Philip Jose Farmer: Prolific and influential science-fiction writer

Most science-fiction writers begin young, and have much to outgrow. Some – like Robert A Heinlein or Philip José Farmer – come late to the field, and have much to impart. Farmer's first science-fiction story, and still perhaps his most famous, "The Lovers", was published in a minor magazine because the more prestigious genre magazines would not touch it. John W Campbell Jnr, whose Astounding had been the central journal of the field for more than a decade, found it "nauseating". Though his reaction was priggishly provincial, even today one can understand the shock he felt.

The tale depicts in some detail a love affair between a human male and a female humanoid insect whose reproductive system was savagely non-mammalian, clearly violating several obvious taboos – sex, race, miscegenation – that writers in the genre had not yet seriously challenged. But "The Lovers" also shook to the roots the only slowly fading sci-fi (and western) presumption that First World mores were natural templates for behaviour in other cultures and other worlds. Perhaps surprisingly, the science-fiction community was less shocked than its ostensible spokesmen, and Farmer received his first Hugo Award in 1953 as "most promising new writer". Photographs at this time show that the young Farmer bore an unmistakeable resemblance to Jack Palance about to face off against Shane; only this time, Shane might be the loser. For those who knew him only recently, in his benign (though occasionally testy) old age, these shots can seem electrifying.

Philip José Farmer was born in North Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1918, and raised in the small cities of the American Midwest. His first adult job was in a steel mill, and he was married young, in 1941, to Elizabeth (Bette) Andre. He was throughout a secret reader, and from childhood absorbed the works of a wide range of authors, from Lord Dunsany to Henry Miller. It may be that the relative isolation of his early years explains his impact, for he never seemed to understand just how upsetting his work could be, how alarming his incessant fertility might seem to some of his staider fellows. He came to sci-fi full-grown: but he came from some far-away silent place in deepest America.

From the early 1950s on, he was always present, always publishing, but never quite a member of the club. His first novel, Owe for the Flesh, won a publisher's contest, but the firm was soon bankrupt, the money was never paid, and the manuscript was lost. His first published novel, The Green Odyssey (1957), was set on a vast low-gravity planet huge enough to allow endless adventurings; but its combination of fantasy and sci-fi material was dislocating.

In the 1950s he worked for a time for General Electric in upstate New York, the same firm that Kurt Vonnegut parodied in Player Piano. In 1973, writing as Kilgore Trout – the name of the failed pulp writer Vonnegut had created in one of his novels – Farmer published Venus on the Half-Shell, a novel in which he clearly sought to pay homage to an author with whom he had shared work and professional experiences. But Vonnegut, a far more canny operator in the literary arena, failed to appreciate the association; Farmer was wounded, not understanding the worldly reasons for Vonnegut's snub.

At the same time, Farmer was beginning to gain wider sales through the release of three lasting sequences of titles. In the "World of Tiers" novels he created – decades before Virtual Reality computer gaming turned the idea into a cliché – a set of Pocket Universes, worlds within larger worlds governed by god-like creatures who play with humans for sport.

The first volume of Farmer's "Riverworld" sequence, To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), won Farmer another Hugo award. Set on an endless river, where the dead are re-embodied, and "live" forever, all Farmer's literary heroes, from Mark Twain to Sir Richard Burton, can be found along the banks of the river of the world.

The third sequence, the Wold Newton books and stories, was based on the idea that in 1795 a radioactive meteor struck the English town of Wold Newton causing a series of genetic mutations that gave rise to an extended family of heroes and villains – including the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain, and Nero Wolfe. The most famous such figure is Tarzan, who features in several of Farmer's novels and is the subject of a "non-fiction" biography, Tarzan alive: a definitive biography of Lord Greystoke (1972).

As a whole, Farmer's work – which encompassed 75 books in all, including genuinely radical experimental shorter fictions like Riders of the Purple Wage (1967) also a Hugo winner – emanates an immediately recognisable, luminous allure. It is all deadly serious, but at the same time gives off a deadpan hilarity.

Farmer frequently invoked the Norse god Loki in his work, and himself seemed Loki-like: a trickster with a cardsharp's innocent smile. From 1970 he lived in Peoria, Illinois, producing voluminously until his 80s. Slowly, his enormous influence upon the field began to gain deserved attention, though academic critics never found him easy to pin down. At the end of his life, he was more famous than he had ever been.



Philip José Farmer, writer: born North Terre Haute, Indiana 26 January 1918; married 1941 Elizabeth Andre (one son, one daughter); died Peoria, Illinois 25 February 2009.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Technical Sales Manager

£45000 - £53000 Per Annum plus bonus plus package: The Green Recruitment Compa...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor