Thursday, February 26, 2009


Philip José Farmer: An Appreciation

I didn't get much work done yesterday. Instead, I spent the afternoon at Starbucks, reading all of Phil Farmer's introductions and autobiographical glosses in his 1984 collection, The Grand Adventure. I first came across the collection in the stacks of the University of Texas at Austin's Perry-Castañeda Library when I was an undergraduate there in the late 80s, and quickly tracked down a second-hand copy for my personal library. I've always owned lots of books, and had copies of Phil's work on my shelf since middle school, but it was during my undergraduate years that I set out to assemble a complete library of Phil's work. There are still a few gaps in my collection, all these years later--I don't have copies of The Green Odyssey or Cache from Outer Space, and only have Book Club omnibuses of the World of Tiers novels--but most of the omissions are either from fairly late or very early in Phil's career. The work he was doing from the late sixties through the mid-eighties is the stuff that's always resonated with me most, and what I consider to be the masterworks of an artist working at the heights of his power. And I have all of those stories and novels close to hand, often in multiple editions (and often multiple copies of the same edition.)

A couple of years ago, I had the great good fortune to be one of the first to read a collaboration of sorts between the Phil Farmer of 1970 and his grand-nephew Danny Adams in the 21st Century, having been invited by Nick Gevers and Peter Crowther of PS Publishing to write an introduction to the first printing of the novella. One of the most flattering things about the whole experience was that Nick had invited me to write the introduction after deducing the influence that Phil's work had on me just by looking at my writing, without having seen any of my frequent mentions of the debt I owe Phil's work. (Gary K. Wolfe later made the same deduction, I was pleased to note.) The mere idea that someone could see in my humble offerings some genetic inheritance from Phil's work means more to me than any nomination or award possibly could.

Following is the introduction that I wrote for that novella, The City Beyond Play.

A Grand Adventure
by Chris Roberson

In 1970, Philip José Farmer began work on a novella. Entitled “The City Beyond Play,” it was about historical recreationists in a post-scarcity future, a fugitive on the run, and things never being quite what they seemed. Having outlined the plot and written the first few chapters, though, Phil set it aside unfinished and moved onto other projects.

Thereby hangs the tale…


By 1970, Philip José Farmer had twenty-three books in print, five of them released in that year alone. He’d already published the first several installments in his World of Tiers series, the first of his John Carmody novels, his first works of pulp revival—including the incomparable A Feast Unknown, its sequels Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin, and the somewhat more serious examination of the “feral man” trope, Lord Tyger—and the first installment of his Riverworld sequence as a serialized novel in Worlds of If. He’d been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, winning twice, once for Most Promising New Talent, and once for Best Novella with “Riders of the Purple Wage,” which also garnered a Nebula Award nomination.

In 1946, at the age of twenty-eight, Phil had made his first sale, a non-SF story called “O’Brien and Obrenov,” to the hallowed pulp, Adventure. He’d been an avid reader of pulp magazines as a child, so there’s some fitting justice that his debut would come in the pages of one of the earliest, best, and longest-running of the pulps. A few years later, Phil would burst onto the SF scene, daring tradition and convention with stories like “The Lovers” and “Mother,” breaking new ground throughout his long career, but he never forgot his pulp roots. In his most prolific years, he revisited the fictional worlds of his childhood, those of Tarzan (A Feast Unknown, Tarzan Alive, Lord Tyger, Lord of the Trees, The Dark Heart of Time), Doc Savage (Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, The Mad Goblin, Escape from Loki), Jules Verne (The Other Log of Phileas Fogg), L. Frank Baum (A Barnstormer of Oz), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventure of the Peerless Peer), H. Rider Haggard (Hadon of Ancient Opar), and many others. His most successful works, it can be argued, are those in which he manages to capture the frisson of adventure and imagination he must have felt as a young reader first visiting these fictional worlds, but in new worlds of his own imagining, with horizon-expanding scientific notions and stylistic sophistication—the World of Tiers, Riverworld, Dayworld—settings to which he would return again and again.

And, just as the worlds of Burroughs and Robeson and Doyle had influenced a young Phil Farmer, so did Phil’s worlds influence a new generation of readers and writers, among them me and Danny Adams.


I was born in 1970, and for most of my life I’ve labored in Phil’s shadow.

I wanted to be a writer before I’d ever read a book of Phil’s, but in him I found a model for the type of writer I’d become. I dedicated my small press novel Cybermancy Incorporated to Phil (which recounted the adventures of Jon Bonaventure Carmody), and one of my proudest moments as a publisher was the release of Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, edited by Win Scott Eckert.

I’m not sure when I first read one of his books, but I couldn’t have been much older than ten or eleven when I picked up his Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life at a second-hand bookstore. By the time I was in high school I’d already worked my way through worlds of rivers, and of tiers, and of days, and was hungry for more. By the time I graduated from college I’d read everything of Phil’s that the University of Texas library system had in its stacks, which must have been nearly everything he’d published, including articles in obscure mimeographed fanzines devoted to writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I remember in particular studying the story collection The Grand Adventure with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar, and I still think that “After King Kong Fell” is one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

When I was thirty-four, the same age Phil had been when he sold his first science fiction story, “The Lovers,” to Startling Stories, I was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, named after the noted editor of Astounding Stories who, when he rejected “The Lovers,” reportedly said that the story had nauseated him. When Phil was thirty-five, he won the Hugo Award for Most Promising New Talent, precursor to the Campbell Award, primarily on the strength of that story.

