As part of my ongoing attempt to become more literate in classic science fiction I recently finished a couple of books by quirky legend Philip José Farmer: the seminal To Your Scattered Bodies Go and the odd but charming Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
TYSBG is the first in Farmer’s Riverworld books. In it, we follow famed Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton—translator of 1001 Nights, “discoverer” of the source of the Nile and the first Westerner to visit Mecca (disguised as a Dervish no less…seriously)—who wakes to find himself reincarnated after death on a strange planet that is earthlike, but seems to consist of only one enormous river valley. He gradually comes to realize that all humans, from all ages, have been reincarnated on the banks of the river. Their basic need for food is met every day through anonymous mechanisms. If they die again, all are reincarnated somewhere else along the river. So, of course, humans do what they always do: establish tribes and villages and fight with each other.
Farmer worshiped the early pulp heroes like Burroughs’ John Carter—he even wrote a biography of Tarzan. This love of the pulps deeply informs Farmer’s writing, but he goes off in interesting directions from this starting point. The central conceit of Riverworld allows Farmer to appropriate any historical figure or race and set them against each other like toy soldiers—which he does again and again with great, violent glee. But imagine pulp stories filtered through 1970s era psychotherapy and you arrive at something like Farmer’s worldview. Burton’s fate becomes intertwined with that of Nazi monster Hermann Göring. Farmer uses Riverworld’s reincarnation trope to examine the psychological underpinnings of Burton’s wanderlust (endless escapes from himself and his past mistakes) and the possibility of redemption for a figure as reviled as Göring—which remains essentially unattainable throughout the book, as Göring eventually descends into self-loathing and addiction after every reincarnation. This is challenging stuff despite the pulpy surface.
Farmer even attempts to examine gender and sexual mores through the only significant female character, Alice Liddell—the real-life inspiration for the fictional Alice. Unfortunately, Farmer fails here—I wouldn’t call him a misogynist, but he never really rises above the sexism of his pulp influences. Other than Alice, all of the women in TYSBG are cardboard representations of desire or domesticity. Alice is more interesting in that, even though her Victorian values are mocked as antiquated and ill-fitting on Riverworld, she represents the importance of civil society—almost as an unobtainable ideal. If only she could have had a little more page-time. In his Doc Savage biography, Farmer returns often to the idea that Doc’s only real weakness is his inability to understand women. I suspect Farmer struggled with the same issue.
Despite the sexism, I would still recommend TYSBG. Farmer’s action scenes are so good, I can almost recommend TYSBG strictly as a continuation of the pulp action style. Fortunately, Farmer also wants to collide so many big ideas and creative SF power chords that TYSBG rises above its murky origins to become something more.
Farmer’s Doc Savage bio is an altogether trickier beast. It’s a weird but engaging concept: a detailed literary biography of a fictional character that pretends its subject was a real person—and then goes on to link that person through distant relations to various other fictional and historical figures. With his Tarzan bio, Farmer introduced a family tree for the Wold Newton clan, which he expands in the Doc Savage book. In Farmer’s universe, Doc is related by blood to Tarzan, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Nero Wolfe and a host of others—all the descendants of people exposed to a radioactive meteorite. Farmer organizes his bio by the iconic parts of Doc’s world: Doc, his partners, his gadgets, etcetera. The exhaustive nature of his approach almost lost me during the Empire State Building chapter. Farmer spends an inordinate amount of time justifying the discrepancies between the real ESB and the conflicting descriptions provided in various Doc Savage books by various writers of Doc’s base of operations. He leans most heavily on the books by Lester Dent as “authoritative” sources, but then has to justify Dent’s own sloppiness in terms of keeping the details of Doc’s world straight. At first, Farmer’s justifications and explanations are charming. Pages later, I wanted to scream “Phil, for godssake, we know Doc wasn’t REAL!” Once I got past the ESB chapter though, things starting moving along again.
I can’t really recommend Farmer’s Doc Savage unless you’re either a fan of the character or otherwise interested in the history of pulp literature. However, my excursion into Farmerphillia has made me think about these shared world experiments. The Wold Newton family was obviously influential on people like Stephen King and Alan Moore. I think part of the appeal of these interconnected shared worlds is that they mirror the experience of reading in general. Reading Farmer’s TYSBG led me to look up Sir Richard Francis Burton and go out and buy some of his writing (about his trip to Mecca), which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of TYSBG and was hugely entertaining in its own right.
Eccentric iconoclast Ted Nelson’s hypertext dreams were born in the same place. Reading widely leads inevitably to making connections between various texts. These revelatory moments take two forms: the secret-club knowledge of an obscure reference and the explorer’s appreciation of something new to chase down—both equally enjoyable—the latter perhaps being the most intellectually rewarding. The writer drawn to these shared world models seems to want to add another level of meta-appreciation to his or her work—to force additional connections. When successful, these deliberate tangling of mythologies and backstories ping around the mind adding real or imagined significance to a given text. The big pitfall of the shared world has the same effect as an overload of hypertext: exhaustion—all web and no spider.