Friday 27 February 2009


My of Philip Jose Farmer appears in today's Guardian (link here). One thing to mention up top: I never used the term 'sci-fi' in my copy: they simply shortened science-fiction most of the times it appeared. The Guardian needed to save space, too, because the piece was longer than they'd asked for, but they ran it at virtually full length, for which I was grateful. As I wrote, I realised that I wanted to say more: partly because Farmer's work covered such a wide spectrum of the field of sf, but at the same time was internally so connected that it almost demanded deeper explanation, and partly because his life was a fascinating struggle to finally get the freedom to write full-time, so he could give free reign to this torrent of ideas. I had written a little about the downside of such financial pressure: that many of Farmer's books feel rushed, and the ideas flow faster than they can be developed fully, but that had to go in the end. I was reminded of Stanislaw Lem's famous essay on Philip K Dick.

I also cut out a couple of other interesting things myself, including a run-down of his Essex House output. Essex House was set up by Brandon House, a straight-forward LA publisher of porn, as an adult sf line, and published some very interesting stuff (eg: Michael Perkins' Evil Companions, Hank Stine's Season of The Witch, David Meltzer's The Agency) besides Farmer. Image Of The Beast (1968) introduced Herald Childe, a detective investigating a sex-killing in a novel that now seems well ahead of its time. Childe returned in Blown (69). But that year also saw Essex publish Farmer's A Feast Unknown, in which Tarzan and Doc Savage (called Doc Caliban, a fine literary conceit) indulge in a sexually-fuelled feud, manipulated by a secret society. Two sequels followed from Ace in 1970, with the sex toned down, because Essex had folded. Since Brandon books tended to be sold only in 'smoke shops' and inner city stores, they were unlikely to reach an sf target audience, and they were always going to be too weird for the strokers. Farmer's last Essex House book Love Song (1970) was published by Brandon.

I also wanted to mentioned that many of Farmer's unfinished, rejected, or outlined manuscripts are being published in collaboration with writers he chose, apparently through the Farmerphile fanzine connection. One of them, The City Beyond Play (2007 with Danny Adams) has already been published, while this year will see one that looks interesting, The Evil In Pemberley House (with Win Scott Eckert), a continuation of Jane Austen starring Doc Savage's daughter as the beleagured heroine! Forthcoming are another two that interest me greatly, another of the Opar books, and a western, Cougar By The Tail.

I wanted to detail Farmer's falling out with Kurt Vonnegut, who had given his permission for Farmer to write Venus On The Half-Shell, one of the many Kilgore Trout titles mentioned in Vonnegut's work, but resented the fact that people originally thought he had written it (and it wasn't up to his standards) and also thought Farmer had made a lot of money off the book, which he hadn't. As it happened, Farmer also believed he was short-changed on his royalties by Ballantine Books (and Lester Del Rey, who edited a line for Ballantine, confirmed this belief), and I would have liked to include that in the chronicle of how hard it was for Farmer to make his living as a writer.

But writing the obit reminded me of how much fun it was to be an sf fan in the heady times of the late Sixties, how exciting Dangerous Visions seemed at the time, pushing the literary bounds of the genre, and how writers like Farmer were constantly surprising you. I also left out the story about how sf writer Randall Garrett arrived at Farmer's house in Peoria one day in the 50s, and stayed three years, until he lost the house. I thought that said something about his character, and I find I've written another virtual obituary here. I think Farmer deserves it. The last line of my Guardian obit WAS cut, by the way: when Joe Lansdale called him the most underrated sf writer, I said Lansdale was understating it.

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