Philip Jos� Farmer: A River Ran Through Him

In 1952, a febrile fabulist blooming a bit late in Peoria took part in a fiction contest sponsored by Shasta and Pocket Books. This former Air Force man, who had always put family before precocity, had just parachuted out of a glum 11-year stint at Keystone Steel and Wire to write full-time. Bolstered by the sales of two tales in Startling Stories, this wildly imaginative 30-something banged out a 150,000-word novel titled I Owe for the Flesh. Inspired by John Kendrick Bangs's A House-Boat on the Styx, the scenario imagined that every person who had ever lived on Earth was resurrected on a planet consisting of a serpentine river snaking its way through rocky terrain for millions of miles, with sustenance provided through magical grails. Decades before Stephen King's Roland, Richard Black (later named Sir Richard Burton) sought the dark tower at river's end.

The writer here in question was Philip José Farmer, who passed away in February. And this early effort was the genesis point for the Riverworld books, perhaps his best-known work. This magical quintet (along with two anthologies) affirmed Farmer's faculties for shuffling through a deck of historical and literary figures (picked up by Alan Moore in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and his peculiar form of tropical mysticism (perhaps an unacknowledged inspiration for the television series, Lost).

As it turned out, Farmer won the $4,000 prize. His novel awaited rewrites. But editor Melvin Korshak took the money and gambled it away on another book that bombed. Shasta went bankrupt. And Farmer was never paid for his labor. This financial nightmare forced him to cede his house. The manuscript was lost, and it seemed for a time that the ripe prototype for Farmer's most ambitious work was permanently stalled.

But this setback didn't stop Farmer. His relentless inventive powers and his Depression-hewn work ethic produced dozens of short stories, poems, articles, and novellas over the next few years. After a stint as a technical writer for the defense industry, downsizing at NASA sealed Farmer's occupational fate in 1969, and the wily storyteller from Illinois fully committed himself to fiction for the rest of his life. He amped up his output and repaired the 1952 debacle with two well-received novellas depicting a place called Riverworld. Richard Black became Sir Richard Burton and was paired up with numerous historical figures. In an homage to Lewis Carroll, Burton became smitten with Alice Hargreaves. A mysterious stranger, connoting Mark Twain's unfinished novel, was introduced, nudging this gang of notables forward on a protracted quest. (Samuel Clemens himself would show up in the second Riverworld book.) The material was reworked into a Hugo Award–winning book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, that kicked a stretching trilogy into motion.

The first two Riverworld books gush with torrents of fun and unapologetic melodrama. Characters shake their fists at the skies and shout proud pulpish lines like ?Dead reckoning come alive!? in the face of peril. Frequently, Farmer's sentences begin with adverbs, deliberately evoking the clunky dynamism of Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of Farmer's major influences. Esperanto, that failed attempt to unite the world through one language, becomes Riverworld's dominant lingua franca. An 800-pound titanthrop named Joe Miller becomes Samuel Clemens's wingman and converses in crude transcribed speech -- with ?th? standing in for ?s? and ?v? subbing for ?w? -- but this ostensible subhuman is capable of a comically blunt philosophy (?They thaid that thith vorld vathn't the true vorld. It vath a thtage on the vay to the true vorld. Vhatever that ith,? says Joe, paraphrasing the As You Like It maxim).

But these books are more than entertaining yarns. There's a giddy satirical streak that comes with the concept. Farmer sends up religion with the Church of the Second Chance, a nonviolent denomination in which Hermann Goring becomes a prominent proselytizer. ?I am not a Christian,? says Goring, ?though I try to practice the better Christian values.? Never mind that Christianity and similar belief systems have been uprooted. With universal resurrection in place, now everybody can be Lazarus. A militant man named Abdullah X argues with Clemens about Huckleberry Finn's racism. Clemens finds his wife, but she's now shacking up with Cyrano de Bergerac.

Farmer, however, had difficulties containing his fecundities. He made an attempt to wrap up his rapidly sprouting story in the third installment, The Dark Design, but delivered a 400,000-word manuscript that had to be split across two books. Thus, an enjoyable over-the-top steamboat battle, fought because two men are too stubborn to make nice, lasts for some 150 pages but gives the reader a one-two punch of enthrallment and grave concern. Was Riverworld simply too large a concept for Farmer to handle? Even with The Magic Labyrinth's promised conclusion, one reads its final 50 pages wondering if Farmer ever got the chance to exhale. He kills off characters, only to introduce 11th-hour saviors. The mysterious stranger offers what seems to be the definitive explanation to close the series, but Farmer introduces a last-minute concept that only complicates matters further. Okay, how about the fifth book? The Gods of Riverworld takes the form of a locked-room mystery. Maybe if Farmer keeps all of his characters in one location, he may just be able to stitch up the remaining threads. No dice. Farmer keeps his series open-ended, introducing an intelligence that extends into the galaxy.

But this wanton imagination is part of the fun. Even when Farmer's concepts aren't quite working, such as some of his lengthy biographical sketches, you're still reading these books trying to see how he'll write his way out of these predicaments. Farmer also throws in some postmodernism for good measure. A writer named Peter Jarius Frigate, who counsels Burton, not only shares Farmer's initials and some of his biography but also his birthdate (1918) and, in eerie prescience, a close death date (2008).

The Farmer completist will likewise see Riverworld's seeds sown in his early work. The Lovers, a taboo-breaking 1961 satire that was frank and titillating for its time, shares the fixed immortal age of 25 for its predatory alien race. But it also anticipates the ethical dialectic contained within The Gods of Riverworld. Flesh, a bawdy and wonderfully warped 1960 novel that has astronauts returning to Washington, D.C., eight centuries in the future, with a man named Studd grafted with antlers and literally transformed into a satyr meant to re-propagate the human race. Not only does Farmer's libertine approach reflect Riverworld's anything-goes nature, but Flesh's permanent erasure of facial hair foreshadows the paucity of beards and moustaches among Clemens and company.

Of course, no consideration of Farmer would be complete without addressing the Wold Newton concept outlined in two ?biographies? (Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life). With elaborately fabricated lineages and an article from ?a well-known critic and scholar,? Farmer postulated that a meteorite hitting Yorkshire in 1795 caused a number of genetic mutations -- with the affected developing superhuman skills and becoming real-life models for such beloved fictional creations as Lew Archer, Fu Manchu, and Sherlock Holmes. If this sounds close to Alan Moore's transposition of Bram Stoker's Mina Harker to an alternate timeline, with Harker recruiting the likes of H. G. Wells's invisible Griffin to protect the British Empire, it's no accident. Farmer built worlds with tiers and without, and his urge to create was an enticing inspiration for later imaginists such as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman.

Others have quibbled with this type of expansionist creative fervor. In a blog entry from 2007, noted science fiction writer M. John Harrison suggested that ?very moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.? But such a limited perspective discounts the rare inventive writer, like Farmer, who knew that fiction was a fabricated construct, but had the courtesy to let the reader in on the joke. Farmer's worlds were as boundless as his fiction. And this jocular achievement, by no means limited to Riverworld, was an altogether different imaginative victory, one too infrequently celebrated.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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