Philip José Farmer (writer) and Christopher Paul Carey (editor),
The Other in the Mirror
(Subterranean Press, 2009)

The Other in the Mirror is the newest volume in Subterranean Press' survey of the works of Philip José Farmer, edited by Christopher Paul Carey. It contains three short novels that contain some of Farmer's most probing examinations of character.

Carey, in his Introduction, frames his discussion of these three novels within Hegel's concept of the Other -- that which is different than us -- as a means of addressing Farmer's approach. In Hegel's sense, we achieve a state of self-aware freedom by coming to understand the Other and incorporating it within ourselves. In Farmer's hands this becomes a multi-layered phenomenon as identity -- a key element of this idea -- moves from the individual to the group to the Other and back again.

But what Farmer is describing in these novels is not the realization of self, but the breakdown of the boundary between self and other.

This is most apparent in Fire and the Night, which Carey calls Farmer's "mainstream novel about racial prejudice." Danny Alliger works at a steel plant; the time is World War II. His new partner at the steelworks where he is employed is Vashti Virgil, a black woman. Danny doesn't think of himself as prejudiced, and in most respects he's not, particularly. He goes drinking with his black buddies, has no objection to working with Vashti, and deals with his black fellows as equals, in part because he wants to belong -- he's a man who has lost what he was and is looking for something to put in its place. His one sticking point is that he can't bring himself to partake of the charms of the black women in the town, no matter how freely offered. This is Danny's Other, and it's frightening. Vashti is beautiful, and although she's not in the least seductive, there's an inevitability here that works itself out with shattering results for Danny.

Richard Orme, in Jesus on Mars, finds a different Other, and it's one that's truly unsettling. Orme is the leader of the first manned expedition to Mars, and they discover Martians. Some of them, the Krsh, are truly alien, from a far planet. The others are from Earth, followers of the apostle Matthias, rescued by the Krsh and stranded along with their rescuers when their ship was forced into a crash landing after a battle with the Children of Darkness, as the Krsh call another group of aliens who are not Nice People. They live in caves hollowed out under the surface of the planet, and have achieved a remarkably stable and stress-free society. And they are all Jewish, but theirs is a Judaism without two millennia of contact -- and conflict -- with Gentiles. The members of the expedition, a Jew, and Muslim, an atheist, and Orme, who is a Christian, all have to come to terms with something out of their own history that is surprisingly alien. The kicker is that Jesus, whom the Martians recognize as the Messiah, lives in the atomic reactor that serves as the sun in their cave.

John Carmody, the protagonist of Night of Light is, to put it bluntly, a psychopath. He knows he's a psychopath, and being a psychopath, he has no problem with it. He's on the planet Dante's Joy because he's on the lam after killing his wife, whom he not only murdered but cut up into small pieces and fed to the sewers. He's attached himself to an anthropological expedition in the form of two priests who are on Dante's Joy to witness the Night of Light, a solar event that happens every seven years. Most Kareenans, the native inhabitants, sleep through it, locked away in vaults. It seems the solar wind has strange effects on both Kareenans and humans, and those who survive the Night awake come out of it changed, not only psychologically but sometimes physically as well -- the wind somehow creates realities from the subconscious. And the Kareenans have a use for Carmody, as well. They see in him a way to resolve an ages old religious conflict between the gods Yess and Algul. The result is not what anyone actually looked for, but it does have a profound effect on Carmody.

None of these men are heroes. They are, in fact, various degrees of anti-hero. Danny Alliger is a decent guy with a few hang-ups related to race and intimacy. Richard Orme, although a devout Christian, is out for himself, and will latch onto any opportunity to make a buck, and the more bucks the better. Carmody is the nadir of humanity, a man who is truly remorseless until faced with what's inside him. Carey posits guilt as the driving force behind these characters, and I think he's right, although the guilt in each case has a different origin.

Philip José Farmer was throughout his career an iconoclast, tackling subjects within the framework of science fiction that other writers in the field avoided. (Remember, he's the man who brought sex into science fiction -- in 1952, when sex was seldom discussed publicly -- even post-Kinsey.) In these three novels he's done it again. And being by Farmer, of course, they are eminently readable, seductive and rewarding.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

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