June 28, 2015
Philip Jose Farmer (or P.J., as Appendix N has him) was a prolific author of pulp adventure. (By the way, I don’t need to keep spelling out what Appendix N is, do I? If you’re reading this web log you’re probably hip to the reference.) I’d call him an acolyte of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He mined the same story veins, and even wrote in Burroughs’ worlds, including some straight-up Tarzan books, as well as spin-offs. Check out his Opar novels, fantastic pre-history, lost-civilization adventures spun off from Tarzan’s adventures in Burroughs’ fictional Opar.
Farmer is noted in Appendix N for his “World of Tiers” novels. I’ve not read them all. Something I should, perhaps, remedy. What I think of when I consider Farmer is his “Riverworld” series. I picked up “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” when I was twelve or thirteen. And I proceeded to devour the entire series. Those books started a fascination with Richard Francis Burton that lasted until I learned a lot more about the famed explorer’s true character and actions. I like Farmer’s Burton much more than the original.
The conceit of “Riverworld” is that everyone who has ever lived on Earth wakes after death upon the banks of a world-encircling river. The reader is tossed into the story in the point of view of Burton, and learns the mysteries of “Riverworld” along with him. There’s a lot of great action as well as spot-the-historical-figure fun. These latter include Alice Liddell and Samuel Clemens. At least, I think so. It has been decades since I read these books, but they did leave an impression.
Farmer was an obvious fan of genre fiction. His oeuvre is replete with pastiches of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, and Tarzan. (Yes, I did just serve up the phrase “oeuvre is replete.” Deal with it.) I doubt I presume too much suggesting that Farmer’s taste in stories aligned closely with that of Gary Gygax. It’s hard to imagine Farmer not appearing in Appendix N. (Though I imagine “J.C. on the Dude Ranch” was less to Gygax’s liking. I recall reading that story with appalled fascination as a kid.)
The man was a pro, a solid entertainer. He’s not going to knock your socks off with his prose stylings, but he wrote competent, engaging fiction. If you pick up one of his books you’re practically guaranteed a fun read.