Philip José Farmer (January 26, 1918 February 25, 2009) was a ground-breaking American science fiction and fantasy writer. Farmer is best known for the World of Tiers and Riverworld series, and the concept of the Wold Newton Family. He won three Hugo awards and had many nominations.
His early writing career was tough: he was defrauded of substantial prize money. His novella "The Lovers", about a man who falls in love with an insectoid alien, won a Hugo as "most promising new writer" but was rejected by leading editors as "nauseating". He suffered financial insecurity and had to retreat from full-time writing. He worked in a steel mill, in a powerline crew and as a technical writer, only becoming a full-time writer again in 1969.
During his early writing career, science fiction publishers had an aversion to controversial subjects: sex and religion were out. Farmer's works had a generous helping of both with plenty of edgy politics too. The New Wave Science Fiction movement changed all that, and opened up new markets for Farmer.
That said, Farmer's graphic descriptions of truly out-there sex acts do not pull any punches. Readers who are only familiar with his later, more moderate, work may find his early work challenging in places—particularly Lord Tyger and A Feast Unknown. The controversy over these works stuck in the minds of reviewers and eulogy writers.
More generally, Farmer's approach to sex was the same as his approach to religion, government, politics, gender, everything: get it all out in the open and then make challenging statements about it. He wanted to get the reader thinking and entertain them, not caring who he offended along the way.
The Riverworld series is a good place to start reading. The series has an extraordinarily fertile conceit: in the distant future we are all (all) resurrected by the banks of a river. Everyone who ever lived. Historical figures such as Richard Burton, Samuel Clemens and Herman Goering appear as flesh and blood people and Farmer had the nerve to describe what he thought would happen when their paths collided. (Several of his other works, such as The Other Log Of Phileas Fogg are pastiches, pulling in characters and other elements from several genres—making him a "meta" writer long before it became popular. It's also Steampunk—from 1973!)
In Riverworld, the quest to solve the mystery of the resurrection and the river involves lots of vividly-described action adventure. As prose the action sequences have a great immediacy: combat seems at all times dangerous since the emergent chaos of battle is no respecter of persons.
If you only looked at the early covers of his books he would appear to be nothing more that a pulp writer obsessed with grim-looking, violent and highly muscular men—which is not to say you can't find plenty of plenty meaty heroes in his work. Heroes who often get quite a kick out of a high-wire life of violent escapades.
Riverworld addresses Big Ideas. Sex, politics, race, religion. Farmer loved messing with the divide between high and low culture. The deep problems of human life come up thick and fast in this series. Farmer broke new ground by having these themes coexist with fantasy action adventure—prefiguring Discworld and many other works.
Works by Philip José Farmer with their own trope pages include:
Tropes found in the works of Philip José Farmer
- Apocalypse How: Dark Is The Sun takes place on Earth billions of years in the future. At one point, humankind's civilization was so advanced that they found a way to move the Earth to avoid being burned away by the Sun when it eventually expanded into a red giant star. When the book starts, civilization has reverted to a primitive level, and eventually the group of protagonists discover that the universe itself is coming to an end via the Big Crunch. Their new goal is to find a way to enter another universe to avoid being crushed into a singularity along with everything else in their universe.
- Author Avatar: Farmer often put himself into his books, always with characters that share his initials - for example, Peter Jairus Frigate in Riverworld and Paul Janus Finnegan in World of Tiers.
- Badass Family: The Wold Newton Family is a mixture of this and Massive Multiplayer Crossover. The family tree includes: Solomon Kane; Captain Blood; The Scarlet Pimpernel; Sherlock Holmes's nemesis Professor Moriarty; Phileas Fogg; The Time Traveller; Allan Quatermain; A.J. Raffles; Professor Challenger; Richard Hannay; Bulldog Drummond; the evil Fu Manchu and his adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith; G-8; The Shadow; Sam Spade; Doc Savage's cousin Patricia Savage, and one of his five assistants, Monk Mayfair; The Spider; Nero Wolfe; Mr. Moto; The Avenger; Paul Janus Finnegan; Philip Marlowe; James Bond; Lew Archer; Travis McGee; Monsieur Lecoq; and Arsène Lupin. Far out, you just have to hope they don't fight at Christmas.
