Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Farmer, Philip José

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(1918-2009) US writer known primarily for his sf, but whose outright fantasy novels are of strong interest, and whose Planetary Romances have long been enjoyed for their flamboyance and their forthrightness about matters of Sex and Religion. Examples of this sort of tale run throughout his career, from his first novel, The Green Odyssey (1956), on through the loose Wold Newton Family sequence, based on the sf premise that a vast extended family of supermen (it includes Tarzan and Doc Savage) was begun when an 18th-century meteorite irradiated a number of pregnant women in England. But PJF's intention in these stories is to present fantasy-like material within an sf frame, even though he sometimes stresses that frame to the point of (deliberate) absurdity.

As a fantasy author, PJF is most known for two other sequences. The first, the World of Tiers series, comprises The Maker of Universes (1965; rev 1980), The Gates of Creation (1966; rev 1981), A Private Cosmos (1968; rev 1981) and Behind the Walls of Terra (1970; rev 1982), all four assembled as The World of Tiers (omni 2 vols 1981; vt World of Tiers #1 1986 UK and #2 1986 UK), plus Red Orc's Rage (1991) – an associational sidebar to the series – and More Than Fire: A World of Tiers Novel (1993). The basic venue is an intricately (and at times arbitrarily) interlinked set of pocket universes, which PJF uses as a Playground, manipulating his Realities according to the central "law" of the Multiverse (as created by Michael Moorcock), which is that Anything Goes.

The varying realities are under the irresponsible governance of a number of "Lords"; their names are taken from the works of William Blake, and they occasionally attempt to create Godgames within their creations, though they do not normally have the attention-span to follow any such programmes through to a satisfactory conclusion. The first protagonist of the sequence is Robert Wolff, a classic Hero who enters the Tier Worlds through a Portal, and whose Amnesia cloaks the fact that he himself is one of the Lords; eventually he recognizes (see Recognition) his True Name and the nature of the Story he is living, and fades slowly from view. The second main protagonist is again a man from Earth who turns out to be a god, Kickaha (a name clearly meant to remind the reader of Native-American Trickster myths); romping from world to world, he confounds friend and foe, beds Anana (perhaps a reference to the Sumerian Inanna; see Goddess), and in the final volume confronts his dark Shadow, the evil trickster god Red Orc (having to do so more than once, because, in a Technofantasy spoof, Red Orc is cloned). Red Orc's Rage is an odd sidebar tale, readable as neither sf nor fantasy, in which the World of Tiers is used therapeutically for extremely vivid – but imaginary – role-playing activities on the part of the psychologically deformed young protagonist.

More ambitious is the Riverworld sequence: To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1965-1966 Worlds of Tomorrow; fixup 1971), The Fabulous Riverboat (1967-1971 If; fixup 1971), The Dark Design (1977), Riverworld and Other Stories (coll 1979), The Magic Labyrinth (1980), Riverworld War: The Suppressed Fiction of Philip José Farmer (coll 1980), The Gods of Riverworld (1983) and River of Eternity (1983), the last being a rediscovered version of «I Owe for the Flesh» (1952), a novel that in the mid-1950s disappeared before publication, plus two Shared-World anthologies, Tales of Riverworld * (anth 1992) and Quest to Riverworld * (anth 1993), both ed PJF with Edward Kramer, Richard Gilliam and Martin H Greenberg. Along the banks of a vast River, somewhere on another planet, all of humanity is resurrected. Though there are Posthumous-Fantasy moments, when a character attempts to sort out his or her mortal life in terms of the new existence, the sequence is essentially an Afterlife fantasy, depicting ongoing lives and conversations far more closely resembling those in a Secondary World than the allegorized configurations of a Soul in crisis. PJF's direct model for Riverworld is the Houseboat on the Styx sequence (1895-1899) by John Kendrix Bangs. In accordance with that tradition, PJF's protagonists tend to be historically recognizable figures: the cast includes Sir Richard Burton (who successfully woos Lewis Carroll's Alice), Cyrano de Bergerac, Alfred Jarry, King John, Jack London, the movie cowboy Tom Mix, Mark Twain and Yeshua (Christ). The sequence is mainly devoted to the interacting Quests of Burton and Twain/Clemens, both of whom long for varying reasons to find the Dark Tower in which the secret of their afterlife existence may be found. In the end, Clemens is unsuccessful but Burton undergoes a dark journey to the Tower, where the Technofantasy nature of the sequence is foregrounded through the revelation that a computer has been maintaining the world, but is now, at the end of The Magic Labyrinth, running down. With the help of Alice, Burton manages to reset the machine, and "life" continues; a complex explanation, involving half-sane godlike entities, is perhaps somewhat estranging. Subsequent volumes lack the narrative drive of the first four. The anthologies tend to feature Recursive jokes.

PJF is not a fully comfortable author of fantasy, but joy comes when his urgent testing of the barriers of genre and Taboo leads tales in unexpected and sometimes dangerous directions. [JC]

Philip José Farmer


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.