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Genre Greats:
The Grand Master Of Peoria:
Philip José Farmer's Immortal Legacy
by Christopher Paul Carey

Casual sex with alien species is so common these days that it is hard to open a science fiction novel or turn on the television without being exposed to it. China Miéville offhandedly describes the intimate relations between an insectoid khepri and his humanoid protagonist in Perdido Street Station. A character on Star Trek returns to his ship after contracting an extraterrestrial STD and the ship's doctor unceremoniously treats and chides his careless patient. Is anyone today even mildly shocked by these examples?
Philip Jose Farmer

Now travel back in time to the early 1950s. A young new writer, struggling to support his family by working overtime in a steel mill, submits his first piece of science fiction to Astounding. John W. Campbell doesn't want it. The writer sends the story to H.L. Gold at Galaxy, but the manuscript is again returned. The story is just too mature for a genre marketed toward adolescent males: 'there is no sex in science fiction'. Disgruntled, the writer resigns to try one last time and submits the story to Sam Mines at Startling Stories. This time comes a different response. Mines, sensing he has a winner, albeit a controversial one; buys the story and publishes it in his August 1952 issue. The story is The Lovers and the unknown author bears the strangely exotic sounding name of Philip José Farmer. The response from readers is electric. "Letters poured into Startling Stories praising the story," says Michael Croteau, web-master of The Official Philip José Farmer Home Page, who has extensively researched the history of Farmer's groundbreaking novella. "Several commented on how good the story was for a first time author," Croteau continues, "while others speculated that the story must have been written by an established pro who used a pseudonym because of the story's subject matter."

The Lovers tells the tale of Hal Yarrow, an Earthman sent on assignment to the planet Ozagen, who finds himself daring to rebel against his own planet's religious fundamentalism by engaging in intimate contact with an alien female. The story is tame by today's standards, but the mix of Farmer's raw talent, his ingenious description of photo-kinetic reproduction, and subject matter that was risqu� for its day led to an ecstatic reaction among science fiction readers, who suddenly found their misbegotten genre gaining some maturity. "So many letters came in [to Startling Stories] over the next several months," says Croteau, "that six months or so after the story appeared, people started writing letters about the letters." In fact, letters about Farmer's story continued to be printed consistently in the magazine for the next two years. Many came from readers who had missed the August issue in which the novella appeared and desperately wanted to get their hands on a copy so they could join in the excitement. It was not surprising that in the year following the publication of The Lovers, Farmer won the Hugo award for 'most promising new talent'. "Science fiction never had any sexual relationships in it," says the now 88-year-old Farmer. "I felt that that was a part of life and so should be a part of SF." History has proved Farmer unquestionably right.

But like his character Hal Yarrow in the 1961 expanded novel-length version of The Lovers, Farmer is a joat, an acronym for 'jack-of-all-trades'. More specifically he is a literary joat. Not content with resting on the laurels of his pioneering story, Farmer continued to write speculative fiction over the next half a century, covering just about every topic under the sun with a compelling combination of realism and the fantastic that is his trademark.

After his initial success Farmer went on to publish a number of SF stories, including Sail On, Sail On, which Farmer says is his most often reprinted short story, and Moth And Rust, a sequel to The Lovers. But ironically Farmer's promising career threatened to stall in 1953 when he entered the Shasta science fiction novel contest. Farmer wrote a 150,000-word novel, Owe For The Flesh, and won the contest; but after he went to pick up his prize, he discovered that Shasta had used the prize money to invest in a hair-brained scheme that had gone sour. Farmer was left penniless and, with his new novel hanging in limbo, he was forced to quit writing fulltime and take up a job as a dairy labourer. Farmer, however, endured, and years later the novel he had submitted to the Shasta contest became the basis for his Hugo award-winning novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first volume of the Riverworld series. Certainly one of the grandest undertakings of his legacy, if not in the entirety of science fiction, Riverworld seemed the perfect vehicle for Farmer's fertile mind. In this new creation, every person who has ever walked the face of the Earth is resurrected on an alien world and left to fend for him- or herself. The Riverworld series spanned five volumes, and was followed by two anthologies including stories by authors other than Farmer, and more recently a Sci-Fi Channel movie, Riverworld.

In the late 1960s Farmer began writing pastiches of his favourite pop lit characters and in the early 1970s wrote two 'fictional biographies', Tarzan Alive: The Definitive Biography Of Lord Greystoke and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. Using a premise almost as staggeringly expansive as that of Riverworld, he elaborated what he called the 'Wold Newton' family, a genetic lineage of characters from popular literature whose ancestors were exposed to a radioactive meteorite. Farmer's presentation of the Wold Newton genealogy is erudite, complex, and straight-faced, and the subtlety of his sly, tongue-in-cheek wit simultaneously reveals the genius of both master scholar and trickster.

Farmer's fictional genealogy has continued to inspire several genre authors. In the mid-1970s, Farmer granted permission for J.T. Edson to make extensive use of the Wold Newton genealogy in his Bunduki series, as well as in his western novels. Horror author Kim Newman, while not using Farmer's genealogy per se, remains heavily influenced by Farmer's frequent borrowing of characters from literature. Spider Robinson continues to use Farmer's character Ralph von Wau Wau, a super-intelligent talking dog cited in one of the Wold Newton 'biographies', in his notoriously pun-filled Callahan series. And those familiar with Alan Moore's comic book series The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen may experience a feeling of d�j� vu when encountering many of the pulp adventure characters discussed by Farmer in his Wold Newton works. This is not a coincidence, as Moore himself has cited Farmer as an influence. Farmer admits he did not see the movie based on Moore's comic. "I understand," he says, "that it was too cartoonish."

Much as devotees of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon have carried on pseudo-academic studies of their favourite character, enthusiasts of the Wold Newton family have continued and expanded upon Farmer's faux genealogical concept. In 1997, Win Scott Eckert put up the first website devoted exclusively to what he calls the 'Wold Newton universe', which goes beyond Farmer's Wold Newton family to encompass an even wider array of fictional characters. "I think the overarching draw of the concept," says Eckert, "is the ability to blend characters in new and interesting ways, and to see the characters against the backdrop of a larger universe." Eckert is the editor of Myths For The Modern Age: Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Universe (MonkeyBrain Books, 2005), a first of its kind anthology themed exclusively around the Wold Newton universe. While nine selections in this new collection are by Farmer, the bulk of Eckert's anthology is comprised of essays by other scholars, writers, and pop-culture historians paying tribute to Farmer's postmodern literary conceit.

Farmer himself, inspired by the pantheon of fictional characters he encountered during his youth, has fulfilled his childhood ambition to write novels in the universes of 'Oz' (A Barnstormer In Oz, 1982), Doc Savage (Escape From Loki, 1991), and Tarzan (The Dark Heart Of Time, 1999). He achieved another aim in 2001, when - in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field of science fiction - he was awarded the Grand Master Award, the highest honour granted by the Science Fiction Writers of America. In the same year he was also awarded a World Fantasy Award for a lifetime of achievement. With the satisfaction of having realised these goals, little new has been published by Farmer until now, when it seems a Farmerian renaissance may be in the making.

One of the new publications is Farmerphile: The Magazine Of Philip José Farmer, launched in summer 2005 by Michael Croteau, after finding a treasure trove of never before published gems in the Grand Master's basement. "Having had the privilege of reading all these unpublished stories," says Croteau, "my first thought was, how can we make these available to Phil's fans? Publishing a magazine completely by and about Philip José Farmer is something I have wanted to do for years so this seemed the perfect time to finally start it." Farmerphile is a print digest available through Farmer's official website and promises at least ten issues bearing new content by Farmer, including the serialization of his 'lost' novel, Up From The Bottomless Pit, a suspense thriller about the ultimate disaster in the oil industry.

Also hitting the shelves is Pearls From Peoria (Subterranean Press, 2006), a mammoth hardcover collection which editor Paul Spiteri says is "a culmination of over two years work to collect, edit and illustrate the rarer pieces in the Philip José Farmer canon." Among the unpublished gems in the book is Farmer's previously unreleased screen treatment for a sequel to George Pal's 1976 Doc Savage: Man Of Bronze feature film, as well as a host of brilliant but little known short stories, such as The Terminalisation Of J.G. Ballard, A Princess Of Terra, and The Doge Whose Barque Was Worse Than His Bight.

And if that isn't enough, two additional collections reprinting vintage Farmer have found their way into print. Fittingly, The Best Of Philip José Farmer (Subterranean Press, 2006) includes the original novella version of Farmer's classic The Lovers, while Strange Relations (Baen Books, 2006) features the expanded novel.

Thus it seems that Farmer's opus has come full circle. The Grand Master, who has oft used immortality as a theme in his works, has attained his own kind of literary immortality. Over half a century after he shocked the science fiction world and urged it to mature, Farmer's legacy continues in the hearty reprinting of his works and by his marked influence on writers, both past and present. "Robert Heinlein once wrote and thanked me for breaking taboos," Farmer says, recalling a bygone age. "He said it helped him in a book he was doing. I don't recall if that was Stranger In A Strange Land or not, but he did dedicate that book to me." Asked what he thinks is his single most lasting impact on science fiction, Farmer doesn't hesitate: "Giving younger writers the courage to come forward with new ideas as I did with The Lovers."
Startling Stories, August 1952

Tarzan Alive

Pearls From Peoria

The Best of Philip Jose Farmer

Myths for the Modern Age

Strange Relations



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