Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Philip Jose Farmer, RIP

As the title of this post says, science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer has died at the age of 91. I haven't read any of his books in a long time, but I was still sad to hear about his death, because years ago, he was one of my favorites.

I never read THE LORD OF THE RINGS, DUNE or FOUNDATION, but I did read every book in Farmer's equally epic "Riverworld" series, where the entire population of the Earth -- and I mean every single person who ever lived, from Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor, but heck, him too) to Tom Mix to Jesus himself was reincarnated on a planet wrapped in a million-mile long river. It never made much sense, at least scientifically, but it was a good yarn, and Farmer always knew how to balance the humor, the drama, the action and the wonder.

But it was Farmer's other work that I really liked, the books that, long before the concept of "fan fic" grew and festered, took classic characters and used them to tell knew stories. Farmer had a real knack for this sort of thing, writing complex, elaborate fictional biographies of Tarzan and Doc Savage (TARZAN ALIVE and DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE), then using even more complex, elaborate family trees to tie them to each other -- and to virtually every other pulp hero, fictional character and in-joke he could think of. It's nerdity of the highest order, but Farmer makes it all make sense somehow, and what's more, he uses it to tell some great stories. And he never admits it's a joke either. Look for the wink or the nod in TARZAN ALIVE OR APOCALYPTIC LIFE and you're not going to find it.

I can't say for sure, but I'd be amazed if Alan Moore hadn't read these two books -- and lots of other Farmer besides -- before writing THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (or, for that matter, TOM STRONG). It's no coincidence that LEAGUE annotater Jess Nevins also compiled a book dedicated to Farmer's vision, MYTHS FOR THE MODERN AGE.

I'll leave you with this quote from APOCALYPTIC LIFE. For me, it sums up the way Farmer was able to take a somewhat silly, childish concept (specifically, Doc Savage; more generally, heroic fiction) and find the essential power, majesty and darkness lurking just below the silliness.

Then -- Chaos enters. Chaos and her sister Evil, or perhaps Evil is the big mother. And Doc and his aides, the Famous Five, are busy combating Chaos and Evil. And then Law and Order are restored. But only momentarily. After all, the universe is entropic, and everything is going downhill, and at the bottom of the hill is Hell. Down there, at the bottom of the hill and often below its surface, Chaos and Evil are breeding.

Too bad he never wrote any comic books. He would've been amazing.