Philip José Farmer has my vote as one of the most innovative and challenging science-fiction writers ever. Editor Christopher Paul Carey, in his introduction to Up from the Bottomless Pit and Other Stories, lays out quite succinctly some of the reasons this is so -- Farmer's mind knew no bounds, and he simply dismissed any attempt to impose them on his fiction.
Of course, one's reputation rests more on what one releases than on the totality of what one creates. This is simply to say that there are often good reasons that stories languish in file cabinets rather than on library shelves, and so a collection such as this one -- a labor of devotion, and all reprinted from the fanzine Farmerphile: The Magazine of Philip José Farmer, presents a somewhat mixed blessing.
What this collection does reveal is the range of Farmer's thought -- no subject was out of bounds, and no mode was outside consideration. He co-opted other writers' characters and either wrote his own versions of their histories or incorporated them into his own stories, particularly the Riverworld series. Tarzan is the most famous of these co-optations, and receives a nod in two speeches reprinted here, "I Still Live!" and "Hayy ibn Yaqzam by Abu ibn Tufayl: An Arabic Mowgli." However, his borrowing from L. Frank Baum in "The Unnaturals" is unparalleled delight -- imagine Dorothy and her ragtag group of outcasts as an itinerant band working its way though Oz, told from the viewpoint of a Scarecrow who barely has an identity, but more than enough in the way of brains.
There are also several examples of Farmer's mainstream fiction. "Keep Your Mouth Shut" is the best of these, a subtle, unsettling examination of guilt played out among a group of three workers in a steel mill who hated their boss and had expressed fairly eloquently their desire for his termination. When he dies in what seems to be an accident, but could very easily have been murder, they are all left wondering.
As I hinted earlier, however, this collection is not necessarily a triumph -- there are reasons that some stories don't get published. The title story, actually a novel, for example, offers a good take on the collection as a whole: it's a terrific example of the scope of Farmer's imagination, as well as science fiction as a medium that accommodates a kind of prescience on the consequences of the way we live. A science-fiction disaster story in the "classic" vein, it is a scary premonition of our ability -- or lack thereof -- when dealing with a major disaster. Add in the efforts of a group of religious terrorists -- homegrown, in this case -- and you have a novel that is dazzling in scale, with exquisitely rendered examinations of character and motivation. I could, however, have done without the forty-odd pages describing the hero's escape from a burning Los Angeles -- complete with makes and models of the vehicles he climbed over on the clogged streets and freeways. Five pages would have done just fine. Three, even.
So, there are some gems here. There are some that don't sparkle quite so much, but I think this is a collection worth reading. The stories themselves span most of Farmer's career, from the 1940s to well into the '80s, and although I doubt anyone could make a solid case for improvement over time (there are excellent stories and not-quite-theres from any time period), one can easily see the growth of Farmer's thinking.
There is, in fact, an official Philip José Farmer home page, called The Official Philip José Farmer Home Page.
Subterranean Press is here.