- Cat Girl: Kilgore Trout's Venus On The Half Shell (ghostwritten by Philip José Farmer instead of Kurt Vonnegut note ) has a cat-like alien queen who makes love to the hero and grants him immortality.
- Crossover Relatives: The basic concept of Wold-Newton Family (and its online continuation by other hands) is that most of the major Victorian and pulp heroes are descended from a small group of people, who were affected by a meteor in the 18th century. The central relationship is that Tarzan and Doc Savage are cousins, grandsons of the Duke of Holdernesse from the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Priory School". (Holdernesse is said to be Watson's name for the title Edgar Rice Burroughs called Greystoke, while Doc's father Clark Savage Sr is the illegitimate son that Watson called James Wilder; Farmer calls him James Clarke Wildman.)
- Deconstruction Crossover: This trope, combined with Direct Line to the Author, is the main premise of many works taking place in Farmer's Wold Newton Universe.
- Defictionalization: One of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut's fictional author Kilgore Trout was Venus on the Half-Shell. Farmer later wrote an actual novel titled Venus on the Half-Shell that he published under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout.
- Direct Line to the Author: In Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer claims that Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lester Dent were just the biographers of Tarzan and Doc Savage. He claims that their books were highly fictionalized and sensationalized and presents somewhat more mundane, but still sensational versions of the stories that correct various factual inaccuracies and continuity errors. For example, he explains that whenever Tarzan encountered a lion, a plains dwelling animal, in the jungle, it was actually a leopard and Burroughs exaggerated because lions were bigger and more dangerous looking.
He also tries to explain away both characters' great strength and intelligence by claiming their ancestors were irradiated by a meteor, and that other relatives of Tarzan and Savage whose ancestors were exposed to that radiation include Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, and Bulldog Drummond.
- Flat World: The Alternate History short story Sail On! Sail On! turns out to be the grimly amusing story of how Christopher Columbus discovered that the world is flat.
- Flying Seafood Special: The Wind Whales of Ishmael, naturally.
- Footnote Fever: The Sherlock Holmes /Tarzan crossover, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, has an vast number of pseudo-scholarly footnotes. At one point Holmes asks Watson, isn't that a*****e firing a machine gun?", and a footnote explores whether Watson in writing this adventure used the wrong number of asterisks, or whether Holmes actually used the seven-letter rather than the appropriately British eight-letter form because the a*****e under discussion was American. note
- From Cataclysm to Myth: In Flesh, the heroes return to an After the End Earth from an interstellar expedition, and figure out that the cataclysm described in the local mythology is probably the failure of the free energy project which was being considered when they left (tapping into the magma layer plus transmission through the atmosphere translated into massive volcanic activity plus ozone layer damage).
- Gender-Blender Name: In the Dayworld series, set many centuries in the future, the custom of men's and women's names has died out. Several male characters have female names and vice versa.
- Hollow World: Hell in Inside Outside. According to some characters, it used to be flat but changed as scientific knowledge advanced. It's later revealed, however, that this is false and that hell is a space station.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: In A Barnstormer in Oz, protagonist Hank Stover winds up in the magical land of Oz his mother Dorothy told him about, only to also discover that the natives are much, much smaller than normal humans, standing literally about half his height. This doesn't stop him from entering a serious relationship with Lamblo, Glinda's captain of the guard (she's particularly impressed by his "size").
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: In Venus on the Half-Shell every alien race points out that humans smell awful. So humans create a huge industry of special deodorants. The narrator points out that human morals stink, so that makes our smell stink. Yes, it's a strange book.
- Human Popsicle: The "stoning" process in Dayworld is a form of suspended animation not involving cryonics and anything suspended this way is pretty much indestructible. It's used to manage population; there are so many people in the world that not everyone can be around at once, so different populations come out on different days and remain suspended the rest of the week.
- Lottery of Doom: in his Father Carmody short story Attitudes.
- Magic Meteor: The Wold Newton meteorite.
