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Farmer, Philip José

Entry updated 25 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1918-2009) US author whose active career extended over half a century, though he was a comparatively late starter as an author, and his first story, "O'Brien and Obrenov" for Adventure in March 1946, was nonfantastic and promised little. A part-time student at Bradley University, he gained a BA in English in 1950, and two years later burst onto the sf scene with his novella The Lovers (August 1952 Startling; exp 1961; rev 1979). Although originally rejected by John W Campbell Jr of Astounding Science-Fiction and H L Gold of Galaxy Science Fiction, it gained instant acclaim when it did appear, and won Farmer a 1953 Hugo for Most Promising New Author. It concerned Xenobiology, Parasitism and Sex, an explosive mixture, certainly for the Genre SF of that era; transgressive mixtures of this sort would feature repeatedly in Farmer's best work. After publishing such excellent short stories as "Sail On! Sail On!" (December 1952 Startling) (see Flat Earth) and "Mother" (April 1953 Thrilling Wonder), Farmer became a full-time writer. His second short novel, A Woman a Day (June 1953 Startling as "Moth and Rust"; rev 1960; vt The Day of Timestop 1968; vt Timestop! 1970), was billed as a sequel to The Lovers but bore little relation to the earlier story. "Rastignac the Devil" (May 1954 Fantastic Universe) was a further sequel. Farmer then produced two novels, both of which were accepted for publication but neither of which actually saw print at the time, the first due to the folding of Startling Stories (it eventually appeared as Dare [1965]). The second, «I Owe for the Flesh», won a contest held by Shasta Publishers and Pocket Books, but the prize money, which came from Pocket Books, was used by Shasta founder Erle Korshak to pay bills, which did not keep the firm from foundering; the manuscript was lost for decades, though its premise eventually formed the basis of the Riverworld series (see below), in whose first volume Farmer's alter ego Peter Jairus Frigate fondly recalls giving the "crooked publisher" Lem Sharkko a punch on the nose. This double disaster forced Farmer to abandon full-time authorship for a number of years; he did not become full-time again until 1969.

Nevertheless, he produced many interesting stories during this period, such as the Father Carmody series in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, published in book form as Night of Light (June 1957 F&SF; exp 1966) and Father to the Stars (coll of linked stories 1981), featuring a murderous priest who becomes ambiguously involved in various theological puzzles on several planets. The best of the sequence is Night of Light, the nightmarish story of a world where the figments of the unconscious become tangible. Other notable stories of this period include "The God Business" (March 1954 Beyond Fantasy Fiction), "The Alley Man" (June 1959 F&SF) and "Open to Me, My Sister" (May 1960 F&SF; vt "My Sister's Brother" in Strange Relations, coll 1960). The last named is the best of Farmer's biological fantasies (see Biology); like The Lovers, it was repeatedly rejected as "disgusting" before its acceptance by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Farmer's first novel to actually gain book publication was The Green Odyssey (1957), in which an Earthman escapes from captivity in an alien planet; the intricately colourful medieval culture of this planet, the high libido of its women, the mysteries buried within the sands of the desert over which the hero must flee, and the admixture of rapture and disgust with which the hero treats the venue – all go to suggest that this novel, along with Jack Vance's Big Planet (September 1952 Startling; cut 1957; full text 1978), served as a bridge between the earlier flowering of the Planetary Romance in the hands of authors like Leigh Brackett and its 1960s efflorescence in the work of Roger Zelazny and, later, Gene Wolfe. It was the first of many entertainments Farmer wrote over the years, some of which share the narrative elation of this underrated tale. Later novels in a not dissimilar vein include The Gate of Time (1966; exp vt Two Hawks from Earth 1979), The Stone God Awakens (1970) and The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971), the last-named being an sf sequel to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) (see Sequels by Other Hands).

In the late 1960s, Essex House, publishers of pornography, commissioned Farmer to write three erotic fantasy novels, taking full advantage of the new freedoms of the time. The Image of the Beast (1968), the first of the Exorcism/Herald Childe trilogy, is an effective Parody of the private eye and Gothic horror genres. It was followed by a perfunctory sequel, Blown, or Sketches Among the Ruins of my Mind (1969), both being run together into one novel as The Image of the Beast (omni 1979); the third Exorcism volume, Traitor to the Living (1973), was not published by Essex House. Flesh (1960; rev 1968) is more ambitious: a dramatization of the ideas which Robert Graves put forward in The White Goddess (1948), it presents a matriarchal, orgiastic society of the future (see Gender; Utopia). Rather heavy-handed in its humour, it was considered a "shocking" novel on first publication. Inside – Outside (1964), a novel about a scientifically sustained afterlife, also contains some extraordinary images and grotesque ideas which resonate in the mind, though the book suffers from a lack of resolution. The novella "Riders of the Purple Wage" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) – later collected in The Purple Book (coll 1982) and Riders of the Purple Wage (coll 1992) – won Farmer a 1968 Hugo; written in a wild and punning style, it is one of his most original works. It concerns the tribulations of a young artist in a Utopian society, and has a more explicit sexual and scatological content than anything Farmer had written before. "The Oögenesis of Bird City" (September 1970 Amazing) is a related story.

