Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Philip Jose Farmer

Philip José Farmer

There should have been headlines in all the papers, silent prayers on TV, giant moving ticker-text across the face of downtown New York like in the beginning of Citizen Kane. PHILIP JOSÉ FARMER HAS DIED. But I learned about his death accidentally. On Joe R. Lansdale's website, a link pointed to a piece Joe wrote in memory of his hero. The link didn't work, and I couldn't find the piece, but I quickly learned that one of the Grand Masters of science fiction had passed nearly two months ago.

Farmer was a name I came across when looking for science fiction books at the library or reading about the history of the genre. But for some reason I never got around to reading him. I first encountered his name in Barlowe's Guide attached to an alien simply called Mother. It was a boring-looking thing, a gray rock with a sort of antenna appendage. "Not going to read that story any time soon," I thought. "It must suck if it's about a rock." How wrong I was. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Riverworld. I'd heard for years how good it was, so I finally read the books. They weren't just good. They were new. I thought I'd seen all the tropes of science fiction in all their possible permutations, aliens and alternate futures and god-like creatures and strange worlds. But no one had used them all at once in quite this way before. Farmer created a world that was so fantastic and written with such enthusiasm, clarity, and imagination, that I wanted to move there. Everyone who had ever lived, from prehistory up to the twentieth century is resurrected on the bank a river that snakes across the entire surface of an alien world. Tied to each person's arm is a bucket that, when recharged on any of the charging rocks spaced along the river, provides its owner with an endless supply of food plus random items like utensils, makeup, alcohol, cigarettes, and even the occasional joint. (I could do without the last few, but I'd definitely trade with you.) And when someone dies, he is resurrected again at some random location on the river bank. Just thinking about it gives me chills. If you were there, who would seek out? Your grandparents? Your first girlfriend? Mozart? Walt Whitman? Did I mention that everyone remembers every event from their previous lives? And has been reborn at the peek of health? Riverworld is one of my favorite places ever. The five books I spent living there were incredible.

They are action-packed books, and no one can touch Farmer's ability to write action scenes. Sword fights, riverboat chases, bi-plane dogfights. Mark Twain versus Vikings. The pages flew by as the tension mounted. As each book concluded, and more questions arose as to why humanity was there, who had built them this world, and who was sabotaging those plans, I couldn't wait to get the next one from the library. Once, the book I needed was checked out. I was ready to hunt that person down and steal the book in the night, but I realized that he, or maybe even she, was having a great time. But when would it be my turn?

Finally I reached the end of the fourth book, which was labeled as the last in the series. And I was... disappointed. Extremely so. I learned two things. One: Farmer was no good at endings. This would prove to be true in other novels of his I would read later. And Two: When it comes to mysteries, not knowing the answer is always more fulfilling than knowing. In the same way seeing how an illusion is done ruins the magic, having the books' answers spelled out left me wanting to erase the memory of having read the last fifty pages. Of course, that would mean I'd still be hungry to find out the secrets and just read them all over again. If only I could forget the conclusion but remember that I have to continue to forget it in order to fully enjoy the book. Sounds like something Farmer would base a story around.

Thankfully, he wrote a fifth book, Gods of Riverworld, with just as much cleverness and excitement as the first four, but ended this one on an enigmatic note.

With Riverworld behind me, I looked for more of Farmer's books. The only other thing the library had of his was a book of stories, so I snapped it up, ready for anything, confident I would be surprised. In addition to being able to write the perfect action scene, Farmer was the king of the gimmick story. Science fiction is full of gimmicks. Hell, most people think that's all science fiction is. But when done properly, a gimmick can challenge your brain and your heart at once. Check this out: A family wakes up thinking it's Wednesday when it's really Sunday. None of them can remember the last four days of their lives. No one can. The next day, they forget four more days. Then another four, and another. An object orbiting the Earth is somehow peeling away their memories four days at a time. Eventually the father of the family starts making tape recordings and keeping journals to remind them all of the things they have forgotten. Like how old they are. Imagine thinking you're twenty but seeing the face of a forty-year-old in the mirror. The father travels backwards through his memories, through an affair he had and regrets, past the birth of his children, past his wife. Though they live in the same house and look like adults, the couple have the memories and minds of children and don't know each other. Recordings and notes left around the house tell them histories they cannot remember. That is one scary gimmick. And that is "Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind."

It's tempting to go on about the strange things Farmer could incorporate into a story, but I'll leave you to discover them yourself. But there's one story I have to mention. It's called "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod," and it takes up this premise: Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But what if he had been written by William S. Burroughs? The resulting story is every bit as fucked up as that idea sounds.

When I finally read "Mother," I was moved. Farmer somehow took a completely alien being, that looked like a boulder, and made me feel compassion for it. Absolutely amazing.

I hope to see him by the River one day, shake his hand, and tell him thanks.

Official Website
Paper Kingdom Writer's Hall of Fame

Yes, We'll Gather at the River


foolscap Home       Podcast       Essays       Poems       Songs       Videos       Stories       Images foolscap

Vestigial
now available for purchase or download
.
Vestigial by Michael Channing