed to live, or worse, feel it their right to live every day. The three novels developed from this concept are Dayworld (1985), Dayworld Rebel (1987) and Dayworld Breakup (1990). If memory serves, I didn't get too far into the third book, as it seemed Farmer had lost track of the story he had originally intended to tell. They are out of print, but don't let that or my comment dissuade you from trying them if you get the chance. The short story and first novel are well worth reading, and as for the others, they could end up being someone else's favorites.

In summation, Philip Josť Farmer is a must read for anyone who is serious about exploring the many facets of SF. Not all of his books and stories will be to everyone's liking, but with around 60 novels and more than 100 short stories, most will find something to treasure. Some things might shock you or disgust you, but I assure you that no matter which of his books you read you won't be bored. It is unfortunate that the vast majority of his bibliography is out of print, but most used bookstores should have a good sampling of his work, and of course amazon.com and other online sellers will usually have many used books available. What are you waiting for? Get searching and get reading!


Related Links:
PJFarmer.com, the official Philip Josť Farmer Home Page.
My review of the Riverworld series.


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January 26, 1918

February 25, 2009

Official Website

3 Hugos
SFWA Grand Master (2001)
World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement