Farmer, Philip José 1918–
Farmer, an American science fiction novelist and short story writer who has received three Hugo awards, has evoked mixed critical reaction. Some critics feel that Farmer produces trite, mass-market science fiction, while others commend him for grappling with unconventional ideas. During the fifties he was the only major science fiction writer to treat sex candidly, even writing two explicitly pornographic novels. Farmer's most intriguing work, known as the Wold Newton Series, plays with the concepts of time and reality, mingling fictional characters with real people. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Philip José Farmer seems now to have reached the point of public recognition, and I for one am feeling a little dismayed…. I liked it much better when a taste for Farmer's fiction could still seem a private, slightly shameful pleasure, or a perverse affectation on the part of a scholar, an eccentric vice. In those days, he belonged chiefly to readers who did not even suspect that the novel is dead … and with no sense certainly that they were approaching "literature." (p. 233)
To tell the truth, Farmer does not behave much like an aspirant to "mainstream" greatness. With all the modesty of a hack, he inclines to throw even his best conceptions away—writing hastily, sometimes downright sloppily; so that we are likely to be left with the disconcerting sense that his work, especially when it aspires to novel length, runs out rather than properly finishes….
Nonetheless, he has an imagination capable of being kindled by the irredeemable mystery of the universe and of the soul, and in turn able to kindle the imagination of others…. That wonder and ecstasy, wherever it is found in Science Fiction, is ultimately rooted in our sexuality; and the best writers of the genre during its period of flowering after World War II, appear to have realized instinctively that to succeed in their enterprise they had somehow to eroticize machines, gadgets, and the scientific enterprise itself—or at least to exploit the preexistent erotic implications of the paraphernalia of a technological age.
Philip Farmer was, however, during the 50's, the only major writer of Science Fiction to deal explicitly with sex. (p. 234)
It was inevitable, therefore, from the start that Farmer would, at the climax of his career, produce two works at once fantasy and bald, explicit pornography—"hardcore pornography," as the cant phrase has it: The Image of the Beast and A Feast Unknown. (pp. 234-35)
A Feast Unknown is a hilarious parody of the pop literature of super-heroic adventure; but its essential characteristic is a shamelessness beyond all possible apology. To speak of the imagination which informs it and its predecessor (in whose key scene an extraterrestrial girl with sharp iron dentures goes down on an unwary cop) as "healthy" is an inadvertent error or a deliberate lie. They are about as healthy as the "divine" Marquis de Sade himself…. (p. 235)
I remember reading many years ago my first Farmer story, which was called "Mother," and being astonished and gratified (a little condescendingly, perhaps) to discover certain Freudian insights into the nature of family relationships, ingeniously worked out and made flesh, as it were, in the world of intergalactic travel and an endlessly receding future. My surprise and delight were not only cued by the prejudice which then possessed me utterly—my conviction that pop fiction was necessarily immune to the insights of depth psychology; but arose also because the mythology of Freud was based on the belief that the neuroses were rooted in the past, and that, therefore, the revelation...
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of sexual secrets depended on retrospection. It needed a writer like Farmer, committed to the anticipation of the future, to turn psychoanalysis in the direction of prophecy. (pp. 235-36)
One of Farmer's major obsessive themes, as a matter of fact, is precisely the theme of Mother as a threat to freedom, a temptation to regression, a womb turned prison. And closely connected to it is the second of his major themes, the discovery of new religions in a new world; for those religions always turn out to be matriarchal and are presented as an overwhelming challenge to the patriarchal faith of Christianity. (p. 236)
In any case, the Cults of the Great Goddess have always obsessed Farmer; and, indeed, there seems something deep within him that yearns for a time; real or imagined, in which the male was not a Hero but a Servant of that great principle of fertility, as in the bawdiest of his subpornographic novels, Flesh. Yet Farmer's third obsessive theme comes into direct (and perhaps irreconcilable) conflict with this fearful nostalgia for the matriarchal security each of us has known in infancy. And this is the myth of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the lonely phallic über-mensch triumphing by his ability not to create but to kill. Farmer's favorite name for the extravagantly male super-Hero is "Tarzan."… (pp. 236-37)
In five major books at least, he has returned to that key figure—who also flickers in and out of his other fictions, sometimes quite irrelevantly: in Lord Tyger, A Feast Unknown, Lord of the Trees, The Mad Goblin, and most recently in Tarzan Alive….
In all of them … Farmer insists not only on Tarzan's virtual immortality, but—even more strongly—on his extraordinary sexual endowment…. (p. 237)
But Tarzan, for all his encyclopedic comprehensiveness, represents only a small part of Farmer's larger attempt (at once absurd and beautiful, foredoomed to failure but, once conceived, already a success) to subsume in his own works all of the books in the world that have touched or moved him. For him, the traditions of Science Fiction provide a warrant for constructing Universes of his Own…. (pp. 237-38)
Particularly in his "pocket universes" series and in his more recent Riverworld Books, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat, all that seemed to have died here on Earth (everywhere at least except in the head of one voracious reader) is resurrected—or at least reconstructed in quasi-immortal form by omniscient computers in Worlds Out There. Obviously, it is the deepest level of childhood response which Farmer has reached in [the Riverworld Books]…. The primary images seem erotic, even genital; but in the Riverworld there turns out to be more detailed description of eating than of sex. (p. 238)
In this light, it seems appropriate to describe Farmer's cultural imperialism as a gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present, and to come, and to spew it out again.
Farmer wants even to eat and regurgitate himself; the industrious hack who writes his books, plus that hack's fantasies of what he secretly is or might be. And in the end, he does manage to mingle almost unnoticed among super-heroes and mutants and monsters, as if the character Philip José Farmer were as real as any fiction…. (pp. 238-39)
Finally, I suppose, Farmer must dream of swallowing down his readers, too, or at least of "taking them in," as the telltale phrase has it, with jokes and hoaxes and "scholarly" proofs. And there is something satisfactory, after all, about imagining ourselves, complete with wives, kids, and worldly possessions, disappearing into an utterly fictional world along with Alice and Tarzan and Kilgore Trout, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Jack the Ripper and Samuel Clemens. But not before we have managed to say, as I am trying to say here: Thanks for the feast. (p. 239)
Leslie A. Fiedler, "Thanks for the Feast: Notes on Philip José Farmer" (originally published in Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1972), in The Book of Philip José Farmer; or, the Wares of Simple Simon's Custard Pie and Space Man by Philip José Farmer (copyright © 1973, by Philip José Farmer), Daw Books, 1973, pp. 232-39.
The basic idea of [To Your Scattered Bodies Go] is imaginative enough, and does justice to Mr. Farmer's reputation of daring to handle controversial topics. All human beings that ever lived up to the year 2002, when all but a few were destroyed by extra-terrestrial visitors, have been resurrected along the banks of a river 25 million miles or so long…. (p. 94)
Aside from [the] familiar concerns and dutiful motions of any adventure story, in or out of SF, there is a Big Philosophical Question. Why have all humans been resurrected? Are they in heaven, hell, purgatory or whatever? It soon transpires that it wasn't God who lent a helping hand but rather a race of superior beings, called the "Ethicals" though they appear to be villains. The purpose of their actions is unclear, but there are conflicting theories. (p. 95)
[However] I contend that To Your Scattered Bodies Go doesn't tell us anything meaningful about life, death, or the hereafter. Rather, it presents little children playing with the marbles of space, time and resurrection; its "afterlife" is merely one more stage for the same old set of events which have been recounted in any number of novels of adventure.
