Science Fiction Studies

#2 = Volume 1, Part 2 = Fall 1973

Franz Rottensteiner

Playing Around with Creation: Philip José Farmer

Writing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for March, 1961, Alfred Bester singled out Philip José Farmer as one of seven SF authors meriting special praise: "Mr. Farmer's is the true courage, for he has the strength to project into the dark where no preformed attitudes wait to support him .... Mr. Farmer often shocks because he has had the courage to extrapolate a harmless idea to its terrible conclusion" (p80). Let's take a look at such extrapolating; and To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of a series of stories, might be an appropriate subject, having won a "Hugo" as the most popular SF novel of 1971 among American fans.

The basic idea of that novel is imaginative enough, and does justice to Mr. Farmer's reputation of daring to handle controversial topics. All human beings that ever lived up to the year 2002, when all but a few were destroyed by extra-terrestrial visitors, have been resurrected along the banks of a river 25 million miles or so long, which zigzags its way in a narrow valley on some artificial alien planet. All these humans, from the Neanderthals to the moderns, thirty-six billion, six million, nine thousand and thirty-seven in number (Mr. Farmer has industriously counted them), find themselves exactly twenty-five years of age, stark naked, totally hairless, the females all virgins the men circumcised. Why this should be so is anybody's guess, but one assumes that Mr. Farmer threw in the circumcision as a joke on Jew-haters. The virgins seem to be a special bonus for characters that like to deflorate, so that the state of virginity is soon remedied--but without much explicit description.

Population is distributed in different areas of the river valley according to a fixed ratio: 60% of a particular nationality and century, 30% of some other people, usually of a different time, and 10% from any time ,and place. Food is no problem, since every individual is equipped with a "grail" that delivers to him sustenance, such as beefsteaks, and other commodities, including cigarettes: as far as food is concerned, this afterlife is a Land of Cockayne if you are careful not to lose your "grail". But in most other respects it is a jungle, with men preying on each other, with warfare among the various groups and small states, and "grail slavery." In fact, this episodic novel is a chain of various battles, adventures (mostly of a bloody kind) and fights that the heroes experience while traveling in this world--and what better excuse for a quest than a gigantic meandering river?

With all beings awakening naked, there are initially some problem of decorum (among Victorians, say), and the author manfully pleads for a breaking of taboos; and since the function of the grails isn't obvious at once, and there are no animals, a few good words are put in for cannibalism, a favorite pastime among more "iconoclastic" SF authors. But while there is no food, and no clothes, luckily there are stones to batter heads in with, and bamboo to make spears for impaling bodies.

Aside from these familiar concerns and dutiful motions of any adventure story, in or out of SF, there is a Big Philosophical Question. Why have all humans been resurrected? Are they in heaven, hell, purgatory or whatever? It soon transpires that it wasn't God who lent a helping hand but rather a race of superior beings, called the "Ethicals" though they appear to be villains. The purpose of their actions is unclear, but there are conflicting theories. One of them is advanced by the "Church of the Second Chance", among whose more illustrious members is a sympathetically portrayed Hermann Goering (who seems to hold a special appeal for American SF writers, to judge from the number of SF stories in which he has figured). It holds that the Riverworld is a sort of purgatory to cleanse humans of all impurities, and prepare them for an eternal bliss, which some saints are supposed to have already achieved. This happens also to be the official doctrine of the "Ethicals," as we discover when the book's protagonist, Richard Francis Burton, the 19th Century adventurer and translator of the Thousand and One Nights, is brought before a tribunal in celebration of his 777th death. For death in the Riverworld is not final, but an act repeatable at will, although turning dying into a hobby isn't advisable, since, the reader is told, the soul or "psychomorph" might get lost. Its ties with the body are weakened by too many deaths, and one might truly die.

