Thursday, February 26, 2009

I vividly remember Philip Jose Farmer's science fiction from when I was a boy. I associate it with warmth. I think that's probably because I spent a lot of sun drenched summers reading the World of Tiers and Riverworld series.

When my parents drove us all out to the California coast one year, my mom bought one of his novels for me to read in the car. Dark is the Sun is set in the far future, when human beings are savages and the sun is about to blow up. Just the magnitude of the idea was astounding to me: that human beings would be alive at the end of the world, that humans would be reduced to savagery, that whole other races would evolve in that time and live side by side with us. It had giant plant-centaurs! HOW COOL IS THAT!

I like to think the warmth I feel when remembering his books is also because there's a fecundity about them. Not in a directly reproductive way. I didn't read any of his sexual themed stuff until high school, but of all the fantastic qualities it shares with his other titles, sexiness is the least visceral.

Farmer's fecundity was the power of pure Geek awe, total explosive four color fun. He wrote Gonzo science fiction, seeming to embody the maxim "consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." He made shit up like crazy. The World of Tiers series is all about demigods who use super science to create whole universes and populate them like fever dream doll houses. When I started running Dungeons and Dragons games, I kept returning to themes of mortals transcending to the level of world building gods, but the pallet was never quite big enough. Farmer's raw, visual inventiveness had crazed my young brain.

He also wrote a lot of pastiche, or fiction using other people's characters, what would be called fan fiction today. He wrote about characters like Tarzan and Phileas Fogg, some of the pulp fiction characters that birthed the souls of every genre character ever created. The one that really spun my head around was A Barnstormer in Oz, in which he attempts to explain the Oz universe in loosely rationalist terms. I read all of the original Baum books, and loved every one of them for their dizzy inventiveness. A Barnstormer in Oz, in which a mortal ends up in an Oz on the verge of civil war, was probably the first time I saw characters of raw whimsy given more granular, day to day motives. It was maybe the first inkling I ever had that whimsy could be an adult emotion, that wonder had a place in adult life.

In high school, when I found a copy of The Image of the Beast, it reminded me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show steeped in hard core pornography. But the pornography, as disturbing as it was, paled in comparison to the basic premise, that all the monsters and myths that mankind had ever imagined were immortal aliens stuck on earth in an ancient crash, each trapped in their monstrous form by the human being who first encountered them and imagined them that way. The fact that they were trying to blast off to their home planet or dimension or whatever by generating energy with a huge orgy was just, well, window dressing.

I based a character in a high school writing assignment on the were-boar from Image of the Beast. Minus the naughty stuff, of course.

Everything I loved about Phillip Farmer, I love about science fiction and fantasy fiction: Baum, The Justice League, Imagica, New Croubazon, Underdog, The Uplift Series, Norse mythology, homebrew Dungeons and Dragons, The Golden Compass, Wildcards. A whole mythos of spastic and witty xeonophilliac waking dreams. It might not all be good... but it's fun.

I think Phillip Farmer was a huge influence on my imagination, on the scope and particularity of it. His totally unbounded imagination made entire worlds out of whimsy and passion and seized other people's characters and historical figures to turn them into explosive adventure stories. Science Fiction has always been a beautiful kind of Gonzo literature because of him, joyful even when it is grim because imagination is the seed of possibility. He died yesterday, but man, that cat left a trail of brilliant images behind him.

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