Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Goodby Phil

Today my hero died.

He died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 91. Although it may seem as though he lived a long, full and productive life and that his death cannot have been unexpected; it was. Because like all heroes, he was not supposed to die but go on forever.

My hero was Philip Jose Farmer, trickster and iconoclast, scholar and humorist.

It may seem odd that my hero was an author, and I am certain that being labeled a hero would have both embarrassed and amused Phil.

Yet I regard him as my hero for the impact that his work had on my life. Phil’s work made my head explode and in doing so exposed my brain. That is it exposed my brain to works of literature I would never have read had I not read his books running the gamut from Pride and Prejudice to The Nova Express. His playful use of language and character instilled in me the habit of reading his work carefully to try to catch all of the nuances. This habit carried over to works by other authors and allowed me to enjoy their works with a better appreciation than I would have otherwise.

I began reading Phil’s works in early adolescence. I believe that the first book I read by him was The Fabulous Riverboat, which was the second in his Riverworld series. Although I entered the book not really knowing what was going on and had to wait several years for its sequel, that book made me appreciate the dark humored genius of Mark Twain and led me to read Twain’s works besides Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The next Farmer book I read was Behind the Walls of Terra, which was the fourth of his World of Tiers novels. I immediately had to read A Private Cosmos which was the predecessor to Behind the Walls of Terra.

Shortly after this is when I stumbled upon Tarzan Alive at the public library. Prior to reading Phil Farmer I had read most of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books I could find. I had read what few Doc Savages I could find and had read Sherlock Holmes. When Farmer wrote this extensive biography of Tarzan he had also included Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes as members of Tarzan’s family tree. This whet my appetite for more Farmer. However I could not find any of his books in the local books stores.

This was in the seventies, back in the dark ages prior to the internet so my resources were very limited. I somehow found the address of a book store in Los Angeles that specialized in science fiction and laboriously pecked out a letter to them on an old Royal typewriter asking if they had any Farmer books.

From A Change of Hobbit I was able to obtain The Book of Philip Jose Farmer, Down in the Black Gang and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg.. While I loved the short fiction in the two anthologies, I must admit that my favorite was The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. Not merely because it expanded upon the themes of his Wold Newton Family but because it further expanded my horizons. It taught me another way of reading fiction, of seeing the story behind the story, the writing of the pampliset beneath the printed word.

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg puts forth a different version of Jules Vernes Around the World in Eighty Days. Farmer does not change Verne’s work but adds a new backstory onto it, that the race around the world was part of an ongoing war between two competing extraterrestrial factions stranded on Earth.

I have heard some people complain that the The Other Log of Phileas Fogg ruined Around the World in Eighty Days because they could no longer read the original without seeing the aliens lurking in the shadows. I have heard a similar complaint about A Feast Unknown, Phil’s pastiche about Doc Savage and Tarzan, although suitably disguised.

Frankly, I have never understood this complaint. I can read Around the World in Eighty Days and read it as Verne wrote it and I can also read and imagine the secret war transpiring in the background. Phil was an author who worked on many levels and the readers who can adjust their thinking to see beyond the mundane will get a fuller enjoyment of his works.

Phil’s works made me appreciate literature by broadening my literary horizons and by tricking my young mind into thinking analytically. His works also gave me a life long interest in history, science, anthropology and sociology.

One of the main reasons however that Phil Farmer was my hero was because he unknowingly helped me through a rough patch in my adolescence. In 1975 I was a high school sophomore who hated school. It was hell on Earth. My father had disappeared shortly before the school year had begun, ostensibly to find work in another city. We did not hear from him for years. My best friend had moved and transferred to a different school. I was a short, geeky kid alone and totally out of his element. Desperate to make friends I fell in with a “bad” crowd and cut school for about a solid month. We hung out at one or another house, drinking their parents liquor or beer. One by one however each of my “friends” was eventually caught because they weren’t facile enough circumvent the mail or phone calls from the school.

Yet even a budding criminal mastermind such as I could not escape the clutches of the law forever. After I was busted I was given the choice of expulsion or re-admittance to the school with several extra punishment hours, basically these were study halls tacked on to the end of the day.

During the course of these eighth hours, I read what I thought was the greatest book ever written. I must have read it four or five times during the course of those punishment hours. The story was about a young man who travels the universe search for the answer to the eternal question, Why were we created? Why? Why? The books dark humor and its denouement of pointlessness somehow lifted my spirits. Although I did not know it at the time this book was written by Phil Farmer, like many other people I believed that Venus on the Half Shell had been written by Kurt Vonnegut but under the name of Kilgore Trout. I had read Breakfast of Champions earlier and so knew about Kilgore Trout. Yet even as I read Venus on the Half Shell, I wondered why this book was so much better than Vonnegut’s other books. (Sorry Vonnegut fans but that’s how I feel.)

Years later when I learned that it had in fact been Phil Farmer that had written Venus on the Half Shell, I mentally kicked myself for not having seen it earlier. There was a couple of Farmer’s characters mentioned during the course of the tale, although I thought this was simply a case of one author making tribute to another. Yet there were also instances meticulously worked out alien biology, albeit to humorous effect. Examples of such discourse in alien physiogamy showed up in several of Farmer’s works such as The Lovers, the World of Tiers series and The Stone God Awakens.

Perhaps most telling was the theme of immortality. There were two forms of immortality in Venus on the Half Shell: physical immortality and spiritual immortality and both were dependent on the other. Knowing that his search for the answer could take centuries, Simon Wagstaff agreed to drink an elixir that made him physically immortal. However as he discovered there was a catch, it also released his ancestral memories. Eventually Simon had to share his body with the consciousnesses of his ancestors. Simon Wagstaff was in a sense a microcosm of the Riverworld, where the immortal physical self is bound to an immortal spirit.

There is little doubt that Phil was influenced by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The concept of immortality ran through the gamut of Burroughs work. The concept of immortality played a huge role in many of Phil’s work. It was so pervasive that I tended to think of Phil as immortal..

This morning reality clashed with my mental imagery. Philip Jose Farmer, my hero died. The all too mortal immortal passed from this life and onto the next.

Although I cannot help but feel a great sense of loss, knowing that there is a great vacuum on the Earth, a hole in the space time continuum where the mind and body of Phil Farmer once existed I can be comforted by knowing that he had indeed achieved immortality. His work. His work still exists and will exist for generations to come.

Good bye Phil, I will miss you.

Hopefully one day, we can meet once again on the banks of the River of Eternity.

1 comment:

Win Scott Eckert said...

An absolutely wonderful tribute, my friend.