Saturday, July 30, 2005

Rediscovering Philip Jose Farmer

I've been re-reading Philip Jose Farmer's "World of Tiers" books, one of his best-known series. I was a big Farmer fan in my youth. The re-reading was sparked by the discovery, in a used bookstore, that Farmer has published a sixth book in the series in the 1990s.

The books are THE MAKER OF UNIVERSES, THE GATES OF CREATION, A PRIVATE COSMOS, THE WALLS OF TERRA, THE LAVALITE WORLD and the book I found in the bookstore, MORE THAN FIRE. (For the purposes of this discussion, I'm treating RED ORC'S RAGE as a related book but not a part of the series.)

I've read the first two and I'm mostly done with the third book. The prose is creakier than I remember, and the stories are more improbable. For example, in A PRIVATE COSMOS, the hero, Kickaha, jumps on a stampeding herd of buffaloes, hopping from animal to animal. Anyone who has watched an experienced cowboy struggle to stay on top of a bull for only a few seconds at a rodeo will know how unlikely this is.

Still, the books are very imaginative and fast-moving, so I guess you have to take them as they are. The pocket universes created by Farmer's Lords (immortal humans employing "super science" are very well done. In fact, the settings are a high point of the books and enable Farmer to have fun with Plains Indian tribes, German knights, Viking marauders, Olmecs and other promising material. In some ways, these books seem to presage the Riverworld books, which I'll re-read in a few months.

Farmer is alive and well at age 87 and his Internet minions have created an official page for him that has a great deal of useful information, including a bibliography that quotes many of the reviews of his work.

A PRIVATE COSMOS features an introduction by Roger Zelazny, another of my old favorites, who does a nice appreciate of the first two "Tiers" books.

During the late 1970s, when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma, the campus science fiction club brought Zelazny in as a guest speaker, and I asked him about the introduction. He mentioned that Farmer, who he described as a bit of a hypochondriac, was worried that he would die before completing the "Tiers" series and had made Zelazy promise to finish the series, if necessary. Of course, the sad sequel to the story is that Zelazny has died since then, although it's a blessing we still have Farmer.

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