Riverworld and other stories – Philip Jose Farmer

Here, at last, my long journey into Philip Jose Farmerworld comes mostly, and gratefully, to an end. I first encountered Farmer through his Riverworld books, which I continue to think are a great achievement in SFF, and deservedly qualify as classics. After extensive reading, though, the sad fact is that his other work – including stories for which he won prizes – doesn’t come close. The bulk of it is slipshod, far-fetched, and thinly characterized.

This collection, fairly enough, captures all facets of Farmer’s writing, from three reasonably solid Riverworld stories to stories that received acclaim to stories that are outright juvenile – and not in a fun way. In brief, I’d have to say that the only reason to buy the collection is for the Riverworld stories. They’re not essential, but they do flesh out a Tom Mix side story, and some of them show the good side of Farmer’s work.

Riders of the Purple Wage – Philip Jose Farmer

I can only imagine what Farmer was intending when he wrote this. It appeared in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, and I envision Ellison asking Farmer for a story, Farmer agreeing, and then trying to be ‘dangerous’ by emulating Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Or being on a lot of drugs. Or both.

I can’t imagine what the Nebula (nominated) and Hugo (won) voters were thinking. I found this essentially unreadable. If you really try, you can get a general sense that it’s about an artist trying to win a government grant. But there’s no reason to try. I did, and I’d like to save you the effort. Don’t read this.

Dark is the Sun – Philip Jose Farmer

I’ve read a lot of Philip Jose Farmer in recent months. I’ve liked very little of it. In fact, I’d started to think that my enjoyment of the Riverworld series was an anomaly, and that, to put it bluntly, Farmer was simply not a very good writer.

Dark is the Sun doesn’t entirely confound that view; it’s not a work of any particular genius. But it is head and shoulders above the World of Tiers series, to pick one example. It’s so different that it reads as if it had been written by an entirely different author. Had I picked it up blind, I’d have assumed it to be a lost Piers Anthony novel from the 1970s, or a collaboration with him during that period. It has the same mounting introduction of novelty after novelty, and the same relentless, if somewhat facile, logical application of concepts. The sexism is limited and of its time rather than well past it. In short, it’s like reading a book by a whole different author.

That doesn’t mean this is a good book, but it’s not a bad one. It’s got an interesting world, decent (if into entirely credible) characters, and a challenging quest. There’s not a lot of surprise, but there’s plenty to keep you going. Of the half dozen Farmer books I’ve read recently, this is the only one that had me looking forward (slightly) to the next reading session, rather than looking for any excuse to put it off.

I can’t say this is the Riverworld Farmer I remember and liked, but it’s a lot like the Tarot and Cluster Anthony that I remember and liked. If you’re a fan of those series, you might like this as well.

The Lovers – Philip Jose Farmer

In this Hugo-winning novella, Farmer provides more complex characters than in much of his later work. The hero is a rebel, but not too much of one; he’s caught up by the beliefs he was raised with, and has difficulty getting past them. In this, he doesn’t always take the easy literary path; he doesn’t invariably triumph against all odds, and not all of his choices are good. The villain of the piece has another side that we only glimpse, but know is there.

While the depth of characterization is a surprising precursor to the more simplistic templates Farmer later relied on, the seeds of that more facile approach are here as well. I never really found myself believing in the society he created, nor in the alien biology he posits. For one thing, there’s no clear focus to the book; it feels very much like he’s making it up as he goes along. Sometimes that works. Here it doesn’t.

For all the story’s flaws, there are the bones of interesting ideas, and I can see why it attracted attention. At the same time, the story feels unnecessarily stretched out, and the weak spots are hard to ignore. This should probably have stayed at short story length. Still, I wish he’d taken the complexity and interesting choices that are here, and written more like that, rather than what seems to have been a determined tack toward pulp.

Dayworld Breakup – Philip Jose Farmer

As with Dayworld Rebel, there’s not a great amount of logic to this book. Farmer doesn’t worry much about cause, effect, and logical outcomes. Instead, he simply posits a situation, inhabits it for a while, and then tells us that he’s moved on.

The series has had an ongoing focus on its protagonist’s mental state and powers, and in reading the series, it’s evident that Farmer is making it up as he goes along. In this last book of the trilogy, it’s clear that he’s decided to double down on Caird’s multiple personas and his special abilities. Unfortunately, none of those issues is particularly interesting, and while Farmer sets out a number of threads, he doesn’t follow them to the end, leaving us with even more of a muddle than we had at the start. While more focused than book 1, and less frenzied than book 2, this third book is unfortunately the dullest of the bunch.

Dayworld Rebel – Philip Jose Farmer

This second volume follows closely on the model of its predecessor, but with more assurance. It’s less concerned with laying out the structure of the world than in sending its protagonist through a series of adventures. It’s smoother but less interesting reading.

While Farmer clearly put some thought into how Dayworld works (stoning, shared spaces, different styles), a good deal is left to implication – and it’s not always credible. That’s true for its lead characters, as well. Caird (let’s call him) has a fixation on Panthea Snick that’s simply not explained. It cropped up in the first volume, and it’s not explained here. Instead, she and another larger-than-life character traipse around in Caird’s wake for no good reason. The action moves Caird from place to seemingly at random, and the two follow along as good sidekicks do.

We do get a few revelations here (about immers and rebels), but they’re more muted than they might be. Caird & Co decide to bring things to a head with a series of irrational actions, and just barely get out of more scrapes than a comic-book hero, based only on .. nothing in particular, in fact. But get out they do.