The novels assembled as The World of Tiers (omni 1981 2vols; vt World of Tiers #1 1986 UK and World of Tiers #2 1986) show Farmer in a lighter vein, though the architectural elaborateness of the universe in which they are set prefigures Riverworld. The original volumes are The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980), The Gates of Creation (1966; rev 1981), A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970; rev 1982) and The Lavalite World (1977; rev 1983). The sequence unfolds within a series of Pocket Universes created as playgrounds for Godgames imposed on lesser beings by Secret Masters who may be deities, though originally humanoid, and whose technology is unimaginable. Access to and transport within their closed universes is provided by Matter Transmission "gates". The most notable character is the present-day Earthman Paul Janus Finnegan (his initials, PJF, reveal this ironic observer to be a stand-in for the author: a signal repeated often in later work; and, as in the puns of "Riders of the Purple Wage", the name also signals Farmer's debt to James Joyce); he is also called Kickaha, under which significantly Native American name he acts out the role of a Trickster hero indulging in merry, if bloodthirsty, exploits. The books sag in places, but have moments of high invention; and the Jungian models upon which the main characters are constructed supply one key to the understanding of Red Orc's Rage (1991), a novel which Recursively dramatizes the use of the previous titles in the series as tools in role-playing therapy for disturbed adolescents. In a late addition to the primary sequence, More Than Fire: A World of Tiers Novel (1993), some of the cosmological puzzles are resolved, and the conflict between Kickaha and Red Orc takes on an increasingly Jungian air, with each being seen as the other's shadow [for Trickster above, and Jungian Psychology and Shadow here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

An abiding concern (or game) that would occupy much of Farmer's later career was the tying together of his own fiction (and that of many other authors) into one vast, playful mythology, with some similarities to the evolving (but never explicit) World-as-Myth overstory Robert A Heinlein used to structure his own later work. Much of this is worked out in the loose conglomeration of works which has been termed the Wold Newton Family series, all united under the premise that a meteorite which landed near Wold Newton in eighteenth-century Yorkshire irradiated a number of pregnant women and thus gave rise to a family of mutant Supermen. The first books to be retrofitted into this sequence are A Feast Unknown: Volume IX of the Memoirs of Lord Grandrith (1969) the first volume of the Lord Grandrith/Doc Caliban series, followed by Lord of the Trees (1970 dos) and The Mad Goblin (1970; vt Keepers of the Secrets 1983), the latter two being assembled as The Empire of the Nine (omni 1988). A Feast Unknown is a brilliant exploration of the sado-masochistic fantasies latent in much heroic fiction, and succeeds as Satire, as sf, and as a tribute to the creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent. A narrative tour de force, it concerns the struggle of Lord Grandrith (Tarzan) and Doc Caliban (Doc Savage) against the Nine, a secret society of immortals (see Immortality). Several other texts devoted to Tarzan – though excluding Lord Tyger (1970), which is about a millionaire's attempt to create his own ape-man and is possibly the best written of Farmer's novels (see Apes as Human) – are central to Wold Newton, in particular Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972), which includes "Extracts from the Memoirs of 'Lord Greystoke'", a spoof biography in which Farmer uses the concept of the monomyth from The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) to explore the nature of the Hero's appeal. The appendices and genealogy, which link Tarzan with many other heroes of popular fiction, are at once a satire on scholarship and a serious exercise in "creative mythography".

Tarzan appears again in Time's Last Gift (1972; rev 1977), a preliminary novel for a subseries in the Wold Newton universe about Ancient Africa, employing settings from Burroughs and H Rider Haggard; Hadon of Ancient Opar (1974) and Flight to Opar (1976) continue the series. Other works which contain Wold Newton material include "Tarzan Lives: An Exclusive Interview with Lord Greystoke" (April 1972 Esquire), "The Obscure Life and Hard Times of Kilgore Trout" (December 1971 Moebius Trip; exp in The Book of Philip José Farmer, coll 1973), Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life [for full subtitle see Checklist] (1973; rev 1975), The Other Log of Phileas Fogg (1973), "After King Kong Fell" (in Omega, anth 1973, ed Roger Elwood) (see Apes as Human), The Adventure of the Peerless Peer by John H Watson, M D (1974; vt The Further Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes: The Peerless Peer 2011), a Sherlock Holmes Sequel by Other Hands, Ironcastle (1976), a liberally rewritten version of J-H Rosny aîné's L'étonnant voyage de Hareton Ironcastle (1922), and Doc Savage: Escape from Loki: Doc Savage's First Adventure (1991). Other characters incorporated into the sequence include Jack the Ripper, James Bond (see Ian Fleming) and Kilgore Trout, a Kurt Vonnegut character under whose name Farmer also published Venus on the Half-Shell (1975). As a whole, the series parlays its conventions of "explanation" into something close to chaos.