What little value the novel has lies wholly in the fact that it presents in an almost pure form the particular method of mass-market SF—that is, playing around with a limited set of elements that are combined and recombined to infinity…. What SF in general does metaphorically, Mr. Farmer presents literally as his subject: the riverworld is quite factually a world where past, present and future meet, where historical context no longer exists, and knowledge of milieu is no longer necessary, since all figures in the story share the same uniform and artificial background. Even the psychology of individuals and character development has given way to mere name-dropping: Mark Twain, Hermann Goering, Richard Francis Burton, the "original" Alice. None of these humans has, as lively as some of them are, any real relation to their historical "prototypes": what Mr. Farmer has to offer is at best some commonly known lexicographical information. A revival on such a gigantic scale would have offered a chance of a unique meeting of minds; but all Mr. Farmer presents is the old trite quarrel of survival and petty warfare. People who were noted for their sharp minds are here reduced to pages and pages of inane mutterings, and to playing at the old game of imprisonment and escape. (pp. 96-7)
Ever since The Lovers (1961)—his first and, for all its faults, still most interesting SF novel, along with Night of Light (1966)—three components, intermixed in different ways and degrees, occur again and again in Mr. Farmer's work: religion, sex, and violence. Religion most often takes the form of a fascinated, secularized preoccupation with creation. His creators, however, lack any dignity or higher purpose; they appear childlike in their creative omnipotence, playful, scheming, lying, deceitful—and not very bright. (p. 97)
Farmer presents hellish worlds, before birth and after it, into which a vague hope is introduced only as an additional torture. They depict various degrees of degradation of man, and reject the autonomy of human values and human beings. These stories proclaim the Fortean doctrine that man is only property, utterly at the mercy of beings with remarkable powers, "gods" or "ethicals," who appear to be childlike, prankish, sadistic dimwits, taking delight only in causing pain and suffering. Even death offers no escape from the torturers, since it has lost its uniqueness and become a playful act that can be reversed or repeated at will. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport."
The author of such "gods" does in fiction what they are supposed to do in reality: he plays around with shocking situations and possibilities, without justifying them or giving them a larger meaning. Sometimes these creations are, in their vividness of description, remarkable as fruits of a grotesque imagination; but I think they are never of any importance as speculative thought, as intellectual effort. Of the three components, religion, sex and violence, the last seems by far the strongest, and to be gaining in strength with time. Sex is often restricted to a few puns, some "bad" language …, and a few acts deviating from what is considered "proper"; more essential in these stories are the many acts of maiming, mutilating, torturing and killing. The most significant argument for this is perhaps the fact that Mr. Farmer unabashedly continued one of his most far-out sex-books, the hardcore pornography A Feast Unknown (1969), in two "clean" novels: Lord of the Trees/The Mad Goblin…. Does it not seem strange that a writer in whose work sex is said to be so central, should find it so easy to delete all sex in a sequel? Such an act, one would assume, would change the whole nature of a story, turn it into something else altogether. That Mr. Farmer did it so effortlessly, seems typical of him and SF in particular, and the civilization it mirrors in general. Sex can come and go, as commercial considerations make it necessary; the atrocities and violence are constant, for nobody objects to that. (pp. 97-8)
Franz Rottensteiner, "Playing Around with Creation: Philip José Farmer," in Science-Fiction Studies (copyright © 1973 by R. D. Mullen and Darko Suvin), Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall, 1973, pp. 94-8.
[The Fabulous Riverboat] is the second volume of Philip José Farmer's "Riverworld" trilogy. Death is apparently only a temporary indisposition. Cadavers find themselves reincarnated as hale youngsters somewhere along the banks of The River, a giant stream twenty million miles long, and living cheek by jowl with a Neolithic caveman or John F. Kennedy, depending on the vagaries of chance or the plans of the Ethicals…. The hero of the story is Sam Clemens, alias Mark Twain, whose idea is to locate a fallen meteorite and, with this sole source of iron in a metal-less world, construct a gigantic Mississippi-style paddle-steamer in which to sail to the end of The River….