Dayworld Rebel aimed to be the centerpiece of a clever, insightful series examining human nature and an instinct for freedom. Instead, it’s an adequate, largely forgettable chase novel that neither provokes thought nor offers an exciting escape.

Dayworld – Philip Jose Farmer

I’ve noted before that I encountered Philip Jose Farmer via Riverworld, which I thought was (mostly) a great feat of imagination. When the opportunity arose, I acquired a lot of Farmer novels. I started reading them with the World of Tiers series I’d heard of years before. I was sorely disappointed – all of Riverworld‘s flaws were greatly exaggerated, and new ones added.

Dayworld is a point midway between the two. Farmer gets carried away and self-indulgent (especially on sex and pop-culture), but the story and character are interesting enough to carry through. It’s all a little easy, but to his credit, while the premise is thin, Farmer has thought through some of the mechanics. At the same time, he’s trying to throw too much into the story – stasis, division into day worlds, immers, and a multiple personality issue which seems to develop as the story progresses (in the sense that he made it up as he went along). It’s a decent book that might have been a good one with a firm editorial hand. The book doesn’t end in any satisfying way, so it’s not a functional standalone novel other than as an exploration of the concept – but not in terms of narrative arc or character development.

It’s also odd in that, despite being based on a short-story, Farmer apparently feels the need for a long authorial introduction explaining the concept before the book’s even begun. I’m not sure why – the book would work well enough without it, and the information would have worked better as an afterword.

More Than Fire – Philip Jose Farmer

Farmer set up some interesting possibilities with this book – a return to the stone computer world that holds the secret of the universe creation engines, a meeting with the last, long-hibernating member of the ancient race that developed the technology, and some other larger than life characters – and he throws it all away in favor of a standard Kickaha-gates-traps-escapes adventure. I had hopes that a really strong, intriguing, and original ending could redeeem the series by delving into the mysteries behind it all; a tall order, but feasible. Having set out the ingredients to make it happen, Farmer proceeds to make a different recipe altogether – corn bread where he could have had gingerbread.

There’s a lot of inconsistency in the World of Tiers series, especially around the technology for creating universes, which is sometimes long-lost, sometimes recently used, and whose origin is never clearly set out. By bringing in a member of the ancient race that apparently came up with both that and the gates, Farmer created an opportunity to round the series off with a satisfying explanation. Instead, it’s more of the same inconsistency that has plagued the series so far.

While the series started with Robert Wolff/Jadawin, Farmer makes no effort to bring the story full circle. Jadawin doesn’t get a look in. Similarly, Anana, Kickaha’s love interest, is present mostly as a motivator for Kickaha, not as a genuine character. Even Kickaha himself, long hinted to have Lord’s genes, remains unexplained. Pretty much the only thread that is tied up is Red Orc, Kickaha’s long-time nemesis.

This was a book with a lot of opportunity, almost all of it wasted. If you’ve gotten this far in the series and enjoyed it, this is more of the same. If you were hoping for some sort of redemptive explanation of it all, don’t bother reading this.

Red Orc’s Rage – Philip Jose Farmer

Apparently, Tiersian therapy was a real thing that Farmer learned about. I’m sure it must have intrigued him, and I can see the appeal of incorporating into his World of Tiers series as a sort of recursive meta-fiction. Unfortunately, what was likely fun for Farmer has considerably less appeal for readers.

The writing is surprisingly clunky. Perhaps because he has to deal more with the real world, and less with fantastic coincidence and exaggerated personalities, the protagonist seems crudely constructed and only mildly interesting. While there are clear parallels between Jim’s home life and Red Orc’s upbringing, Farmer strips them of all subtlety, pointing them out and underlining them at every turn.

It’s nice for once to see things from the villain’s viewpoint, but Farmer never goes very far beneath the surface. ‘Red Orc has a hard childhood, so he becomes a bad man’ is about as far is it goes. The rest of the book is a series of episodes in Red Orc’s life, loosely tied together by the Jim Grimson story. I found it hard to be interested in either.

All in all, likely a fun project for the author, but dull for the rest of us.

The Lavalite World – Philip Jose Farmer

With this fifth book, Farmer demonstrates conclusively that he’s out of plot ideas, but can still work up an unusual setting. Happily, he’s largely given up on his awkward gating device, and made the myriad gates more easily operated. Unhappily, he offers nothing new to go with them. As with most of the prequels, the entire book continues to be a search for gates, which then must be checked for ubiquitous traps, and then never quite lead to where they should. In other words, it’s the same story over and over and over again.

Farmer has made an effort with the setting – literally based on a lavalite, with lumps splitting off a main mass and eventually re-merging. The science is barely there, and even the central characteristic of the word, its mutability, gets shunted aside in places. Aside from a nod to immortal ennui, there’s no attempt to explain just why anyone would create such a world – going to great lengths to design interesting, dangerous, and ultimately pointless creatures to inhabit it and make things hard on the humans the designer imported.

I found the book trying and dull. At one point, Farmer, perhaps irritated by criticism of shallow characters, or simply with a character sketch on hand, suddenly plunges needlessly into a chapter-long discussion of Kickaha’s upbringing, apropos of nothing at all. Anana, while much the more interesting character, continues to be a tag-along helpmeet, existing largely to motivate Kickaha’s machismo and coo at his cleverness.

I wish Farmer had done more with his setting, including populating it with more interesting and genuine characters, and that he’d made more of an effort in the way of plot.