Philip Jose Farmer: Prolific and influential science-fiction writer

John Clute
Wednesday 04 March 2009 01:00 GMT

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.

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