The Stone God Awakens

by Philip José Farmer

Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Stone God Awakens by Philip Jose Farmer

This is a futuristic take on the “Rip Van Winkle” story. The idea shows up often in science fiction and fantasy. Examples include Woody Allen’s Sleepers, Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and Captain America’s survival from World War II to the modern world. Usually the sleeper dozes for twenty years or so as a way to comment, often satirically, on the foibles of current life. Leave it up to Farmer to install a brand-new knob on a well-used trope and crank that sucker up to eleven billion.

Ulysses Singing Bear, a scientist from the 20th century awakens in the way-too-distant future as the only remaining human on Earth. The beings around him all seem to have descended from cats. They walk on two legs (not on four), use tools, have tails, and speak a strange language. It's Impossible to wrap your head around the amount of time that must pass for an entire species to evolve into something completely new. Ulysses doesn’t wake up just to find a new president in office. All the cities have crumbled to literal dust, the earth itself has been reshaped by geologic events too vast in scale for any single civilization to document, and even the stars have realigned into alien constellations. He survived all that by accident. Experimenting with atomic stasis, he was petrified at a molecular level, then reanimated by a freak lightning strike. It’s all SF mumbo jumbo to separate him from humankind and drop him into a strange land to explore. Instead of traveling by rocket, he sits in a desk chair and the universe shifts around him. At one point, he ponders the possibility that while he was in stasis, the sun exploded according to its expected timeline, sending him careening through the void for eons till he landed on this other planet of super Jellicle cats. Like I said, when Farmer picks up a trope, he bends it out of shape.

After a brief episode of action, Ulysses settles among the cat people to learn their ways and language. The cats, having reached the human equivalent of the stone age, have been worshiping the petrified protagonist as a god for generations. He quickly accepts the role of godhead and leads his chosen people to war against other cat tribes, putting his knowledge of past-future technology to use creating bombs and rockets out of bamboo and other ingredients commonly found around the hut. The cat tribes unite, and Ulysses learns there are other dominant species on the Earth, some that look like boars, others with bat wings, and some that look like him. He asks for directions and help in reaching the far-away land where the humans still dwell, and the cat people ask him to defeat the Tree.

The long section involving the Tree is the best part of the book and one of Farmer’s finest creations. It’s a tree hundreds of miles wide, reaching above the clouds. It contains whole ecosystems in its branches. The water it draws from the ground flows in literal rivers from the trunk along limbs the size of freeways. Ulysses and his crew build boats from the tree and navigate these waterways, catching fish to eat along the way, then leave the rivers just before they cascade to the ground in the form of enormous waterfalls. As the cats and their god journey to and then away from the massive trunk, they battle other species, are taken captive (in a brutal and disturbing scene I cannot shake from my head), and learn the Tree is far more than just an overgrown plant.

When they finally find the lost tribe of humans, things get more complicated, and Farmer leans on a theme he uses extensively in his Riverworld books: technology out of place in an agrarian society. To say more would be to spoil too much.

The final third isn’t as good to me as the first two, but it does ramp up the action. Farmer delivers a better ending than some of his other books, while leaving lots of room for a sequel he never got around to writing. It’s a wild ride with plenty of danger and titillation, no actual sex but boy does the tension build between Ulysses and his special lady cat friend.

The book certainly has faults. Ulysses uses torture abundantly in dealing with his enemies, making it hard to root for the guy at times. Sure he’s a nuclear scientist, but why would he know how to create gunpowder or the other constructs he puts to use in his battle with the Tree? How, in addition to his knowledge of atomic structure, gunpowder, military science, and wilderness survival, is he such an absolute master of language that he can fluently speak elephant in less than a week? He’s just too good at everything he attempts, and that threatens to undercut the book’s suspense.

But, man, that Tree. It’s a place I wish I could visit, if there wasn’t the constant fear of being captured and cannibalized. And we actually do get some kind of explanation of what happened to the planet between Ulysses’ unfortunate stoning and the current occupation by human-like, once-domesticated animals. Its arrival is a bit of a stretch but I believe the reader is willing to let Farmer get away with it. It’s a wonderful reveal that doesn’t suck all the mystery out of the story, as Farmer is wont to do. (See The Magic Labyrinth for an example.) Maybe it's good there was never a sequel.

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