The other theory is advanced by a renegade Ethical called The Mysterious Stranger--an allusion to a story by Mark Twain, whose name is taken in vain for the hero of the second novel in the series, The Fabulous Riverboat (1971). He contends that the Riverworld is a gigantic experiment, a scientific test for finding out the reaction of human beings in various situations, and for increasing the knowledge of history by interviewing the resurrected humans. This Mysterious Stranger pretends to want to help people, but he might lie, as might the other Ethicals. Aside from the fact that there is no interviewing in the novel, this theory is nonsense, since any race able to restore every person that ever lived, atom by atom, with all memories intact, already knows so much about them as to be in no need of interviewing them. What can you tell a being that knows every atom of your structure, which is infinitely more than any man can know about himself.

In any case, Richard Burton determines to find out the Truth, to arrive, at the dark Grail Tower where the mysterious grail masters dwell. To do so, he travels around, until he discovers a more original method of transportation: teleportation by suicide. Since the resurrections occur at different "grailstones" along the river, obeying a random principle, dying is a method of statistical travel. Now I have no idea what Burton or the heroes of the other books in the series, existing or forthcoming, will finally find out about the Ethicals, but on the evidence we have so far I am prepared to bet that it is something not worth knowing, and just as banal as what has passed before. For I contend that To Your Scattered Bodies Go doesn't tell us anything meaningful about life, death, or the hereafter. Rather, it presents little children playing with the marbles of space, time and resurrection; its "afterlife" is merely one more stage for the same old set of events which have been recounted in any number of novels of adventure.

What little value the novel has lies wholly in the fact that it presents in an almost pure form the particular method of mass-market SF--that is, playing around with a limited set of elements that are combined and recombined to infinity. A kaleidoscope of oddities that is simultaneously derivative, self-perpetuating and incestuous; a mixtum compositum of almost unlimited assimilative powers, ahistorical and devaluating; readily accepting what is intellectually bankrupt, and bankrupting what initially had some value, before it was drawn into the gigantic junk-yard of SF, where everything is but a pretext for another cops-and-robbers story--regardless how the figures are called, and whether the background is the earth, some other planet, the galaxy, past, present or future, some other dimension, or indeed the afterlife. Without paying notice to historical context, environment or character, such SF throws together the customs and institutions of different pasts, usually jazzed up with some hyperbolic technology of the future (a never described technique of resurrection in Mr. Farmer's case). What SF in general does metaphorically, Mr. Farmer presents literally as his subject: the Riverworld is quite factually a world where past, present and future meet, where historical context no longer exists, and knowledge of milieu is no longer necessary, since all figures in the story share the same uniform and artificial background. Even the psychology of individuals and character development has given way to mere name-dropping: Mark Twain, Hermann Goering, Richard Francis Burton, the "original" Alice. None of these humans has, as lively as some of them are, any real relation to their historical "prototypes": what Mr. Farmer has to offer is at best some commonly known lexicographical information. A revival on such a gigantic scale would have offered a chance of a unique meeting of minds; but all Mr. Farmer presents is the old trite quarrel of survival and petty warfare. People who were noted for their sharp minds are here reduced to pages and pages of inane mutterings, and to playing at the old game of imprisonment and escape.

This series is also further proof, if such proof were needed, that present-day SF, far from being the literature of change, is as a rule, very conservative in methods as well as content. While paying lip-service to change, and offering some background slightly changed in relation to the author's environment, it actually comforts the reader with the palliative that nothing will ever really change, that we'll always be again what we have been before, in this world or the next; as below, so above; as on Earth, so in the afterlife, Amen.