The book rolls slowly and majestically on between monotonous scenes of carnage, and as Swinburne (perhaps picnicking on the bank with Stevie Smith) might have said, even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to Volume 3.
"Roman-fleuve," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3762, April 12, 1974, p. 385.
In the past mankind believed in God; this was his mythology. Today man has transferred his belief from God to Science, and Science-as-God continues as man's latest mythology…. Kilgore Trout, in [Philip José Farmer's] Venus on the Half-Shell, debunks even this deity; he denies that science is the product of man's reason by illustrating how reason is just another form of imagination…. Trout shows that science is no panacea; instead he reveals how science is the product of man's rational naivete, since he views science as reason instead of imagination. Recurrent motifs in the novel demonstrate a self-reflexive point of view—the novel itself is a maze of structures which reflect other structures like mirrors. By employing a structural perspective for critical interpretation, details and a point of view missed by other types of criticism are revealed, thereby revealing a unity in the seemingly episodic Venus.
To the structuralist, the important thing is not the end, the result of a construct, a life, or a world; instead, the act of structuring the process itself, becomes the end. Through Trout's novel, Roland Barthes' term "Structuralist Activity" is revealed as a way of life, universal in all time and space. Venus operates comically on a spatial structure of things within things, stories within stories, constructs within other constructs, and it may be envisioned as a nest of Chinese boxes. Its temporal structure involves Simon Wagstaff's quest to discover the answer to his "overwhelming question"—"Why is man created only to suffer and die?" (pp. 110-11)
Because Venus is a parody of Kurt Vonnegut's work, going so far as to use a Vonnegut character as the author of Venus, it must ultimately generate reflections that multiply infinitely. The biography of Kilgore Trout, in the front of the book, places Trout in the position of being a construct who is creating constructs of his own, here the message is the medium. The novel becomes its own metaphor—worlds within worlds—and Trout, or should we say Phillip José Farmer, the real writer of Venus, continues this metaphor by including another fictive writer in the work, Jonathan Swift Somers, III. Thus, as is typical in satire, the metaphor continues ad infinitum, making the absurdity blatant. This digressive-progression, mirrors reflecting mirrors, seems to indicate a structuralist view that reflects structures upon structures within this novel. (p. 111)
From the structural point of view, an interest in means is superior to an interest in ends. Simon is shattered when he achieves his end. This echoes the nineteenth-century paradox about striving toward a goal: the goal should always exceed the possibility of the attainment of it; thus, to succeed is to fail, for if the goal is never achieved, then the failure indicates success. Process toward the goal is the key. (p. 114)
At the end of Venus Simon is aware of [a] mirror of enigmas through the revelation that all the humanoid races of all worlds have evolved from the excrement of the master race, the only beings created by God. God's chosen ones are giant cockroaches and are infinitely superior to humans in all time and space. This scatological revelation is the beginning of Simon's understanding both of God and of God's relationship to inferior beings like himself. (pp. 114-15)
Trout's It was only interested in the act of structuring; the end is not important to It. Trout presents a vision in which God is totally indifferent, and thus man's existence is meaningless, except through his imitation of the Godhead Itself. To create any meaning, man must play the role of Creator himself. The cockroaches did, and in doing so, created mankind because of excretory mutations through evolution…. Trout shatters Cartesian dualism of mind and body, reason and imagination, intellect and passion, and illustrates a fusion in a universe of an almost unwhole-unity, where what man deems as actual may be fiction, where science is operating as myth as much as religion, and where sexuality is vitality, the life force of existence…. Venus exemplifies what many contemporary critics call "maimed myths" because nothing is sacred to Trout. Life, art, creation, imagination, reason, sex, religion, and science are all equally maimed in this book. Even the word immortality takes on a temporal meaning: Simon is immortal, but only for 10,000 years—upon drinking the immortality elixir, the "expected thunder and lightning of imminences of immortality for which he braced himself had not come." Trout always denies expectations; he desacralizes all. Simon drinks the elixir and burps. There is no heroic stature for anyone in this novel, not even if the person achieves immortality.
Like Auden's poem, "For the Time Being," Venus illustrates what happens when a man steps through the mirror of his own existence into another world; but while Auden could see some affirmation in this realization, Trout views it as a reflection of the horror of existence. Trout's humor undercuts the horror, but cannot erase it—Kilgore cannot kill the gore. The humor in Venus is as overt and as black as the silent void of space through which Simon travels on his mock-quest for the answer…. The end of Simon's quest leads him to discover that men were created only to suffer and die because God had nothing better to do with his time, so why not?… Simon's concern with ends, rather than process, with being rather than becoming, leaves him shouting in frustration after learning the truth, "Why? Why? Why?"… Philosophically the beginning and the end are the same. The primal question is why. The ultimate answer, then, must be why not. (pp. 115-16)
Claudia Jannone, "'Venus on the Half Shell' as Structuralist Activity," in Extrapolation (copyright 1976 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 17, No. 2, May, 1976, pp. 110-16.
Philip José Farmer has always been liked and respected inside the science fiction field as an explorer of unconventional or forbidden ideas, a maker of dangerous visions. All the same, he has received less critical attention than he deserves; outside of book reviews and fanzine interviews, only two general pieces on Farmer have appeared in print up to this time….
For [Leslie] Fiedler, Farmer represents sf's ability to arouse "wonder and ecstasy" in its readers…. He concentrates on the Freudian/sexual part of Farmer's work [see excerpt above]…. [Franz] Rottensteiner also finds Farmer typical of sf, but in the opposite direction—Farmer and sf, he says, both deal in the trivialization of important ideas [see excerpt above]…. Both writers recognize the importance of sex, violence, and religion in Farmer's work; predictably Rottensteiner finds this use inhumane, while Fiedler finds it liberating.
In this essay, which is also an overview and evaluation, I hope to repair two kinds of deficiencies I have found in these pieces. One, relatively minor, is Fiedler's emphasis on the Freudian aspects of Farmer's work. Farmer himself has repeatedly pointed out that there are other influences just as important but less often mentioned, particularly Jung and Joseph Campbell. The other, more serious problem is Rottensteiner's denigration of Farmer's universe-building and adventure-writing as "playing marbles with space, time, and resurrection."… I do not want to deny that Farmer plays around in his fiction. I do want to suggest that this playfulness serves some serious and important ends: that the worlds, the heroes, the adventures that Farmer offers provide us with mythic projections of ourselves, our world, our fears and desires. (p. 124)
The most interesting aspect of Farmer's work over the past ten years or so has been his creation of three fictional universes in three cycles of stories…. The Wolff-Kickaha cycle offers immortal, superhuman heroes and villains who play out their millenia-long conflicts against a background of pocket universes which are custom-tailored to suit the whims of their creators, the Lords. These are adventure stories, but with some interesting mysteries built in—our universe is revealed to be a creation of the Lords, but the Lords' universe is itself a creation of no one knows Whom, a construct as artificial as any of these godling's playgrounds.
The Riverworld stories collapse time into one contemporaneous setting, the Rivervalley where all human history can meet and interact…. One of the important actions of these books is the recapitulation of the history of human civilization from Resurrection Day's primitive chaos to Fabulous Riverboat's modern industrial state. The other action, of course, is the search for the meaning and purpose of Resurrection, a mystery parallel to that of the Wolff-Kickaha cycle.
The most complex and ambitious of the cycles is the Wold Newton, which Fiedler characterizes as "at once absurd and beautiful," an attempt "to subsume in his own works all of the books in the world that have touched or moved him."… I would go a bit further than this. If the Wolff-Kickaha cycle contains many fictional spaces—whole universes complete with heroes and metaphysical mysteries—and Riverworld contains all history in a single fictional world, the Wold Newton cycle mixes fiction with fiction and fiction with history in such a way that the distinction between fiction and reality all but disappears. The element of mystery is present even here in a positive form in the attempt to create the links which will reveal the subterranean web of relationships that hold together fiction and history, so that Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Leopold Bloom, and Kilgore Trout are real figures, as historical as Thomas Carlyle, Kurt Vonnegut, or Cordwainer Bird…. Farmer gives us something like Frankenstein meets Wolfman meets Hitler. (p. 125)
There is a strain of pessimism that runs through much of Farmer's writing…. His first important work, The Lovers, is in part an antiutopia, a projection of our capacity for cutting ourselves off from the lifegiving sources of joy and love to be found in sex and genuine spirituality—to turn toward rigidity and repression, the Sturch and puritanism. The sadopornographic novels—Image of the Beast, Blown, and A Feast Unknown—investigate the unpleasant but real connections between violence and sexuality and, especially in Feast, portray the superhero not only as superstud, but as a bloody-handed incarnation of the killer ape in all of us…. [His] unsentimentalized noble savage is set against man the herd animal, the irrational, rationalizing, hypocritical creature which is capable of destroying its own environment and misunderstanding or ignoring its own nature.
The darkness also shades those protagonists who are closer to ordinary humanity. The major figures in the Riverworld cycle … are not exactly pleasant men. While they are not the alienated demigods of the other books, they are driven, neurotic, and possessed…. [And] in the Rivervalley men continue to make the same old mistakes, recapitulating pre-Resurrection history right down to the evils of the technological state: pollution, regimentation, exploitation, and imperialistic warfare. The capacity for nobility and clear thinking may be present (in some of the characters some of the time, at least), but so are all the old vices and insanities. (pp. 126-27)
Man alone and struggling for survival or understanding is imperfect but admirable in Farmer's eyes; the herd, however, is not so attractive. I have already mentioned Riverworld's unhappy rerun of history and the noble-savage critique of civilization that runs through the Grandrith stories. The portrait of humanity as crazy, dirty, and dangerous is all through Farmer's fiction….
Examination of the stories that balance this darkness brings us to the matter of labeling the "influences" which run through the work…. [It] can be argued that the "Freudian" aspects of the work correspond closely to what I have characterized as the dark side—a portrait of the demonic side of sexuality—and that the stories that use archetypes and motifs that can be called Gravesian or Campbellian point the way out of the patterns of pain, irrationality, and violence that characterize the dark works. (p. 127)
It is in Night of Light that the significance of this side of Farmer's work is most clearly seen. In that novel good and evil, dark and light, reason and irrationality are portrayed not as the mighty polar opposites of traditional Western thinking, but as complementary opposites, both of which are necessary to the pattern of our complex and mysterious universe. (p. 129)
While much of [Farmer's] writing centers on the conflicts between the dark and light sides of human nature, the demonic and benevolent aspects of sexuality, power (that is, our capacity for violence), and religion, reason and superstition, he refuses to allow one side to defeat the other, insisting instead on recognition and finally acceptance of both…. Although individual purging of evil and selfishness is possible, universal victory of one side over the other is not. The pattern—life itself—requires both, and only by accepting the whole can we transform ourselves…. The burden of Farmer's work is the recognition of lust, violence, and irrationality as irreducible and unavoidable parts of the whole. Our capacity for evil will not disappear, but if we face it, we have a chance to rise above it—to be like gods. In the meanwhile, however, in the less mythic setting of Riverworld, we all struggle on, caught in the complexities of our own characters, looking for the answers, and defending ourselves from the predations of our less-enlightened neighbors and the blind violence of nature. (pp. 129-30)
Russell Letson, "The Worlds of Philip José Farmer," in Extrapolation (copyright 1977 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 18, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 124-30.
The most flamboyant celebration of the new licence [for sexual openness] is to be found in the late 1960s with Philip José Farmer's Herald Childe (i.e. Childe Harold) romances…. There is a brutal shock achieved by these novels which violently juxtapose the clichés of the Los Angeles private detective novel (Childe is a private dick, appropriately enough), SF and hard core pornography. In mitigation it should be noted that Farmer has been battering away at SF's sexual reticence ever since the novella The Lovers, in 1952. His calculated offensiveness does, however, seem an immature response to a resented discipline. In A Feast Unknown (1969), for example, he quite calculatedly does dirt on two of SF's icons from the age of Edgar Rice Burroughs innocence. Tarzan and Doc Savage are presented as warring sexual athletes in a mish-mash of sado-masochistic fantasy. What Farmer achieves, as with the Childe sequence (which preposterously turns out to be a quest for the Holy Grail) is travesty. In a field as morally conformist as SF, travesty has some diagnostic interest. The intrinsic literary merits of the exercise are harder to perceive. (p. 175)
J. A. Sutherland, "American Science Fiction Since 1960" (© J. A. Sutherland 1979), in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, edited by Patrick Parrinder, Longman Group Ltd., 1979, pp. 162-86.∗
You don't expect the conventional from Philip Jose Farmer and you don't very often get it either. Still, despite the title, which is faithful to the theme, there is something conventional (though not ordinary) about Jesus on Mars.
In many ways this is a "utopian novel" and sometimes suffers from the expository tone that seems inherent in the form….
The science-fiction here is real, unlike most utopian works, and it is essential to the book. Still, Jesus is more philosophical in nature than most S.F. The conflict of the Martians vs. the Earth when Jesus and his people return there … is less important to the book than the inner conflicts of the characters.
Since his debut in 1952 with The Lovers Philip Jose Farmer has been a "ferment" in science fiction. From the Father Carmody stories in the fifties to the Riverworld series, first begun at that time and not yet complete (I hope), good vs. evil and questions of faith have been part of his inquiry. Jesus on Mars is the most direct of his books on these subjects and it's possibly not the most exciting or well-written. Still … I think most readers will find it … absorbing.
Ross Rosenberg, "Sci Fi: 'Jesus on Mars'," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 10, April, 1980, p. 22.
[I was] unable to finish Philip Farmer's Dark Is The Sun. Its 400+ pages grew stiff beneath my despairing gaze and would not turn…. My problem is I'm unable to read fast enough and carelessly enough to enter the hypnagogic state demanded by this sort of book. Dark Is The Sun is meant for speed readers whose high-speed attention will construct from the asphalt of the prose a world of low resolution and high escapist involvement; not a novel but a daydream in remedial-reading English. It doesn't work on me. Like a skeptical visitor to Disneyland, I find my attention straying to all the inauthentic details…. (p. 48)
Without perpetrating any real, and possibly amusing, howlers, the prose clunks and thuds and hobbles from one perfunctory thrill to the next. The imaginative component is of a piece with the prose: one composite animal follows another, but not one is scary or even interestingly odd because Farmer's heart isn't in it….
Why flog a dead horse? First, because Farmer is able to produce much better work, when his imagination is in gear, and it should be made clear to him that no one mistakes this mouthwash for roses. One assumes he manufactures it because he thinks it's what the audience demands. More likely, it's what his editors tell him the audience demands, and that is the second reason for flogging this dead horse: Dark Is The Sun typifies the worst tendencies of commercial publishing to cash in on any established success with any imitation, however brummagem and tawdry. Farmer is no stranger to such trafficking. Indeed, he's sometimes shown genius in finding legal ways to expropriate literary properties as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut. But he always showed himself to be a merry sort of rogue in those encounters, out-heroding herod with X-rated hypervulgarity. This time he's eliminated all gleeful traces of his own talent for outrage…. (p. 49)
Thomas M. Disch, "Books: 'Dark Is The Sun'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 59, No. 1, July, 1980, pp. 48-9.