Besides the infamous Kilgore Trout, Farmer occasionally used other pseudonyms for short stories: those definitely identified with him are Paul Chapin, Charlotte Corday-Marat (see Bizarre! Mystery Magazine), Rod Keen, Harry Manders and Jonathan Swift Somers III. Some of these were taken with permission from the work of other authors: Paul Chapin, for example, is an author character in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective novel The League of Frightened Men (1935). Kurt Vonnegut Jr later regretted allowing the use of Kilgore Trout after it was generally assumed that he himself had written Venus on the Half-Shell under this pseudonym.

Though the fractal Wold Newton set of sequences perhaps best express his playfully serious manipulations of popular material to express a sense of the Universe as chaotically fable-like, Farmer gained greatest popular acclaim with his Riverworld series, set on a planet where a godlike race has resurrected the whole of humanity along the banks of a multi-million-mile river, the background effect being that of a Planetary Romance set within a Pocket Universe. The series is made up of To Your Scattered Bodies Go (January 1965-March 1966 Worlds of Tomorrow; fixup 1971), The Fabulous Riverboat (July-August 1967 and June-August 1971 If as "The Felled Star" and "The Fabulous Riverboat"; fixup 1971), The Dark Design (1977), Riverworld: The Great Short Fiction of Philip José Farmer (coll 1979), The Magic Labyrinth (1980), Riverworld War: The Suppressed Fiction of Philip José Farmer (coll 1980), Gods of Riverworld (1983) and River of Eternity (1983), the last being a rediscovered rewrite of the lost «I Owe for the Flesh». The first of these won a 1972 Hugo. The Riverworld books share a river, along which places to stop are necklaced into a littoral Archipelago, and an Afterlife setting with the Houseboat on the Styx sequence by John Kendrick Bangs, though Farmer hugely intensifies the speculative content of his enterprise; and also shares a use (derived from the literary tradition of the Dialogue of the Dead) of such historical personages as Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) (see Arabian Fantasy in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy), Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and Jack London, who explore the terrain and conduct an ongoing conversazione with one another in their search to understand, in terms mundane and metaphysical, the new universe which has tied them together. As surviving characters begin to overdose on the freedoms (or powers) they have discovered in themselves, the plots of the later volumes become increasingly chaotic, perhaps deliberately, a tendency not reversed in two late anthologies of work by other authors set in the Riverworld universe: Tales of Riverworld (anth 1992) and Quest to Riverworld (anth 1993), both edited by Farmer.

After The Unreasoning Mask (1981), an extremely well constructed Space Opera about a search for God, an essential (and vulnerable) child whose accidents are the Universe, Farmer embarked on the Dayworld series, whose premise derives from "The Sliced-Crosswise Only-on-Tuesday World" (in New Dimensions I, anth 1971, ed Robert Silverberg): in a world plagued by Overpopulation, the whole of humanity is divided into seven cohorts, each spending one day of the week awake and the rest of the time in "stoned" immobility (see Suspended Animation). In Dayworld (1985), Dayworld Rebel (1987) and Dayworld Breakup (1990), this premise becomes increasingly peripheral in a tale whose complications invoke A E van Vogt.

Here, as in all his work, Farmer is governed by an instinct for extremity, sometimes impish, sometimes flat-footed, but in its most telling enactments arousingly transgressive. It is perhaps now a moot question whether or not Farmer would have been more successful in a world which simply appreciated his flings and intuitions, and which did not recoil at the polymorphic mutability of his depictions of Sex, which he treated as a ground-bass in the arias of human behaviour. As it now stands, an essentially amiable (though searching) writer spent much of his career enmeshed in what now (it is hoped) seem trivial censorships and strife. Two large late retrospective collections – The Best of Philip José Farmer (coll 2006), a definitive assembling of his best-known stories; and Pearls from Peoria (coll 2006), taken from the large amount of material obscurely or never-previously published – may signal an overdue assessment of his stature in the field. In 2001 he received both the SFWA Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [JC/DP]

see also: Aliens; Amnesia; William S Burroughs; Comics; Conceptual Breakthrough; Cosmology; Crime and Punishment; Eschatology; Fantasy; Fermi Paradox; GURPS; Game-Worlds; Gods and Demons; Gothic SF; Identity Transfer; Mars; Messiahs; Mythology; Omega Point; Paranoia; Psychology; Reincarnation; Religion; Sociology; Taboos; Thrilling Wonder Stories; Villains.

Philip José Farmer

born North Terre Haute, Indiana: 26 January 1918

died Peoria, Illinois: 25 February 2009



World of Tiers

Father Carmody


Exorcism/Herald Childe

Wold Newton

Wold Newton: Ancient Africa


individual titles



works as editor

about the author

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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