Ever since The Lovers (1961)--his first and, for all its faults, still most interesting SF novel, along with Night of Light (1966)--three components, intermixed in different ways and degrees, occur again and again in Mr. Farmer's work: religion, sex, and violence. Religion most often takes the form of a fascinated, secularized preoccupation with creation. His creators, however, lack any dignity or higher purpose; they appear childlike in their creative omnipotence, playful, scheming, lying, deceitful--and not very bright. In Outside Inside (1964), for instance, the hero, a social climber, finds himself in a nightmare miniature world that presents the reverse side of the Riverworld coin. It delineates not a world after death, but a prenatal world, where artificial souls, created again by a race of "Ethicals" (perhaps the same as in To Your Scattered Bodies Go), are conditioned for life in our world. Or so at least the hero is told in the end, which may or may not be a lie (it seems likely that it is only a cruel joke of the "gods" to further torment the characters of the story). For, again, the "explanation" makes very little sense: if the Ethicals create immortal souls out of benevolence, why "condition" those souls in a purgatory? This seems to indicate a very poor engineering job, for why not create souls that have the desired qualities in the first place? And the straightening out job seems as poor. Sexual perverts, for instance, are treated in the following way: "So, the Exchange castrated them, cut out their tongues, amputated-all four limbs, and thus made them unable to offend or harm anybody, even themselves." The Ethicals really must have very curious educational theories, and Mr. Farmer is aware of the irony of the situation: he has a "demon" comment in the story that the perverts, to spite their creators, get more vicious all the time.

Equally cruel is the afterlife pocket-universe in "A Bowl Bigger than Earth," a short story in Mr. Farmer's collection Down in the Black Gang (1971). There, human beings find themselves thrown into an intestine shaped world, imprisoned in identical sexless bodies, and subjected to mindless drudgery. This world is truly hell, and they are punished if they so much as utter the word; insult is added to injury in that they are required to exclaim that they positively like their toiling and that things couldn't be better.

What does this all suggest? Farmer presents hellish worlds, before birth and after it, into which, a vague hope is introduced only as an additional torture. They depict various degrees of degradation of man, and reject the autonomy of human values and human beings. These stories proclaim the Fortean doctrine that man is only property, utterly at the mercy of beings with remarkable powers, "gods" or "Ethicals," who appear to be childlike, prankish, sadistic dimwits, taking delight only in causing pain and suffering. Even death offers no escape from the torturers, since it has lost its uniqueness and become a playful act that can be reversed or repeated at will. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport."

The author of such "gods" does in fiction what they are supposed to do in reality: he plays around with shocking situations and possibilities, without justifying them or giving them a larger meaning. Sometimes these creations are, in their vividness of description, remarkable as fruits of a grotesque imagination; but I think they are never of any importance as speculative thought, as intellectual effort. Of the three components, religion, sex and violence, the last seems by far the strongest, and to be gaining in strength with time. Sex if often restricted to a few puns, some "bad" language (which hardly seems anything but cursory), and a few acts deviating from what is considered "proper"; more essential in these stories are the many acts of maiming, mutilating, torturing and killing. The most significant argument for this is perhaps the fact that Mr. Farmer unabashedly continued one of his most far-out sex-books, the hardcore pornography A Feast Unknown (1969), in two "clean" novels: Lord of the Trees /The Mad Goblin (Ace Double, 1970). Does it not seem strange that a writer in whose work sex is said to be so central, should find it so easy to delete all sex in a sequel? Such an act, one would assume, would change the whole nature of a story, turn it into something else altogether. That Mr. Farmer did it so effortlessly, seems typical of him and SF in particular, and the civilization it mirrors in general. Sex can come and go, as commercial considerations make it necessary; the atrocities and violence are constant, for nobody objects to that. At least not the editors, the publishers, or the Hugo Award voters.



What SF in general does metaphorically, Farmer presents literally as his subject: his Riverworld in To Your Scattered Bodies Go is quite factually a world where past, present, and future meet, where historical context no longer exists, and where knowledge of milieu is no longer necessary, since all figures in the story share the same uniform and artificial background. Even the psychology of individuals and character development have given way to mere name-dropping: Mark Twain, Hermann Goering, Richard Francis Burton, the "original" Alice. These humans have no relationship to their historical prototypes: at best, all Farmer has to offer is common lexicographical information. A revival on such a grand scale would have offered a chance of a unique meeting of minds, but all Mr. Farmer presents is the old trite quarrel of survival and petty warfare. People who were noted for their sharp minds are here reduced to pages and pages of inane mutterings, and to playing the old game of imprisonment and escape.

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