Philip José Farmer, The Best of Philip José Farmer (Subterranean Press, 2006)


Joe Lansdale's characterization of Philip José Farmer as "The Man With the Electric Brain" may be too mild.

The Best of Philip José Farmer is a big book, although a mere page count doesn't really convey the scope: it is somewhat under 600 pages, though there are, inevitably, stories missing -- there are actually a lot of stories missing. The ones that are here, while kaleidoscopic, are . . . well, maybe that's a good word to use for Farmer, because there are two things about Farmer's stories that seem to be key elements, particularly in a collection such as this: excitement and range.

It's hard to figure out how to convey that excitement, and also his importance to the field of science fiction. Lansdale hits one very important contribution by Farmer: sex. Before Farmer, science fiction was the literature of geeky little boys, no matter what its present-day critics might say. "The Lovers," which leads off this volume, was the story that not only introduced sex to the genre, but bizarre sex. Well, the sex itself is not bizarre, but its consequences. . . .Considering that Farmer won his first Hugo (Best New Talent) in 1952 on the basis of this story and the next in the volume, "Sail On! Sail On!," (what if Columbus had been wrong?) you can imagine the shock value of the former at the time. It's honest-to-Henry boy meets (alien) girl, boy falls in love, boy gets the shock of his life kind of sex. It begins as a fairly normal story of a type that is familiar: humans on an alien world trying to learn the culture and evaluate the technology. The humans have ulterior motives, in this case, conquest by a rigid and dour theocracy. Hal Yarrow, who is perhaps too much a free-thinker to survive very long in this milieu, manages to get himself promoted beyond the reach of his "guardian angel," actually a combination tutor and disciplinarian (who is named, ironically enough, Pornsen). Hal meets Jeannette, who is, as far as he can tell, fully human, and falls in love. One thing leads to another, and Jeannette turns out not to be as human as Hal had thought.

Farmer was also one of the few science fiction writers of the Golden Age who used humor. It's not the wry, situational humor of a Pangborn, or the cool irony of an Asimov, but a raucous, scandalous kind of humor, such as evidenced in "Riders of the Purple Wage," which I remember from Harlan Ellison's first Dangerous Visions anthology (1967), and which is still one of my favorite Farmer stories. (The scene with the contraceptive foam and Farmer's version of Krazy Glue is better than the Three Stooges and the Keystone Kops combined -- if they had been directed by Russ Meyers, we might be getting close.) "Riders" is a sharp and boldly painted satire of the welfare state, centering on a young artist, Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan, known as Chib. It's still a forward-looking story, perhaps in style more than subject matter -- we've gotten used to satires of the welfare state, and sex is a given these days. The story is half dream, half cold, clear narrative, hauling in references from mythology and daily life like firecrackers. I think it is probably still going to be a little hard for many people to deal with, but it's a great story.

When Farmer decides to be satirical, it bites. "Riders" is only the tip of the iceberg, and it's on the kill-them-with laughter end. "One Down, One to Go," the final story, isn't funny at all, but it's of a piece with other stories that savage a society comfortable with the daily atrocities to which we all turn a blind eye. Our saviors don't come off much better in Farmer's hands than the things they're trying to save us from.

The collection also contains "Riverworld" (1966), the second Riverworld short story, starring Tom Mix and a Jew named Yeshua from the time of Christ, who is having a severe crisis of faith: everyone has been resurrected from the dead, and it's not what anyone expected. Farmer also borrows Tarzan (as written by William S. Burroughs, not Edgar Rice); King Kong, as told by a grandfather who was a boy when it all happened; and Henry Miller, who stars in a story that he might have written -- if he were Philip José Farmer. "The Alley Man," from 1959, is by turns poignant, intense, and disgusting, the human face of the last Neanderthal, who makes his living as a garbage picker.

Some of the stories are downright frightening. "Sketches among the Ruins of My Mind" is the record of how lives fall apart as memories are erased, four days at a time, by a mysterious object known only as the Black Ball, which sits in space. The narrative is provided by Mark Franham, a lawyer who begins to record the events of the day so that he will remember them when he wakes up. To call this an uncomfortable story is sadly understating the case.

The Best of Philip José Farmer is probably missing someone's favorite stories. It is, however, a superb collection that demonstrates the range and power of one of the most exciting science fiction writers of all time, one who broke all sorts of barriers, not only those unspoken taboos of subject that everyone subscribed to within the genre, but barriers of style and approach. In doing so, he provided some of the liveliest fiction in the field. For some reason, Farmer has been allowed to go largely out of print, which is unforgivable. This collection, I hope, marks the beginning of rectification of this egregious error.

[Robert M. Tilendis]