Philip Jose Farmer Farmer, Philip Jose (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Leslie A. Fiedler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Franz Rottensteiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Claudia Jannone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Russell Letson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. A. Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Ross Rosenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Thomas M. Disch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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