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Philip José Farmer: 1918-2009

by Carol Cooper

The wildly inventive and passionately polemical science-fiction writer Philip José Farmer quietly expired at home, Ash Wednesday morning, at the ripe age of 91. I and many others first became aware of Farmer's work in the 1970s, shortly after the first volume of his legendary Riverworld series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go won the Hugo Award for best novel. The central conceit of Riverworld is that all existing religions are wrong about the afterlife: In Farmer's work, earth's luckier dead reawaken in fresh adult bodies on a magical planet far, far away where all the most influential or memorable personalities of human myth, literature and history are reborn (memories intact!!) to coexist. Provocative collaborations and personality clashes ensue.

The potential of this premise left a lasting impression on several generations of subsequent new-wave, cyberpunk, steampunk, and metafiction writers. Readers never felt limited to the conversations Farmer engineered among his anachronistic characters; rather his scenario encouraged us to do our own historical research--the better to imagine more illuminating chats protagonists like Jesus, Mark Twain, and Sir Richard Burton might have after being resurrected to do something collectively constructive on a strange new world.

Farmer's playful propensity for using episodic novels as pedagogic tools make even his lesser known works worth seeking out. A higher profile series like Dayworld, which resolves overpopulation problems by making everyone spend most of each week in suspended animation, cries out to be adapted for television, now more than ever. Like most genre writers of his generation he was prolific, steadily cranking out pithy short stories and more than 75 novels over five decades. Farmer delighted in obscure literary and historical allusions and intertextual in-jokes. His books, though full of cartoonish action and pulp-era razzle dazzle, could also be enjoyed as semiotic Easter egg hunts. When assessing Farmer's talent while introducing his contribution to the groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison wrote: "No story too big for him to write, no character too obscure for him to incorporate, no universe too distant for him to explore."

The son of a civil engineer who survived a brief encounter with military life before working in a steel mill to put himself through college, Farmer supported his family as a peripatetic technical writer for defense contractors until the early 1970s, while (understandably) writing frequently sardonic fiction on the side. Married to the same woman since 1941, and a welcome guest at both Science Fiction conventions and local libraries in his native state of Indiana, Farmer's reputation for personal kindness and generosity was matched only by the wide-ranging fecundity of his imagination. He remained dynamically connected and accessible to his fans, writer peers, and the publishing world at large through the 1990s.

Farmer's wit, which often shaded towards the ultraviolet, remained intact through the end of his life. Just this January, he finished serializing an unpublished novel about the ultimate oil industry disaster, "Up From the Bottomless Pit." As irreverent as the French Decadents and as deliberately perverse as the Surrealists, Farmer would never shy away from sex, violence, or scathing satire in his work as long as it helped get his most important ideas across. That's been his authorial m.o. ever since his first professional sale in 1952--a mildly pornographic tale of interspecies romance titled "The Lovers." Taking Kurt Vonnegut Jr's mythical "Kilgore Trout" as his byline for 1975's crossover hit Venus On the Half-Shell was just another smart literary prank on Farmer's subversive résumé, a rascally penchant rewarded in 2001 by a Science Fiction Writers of America Grandmaster award, and in that same year, a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.

Critics of Farmer often flinch at the fearless candor with which Farmer describes social and scientific pathology in his fiction. But Farmer wrote for grownups, people unafraid of experiencing reality as a 24/7 synesthesia of simultaneous horror and beauty. In the afterword to "Riders of the Purple Wage", his mind-blowing depiction of a high-tech future welfare state, Farmer outs himself as a space travel-romantic who nonetheless finds himself "increasingly interested in, and worried over terrestrial problems." Farmer believed in and advocated technological revolutions--but he also believed that the smartest revolutions are always guided by love. Alongside tech-related day jobs, Farmer kept working and playing with Big Ideas and the false dichotomies separating high and low culture until the very last, despite the series of strokes and other health issues that ultimately led to his death. His original, deeply concerned take on culture was as contemporary at the end of his life as it was in the beginning. He will be missed.

Published in: Village Voice, March 3, 2009