The key lessons I learned from a careful study of Phil’s work were that big ideas and a sense of adventure need not be mutually exclusive, that there’s nothing wrong with a writer having fun, and the importance of never forgetting one’s influences.


Danny Adams, clearly, has learned those lessons, too.

Like me, Danny was also born in 1970. We’ve never met, but he had a childhood I can only imagine, and envy deeply. When he was eleven, right around the time that I picked up Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Danny read a book written by his grandmother’s brother-in-law, the man he knew as “Uncle Phil.” It was To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and it changed Danny’s life, in much the same way that it would change mine a short time later. But our experiences differ in that Danny, when he finished the book and had questions about it, could call up his Uncle Phil and get the answers. While I read and reread every scrap of story written by Phil I could get my hands on, trying to learn how to become a writer, Danny took family trips to Peoria, to visit the great man in his home, and got writing advice directly from the source.

By 2005, Danny was starting to build a reputation as a talented new writer, with story sales to online venues and small press magazines. He’d written a novel, and after sending the first few chapters to his Uncle Phil to critique, it was decided that he would be allowed to complete the novella “The City Beyond Play,” left unfinished since the year Danny was born, working from Phil’s original outline.

At the time of this writing, with the novella completed and set to be published, Danny (like me) is thirty-five, the same age Phil had been when he won the Shasta prize novel contest for his submission, I Owe for the Flesh, which he would later rework as To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series, the book that set Danny on the writer’s path in the first place.


There are symmetries and coincidences that seem to link me to Danny, and both of us to Phil. But what of the novella itself? What of “The City Beyond Play”?

It is the story I never knew we were missing, but which I’m delighted has been found. Vintage Philip José Farmer, it possesses a quick tempo, clever ideas, adventure, and humor, but with an added flavor that can only be attributed to his collaborator, Danny Adams. Danny has risen to the daunting challenge of finishing a work begun by a master of the genre at the height of his powers, a task I’m not sure I’d have had the nerve to tackle. And he’s performed admirably, the result so splendidly seamless that I’m not certain where Phil’s words leave off and Danny’s begin.

In “The City Beyond Play” can be found all the lessons I learned from Phil’s novels, and which Danny, too, has taken to heart. It is a true collaboration, between a master craftsman and a talented journeyman. It is, in short, a grand adventure, and one I feel privileged to have been able to share.

Chris Roberson
Austin, TX
April 2006

A wonderful appreciation, Chris. Thank you for sharing. I too see an unmistakable Farmerian stamp on your writings.
Thanks, Chris! That means a lot.
Hear, hear, Chris! Please repost this over at the PJF forum as well:

Here is my own:

Thanks for this appreciation, Chris!

I admit that I keep seeing the Moorcock influence in your writing, but now that you point it out--yeah, I can see Farmer is also in your SF cultural DNA and it comes through.

(And it makes even more sense now that I cotton to your work, given that influence.)
I think there are probably equal parts Farmer and Moorcock in there. But having said that, I think that they tended to influence me in a lot of similar ways, and the things I can point at in my work that definitely bear the stamp of one's influence certainly have a bit of the other in there, as well.
I'm still trying to post successfully to the Farmer forums, Win. I'll get through eventually!
Thanks for posting this, Chris.

I wrote my own tribute here (including stuff about The City Beyond Play) if you're interested:

I haven't read much Farmer and what I did read was over 20 years ago. What would be a good place to restart?

I wouldn't try to start with some of the more esoteric stuff or the weirder things. I'd start with To Your Scattered Bodies Go (the first novel of Riverworld) or The Maker of Worlds (The first novel of the World of Tiers).

The Gate of Time/Two Hawks from Earth is another Farmer novel that I think highly of--but my penchant for alternate histories may be speaking here. :)
Justin, I think I'll have to agree wtih JT. To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Maker of Worlds are both excellent places to start. And I share a deep fondness for Two Hawks from Earth myself, which I think has held up nicely over the years. (And hey, look at that, a new MonkeyBrain edition of the book will be out in just another couple of months...). I also think that The Other Log of Phileas Fogg is a book that works as a nice entree to Phil's writing, and which I'd recommend to anyone who enjoyed the work of Jules Verne, or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or steampunk stories.

My favorite of Phil's work is not, I think, the place to start. (It changes from day to day, but is usually somewhere around A Feast Unknown, or the fictional biographies, or The Grand Adventure, or The Book of Philip Jose Farmer.)
There's a new edition of Two Hawks coming out? I didn't know that.

I am going to need to get me a copy, since my own copy of the novel is several across the country moves away and gone.
A very nice remembrance, Chris.
Thanks, Stu.
Danny, I just noticed your comment from yesterday. Sorry! I'm heading over to your LJ now to check out your post.
Thanks for the suggestions, Chris and JT!
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