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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer, RIP

Neeks and gerds the world over are mourning today.  The king is dead.

Among the first books Father Anonymous read -- after 20,000 Leagues and Sherlock Holmes, but well before, say, second grade -- was Tarzan of the Apes.  For better or, more likely, worse, it changed his life.  The other boys' action heroes who followed -- Tom Swift, Don Sturdy, Doc Savage -- were always measured against the adventures of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke.  And they always came up wanting.

Nonetheless, he kept reading them, all of them.  And eventually, in a head filled with pulpy pap, the characters started to cross lines of authorship and publisher.  What if, say, Tom and Don actually knew each other?  Or if -- well, why not? -- Tarzan and Sherlock were cousins?  After all, they were both Englishmen of the Victorian and Edwardian era.  Surely England wasn't big enough for those guys to miss each other.

After graduating from boyhood to early adolescence, the little guy was delighted to discover that there was a writer -- an actual adult writer -- who asked the same questions, and tried to answer them.  His name was Philip Jose Farmer, and he was the Wizard of Peoria.

Farmer was the author of more stories and books than we can count.  Certainly his most famous, and probably his best, are the Riverworld novels, beginning with To Your Scattered Bodies Go.  We borrowed it one night from the shelves of our beloved godfather, and were instantly hooked.  The heroes, all brought back from the dead and able to interact freely, include Sir Richard Francis Burton, Mark Twain, and Cyrano de Bergerac; the villains include Robin Hood's wicked King John, and a lot of Nazis.

In the 80s, DJs started to make "sampling" an art form of its own.  Today, this sort of mix-and-match pop-art is called a mashup.  In those days, there was no real name for it.  Because nobody else was doing it, least of all with the half-forgotten treasures of a boy's imangination.

But Farmer did it, over and over, in spades.  In another book, the main character was Robert Blake.  Not the Baretta guy, mind you -- the younger brother of the poet William Blake, surrounded by the Orcs and Urizens of Blake's own strange mythology.  Another, Venus on the Half-Shell, purported to be the masterpiece of Kilgore Trout, himself the antihero of Kurt Vonnegut's mid-career masterpieces.  You can see the infinite, if derivative, variety of this guy's mind.

For all of this, Farmer devoted we-can't-guess how much of his creative life to repeated re-examinations of two characters in particular:  Tarzan and Doc Savage.  An Ace Double, Lord of the Trees paired with The Mad Goblin, put them (or their pastiche dopplegangers) close enough to touch.  In Lord Tyger, a boy is deliberately raised (by a mad scientist or an evil conglomerate, we forget which) so that his life will copy Tarzan's:  orphaned, raised by animals. It doesn't go well.  Somewhere near the middle of the book, he declares "My mother was an ape and my father is God," and then proceeds to commit mass murder.

But the true masterworks of this dual obsession are his biographies, Tarzan Alive! and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.  The first is a skillful parody of the tweedy academic biography, the second of the master's thesis.  For non-obsessive readers, they serve as useful reading guides to the respective series.  But for readers who were once little boys filled with the aforementioned pulpy pap, they are much more than that.

They are, especially when taken together, a pulp fiction mashup avant la lettre, subliterary pastiches which turn the reader's childhood fantasies into a postmodern bricolage.  Farmer's conceit is that a meteor impact in England created a traceable genetic mutation -- oh, who cares?  His real conceit is that every adventure hero of from the late 19th century to the mid-20th is part of a single family.  Tarzan and Doc, obviously; but their cousins include Nero Wolfe, Lew Archer, Captain Blood and Professor Challenger.   Oh, and the guy from Raintree County.  It's silly, it's insane, it's nerdy beyond the dreams of nerdiness.  And yet it has a peculiar charm, as it unearths the [male, now middle-aged] reader's boyhood, and feeds it back through an almost-adult sensibility.

It is sometimes claimed, and with good reason that Harlan Ellison is the American Borges, and that had he been born south of the Equator, he would be recognized as a major postmodernist, instead of a genre hack.  This may be true.  But Farmer -- who would probably have taken pride in being called a genre hack -- is a talent of the same sort, and yet whose particular art depended entirely upon having been an American boy in the 1930s and 40s.

Ah, well.  Philip Jose Farmer died today, aged   Here's the io9 memorial. Here's the author's own website.  

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