Pulp Appeal: Philip José Farmer

10/22/17 – Updated to include corrected links. See Note [2]

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Farmer died in 2009 at the age of 91. This image is from the Telegraph obituary.

As with Matt’s article about the Chronicles of Amber last week, no one could rightfully call Philip José Farmer a pulp writer. He definitely belongs in the movement known as New Wave, and was even published in Dangerous Visions, the defining compilation of New Wave short stories. The book was edited by Harlan Ellison, one of the most iconic members of the movement. That said, as with many of Farmer’s contemporaries, including Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Norman Spinrad, and Philip K. Dick, Farmer was deeply inspired by the pulps. In fact he was so enamored of the earlier fiction movement that he wrote some of the most well-known pulp pastiches, works like The Adventures of the Peerless Peer, The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, Tarzan Alive, and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.

Like many of the New Wave authors, much of Farmer’s work deliberately incorporates political, social, and economic issues in reaction to postmodern views of war, love, and money. This is the time of the hippie movement, and free love appears to be the answer to all the world’s ills. Religions are seen as archaic and even counter-productive. Political control is nearly always the enemy, and there is a very specific desire for self-rule and economic and financial equality. Much of this is in reaction to what New Wave authors considered staid and boring tropes of pulp and golden age science fiction. They rejected silver flying saucers filled with strange alien species who lost pan-galactic battles to superior human colonial capitalist masculine heroes whose prizes were chaste feminine women-on-a-pedestal and new Earth colonies. By the time New Age authors were writing, there was admittedly a lot of that being published, but the reactionary rejection, while it led to some of the greatest science fiction ever written,[1] oversimplifies pulp much in the same way that contemporary music critics condemn “kids’ music these days.” While embracing the ideals of New Wave and 1960s/70s politics, Farmer somehow manages to thread a needle, simultaneously agreeing with the literary minded (Moorcock, et al), while managing to convey a deep love for and appreciation of pulp fiction. He never seems to disparage the pulps the way authors like Moorcock and JG Ballard do.

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I wish I owned this version, as I like Eckert’s Wold Newton expansion and am a fan of some of Resnick’s short stories.

While Farmer is perhaps far more famous for his World of Tiers books and his Riverworld series, it was his “biographies” and pastiches that first drew me toward him. Tarzan Alive is written like a biography of the famous English ape-man, and draws upon the rich well of material that Edgar Rice Burroughs created as well as the films and radio versions of the character. Farmer’s treatment of the character as being a real person, with the stories around him merely embellishments by authors, is a trope right out of pulp fiction. Burroughs used that conceit himself with his John Carter stories, and such devices date back even further to penny dreadfuls and Edgar Allan Poe, if not further.

In Tarzan Alive, and later expanded upon in Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Farmer created a complex interwoven narrative he called the Wold Newton Family. Writer Win Scott Eckert,[2] with the blessings of Farmer and his family, expanded that concept and created a whole patchwork of heroes from the pulps through to a few contemporary superheroes. The essence of Wold Newton is that there is a bloodline of characters who gained extraordinary powers through radiation effects that emanated from the real life meteor strike in Wold Newton, Yorkshire, England. The original characters include both heroes and villains: people like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty, Doc Savage, and AJ Raffles, among others. Through examination of crossovers of those characters with others, Farmer, and later Eckert, built up a huge family tree, both in the literal sense (Tarzan is related to Holmes, for instance) and figuratively (because Tarzan goes to Opar, and Conan has been to Opar, Conan is on the outskirts of the Wold Newton tree). I’ll stop before I turn this article completely into a Wold Newton fanpiece, but suffice to say the idea of interwoven characters from Victorian, penny dreadful, and pulp backgrounds has been enormously influential in popular culture, including Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Showtime’s recent series, Penny Dreadful.

6335034Although Wold Newton was a unifying factor in the background of a lot of Farmer’s works, those stories also work independently and are fun reads. The Other Log of Phileas Fogg runs in the margins of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, creating a secondary plot revolving around immortal alien species, Captain Nemo/Prof. Moriarty, and a hidden weapon of immense power. While there are crossover moments to other works, the story itself is quite entertaining even if you completely miss those allusions. Similarly, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer pits Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan together to stop a madman and his secret weapon. It has decidedly more excitement than a standard Holmes tale, but has a great sense of humor, especially in areas where Watson makes observations about the two main characters.

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I didn’t mention it in the article proper, but Farmer was a multiple award-winning author in his own right.

Farmer himself doesn’t quite fit into the neat box of pulp fiction, but his constant playing with the pulp characters, concepts, locations, and storylines marks him as someone pulp fans should spend some time with. I recommend starting with some of the more story-driven pastiches like Other Log or Peerless Peer rather than jumping right into Tarzan Alive or Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. The latter two require in-depth knowledge of those characters and an appreciation for the tone, which is decidedly in the style of biography, with long pages of family trees and explanations. If you feel up to the challenge they are excellent, but they aren’t for beginners.[3] Conversely, if you want to move past Farmer’s love of pulp, you could go into Riverworld or World of Tiers. Though I have read them (and own the Riverworld series) those don’t hold the same appeal for me.


[1] I am an unabashed lover of almost all things Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. There is some debate over whether these two really are in the New Wave, particularly Heinlein, but I believe those people stopped reading after Starship Troopers and never bothered to read Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, or The Number of the Beast (the latter two are past the New Wave time period, but are clearly in the same vein). As for Philip K. Dick, his examination of the nature of reality has quite literally changed how we view the world in a way that hadn’t been seen since Verne in the mid to late 1800s. And judging by the number of film and TV adaptations that have come out of his written work, the world simply can’t get enough of him. Who is the next Verne or Dick? Maybe Neil Gaiman, but that’s an article for another day.

[2] Eckert’s excellent essay can be found on PJFarmer.com. Some of Eckert’s work is also in print, including Crossovers: A Secret Chronology of the World, and Myths for the Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, although they are priced pretty high for a casual reader. That said, they’re reasonable if you are into this kind of thing.

[3] For the whisk(e)y heads or beer fans, it’d be like swapping out a Jack and Coke with Lagavulin or replacing a Bud Light with Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

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6 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Philip José Farmer

  1. Thanks for the fantastic article. It appears that only one page on my site is down, and that is the page you tried to access. The rest of the site is still up. While I attempting to remedy the problem, you can still access the rest of the site here: http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/WNUsitemap.htm . All the best, -Win

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The link you were trying to access, http://www.pjfarmer.com/woldnewton/Pulp2.htm , is back up now. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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