- Massive Multiplayer Crossover: The Wold-Newton universe includes scores of public domain characters as well as many characters popular from early Radio Drama and film, such as The Shadow and Tarzan, who are not quite out of copyright. Fans have added many modern TV characters to the list. The Riverworld series does this with actual people from history.
- Mass Super-Empowering Event: In the "biographies" of Tarzan and Doc Savage (and the Massive Multiplayer Crossover "Wold Newton Universe" based on Phillip's stories), the Event is the titular Wold Newton meteorite. The radiation of the meteorite affected the passengers of a passing coach (and several animals in the area). Their descendants were endowed with unusual strength, intelligence, and ambition, becoming the inspiration for many of the heroes and villains of fiction. (See the other wiki for more details.)
- Meta Origin: The Wold Newton Family concept posited the Wold Newton meteorite as a source of mutation, which, while generally not producing metahumans, produced an extended family including Tarzan, Doc Savage et al.
- Name's the Same: Farmer's short story "The Jungle-Rot Kid on the Nod" is his exploration of what Tarzan would be like if he had been created by William S. Burroughs rather than Edgar Rice Burroughs.
- New Wave Science Fiction: Many of his works of the sixties and early seventies fit in with the New Wave, like "The Jungle-Rot Kid on the Nod", a blending of experimental beat writer William S. Burroughs and pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
- Perspective Flip:
- The Other Log of Phileas Fogg.
- A Barnstormer in Oz, in which Glinda the Good assassinates U.S. President Warren G. Harding.
- "Evil, Be My Good" is Frankenstein from the monsters point of view.
- Powered by a Forsaken Child: In Venus on the Half-Shell, the interstellar drive works by painfully draining the Life Energy from beings in another universe. The faster you went, the louder the wailing you heard coming from the engines. At the end of the novel, the last being dies, ending interstellar travel permanently.
- Public Domain Canon Welding: The Wold Newton Family.
- Significant Anagram: In Venus on the Half-Shell many names are anagrams, for example Chworktap = Patchwork, Gviirl = Virgil, Tunc = Cunt, Angavi = Vagina, Utapal = Laputa.
- Silicon-Based Life: Phremompit from Dark is the Sun. He is a silicon based lifeform native to an asteroid, coming to Earth in a meteor shower. He eats radioactive rocks and moves on natural treads. Unfortunately, he drills through many people before learning his morse-code communication laser is turned up a bit too strong for the mushy-bodied earthlings.
- Spy Satellites: Found in several novels. In the Dayworld series they are a weapon of a future
police statesharing caring one-world government. Interestingly, even though the articles were written in the 70's/ early 80's Farmer has the satellites hooked up to gait-analysing computers. It adds to the paranoid atmosphere: once the characters become fugitives they have to wear widebrim hats and spend every moment on the street walking in a deliberately different pattern.
- The Von Trope Family: Ralph von Wau Wau from several stories, including "A Scarletin Study" and "The Doge Whose Barque Was Worse Than His Bight" (Via the Direct Line to the Author framing device of it being written by Jonathan Swift Somers III).
- Tangled Family Tree: The Wold Newton Family has several fictional characters, including Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Doc Savage as part of a set of inter-married families descended from seven couples exposed to a radioactive meteorite.
- Two-Fisted Tales: Farmer's long writing career is marked by his great love of the pulps and he devoted great energy to his many Two Fisted Tales. Even his works which aren't in the genre are informed by it. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life provides a biography of the pulp era hero and links him to other period heroes.
- T-Word Euphemism: Rather tediously lampshaded in the Sherlock Holmes/Tarzan crossover, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, in which Holmes's grotesquely Out of Character line, "Watson, isn't that a*** shooting a machine gun?" merits an editorial footnote questioning whether the word has one asterisk too few, or whether Holmes might have used the American formation since the a*** under discussion was himself an American.
- Villainous Incest: In his Wold Newton works, Farmer suggests that Carl Peterson (archfoe of Bulldog Drummond) and his lover Irma (who sometimes posed as his daughter) were, in fact, father and daughter.