Short appreciation of Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009)

You may have read
that author Philip Jose Farmer has passed away at the age of 91. I
read a good portion of his oeuvre when I was in high school, including
the Riverworld books and the World of Tiers books. I didn’t think
Dayworld was particularly well-thought-out, but that didn’t really
diminish the effect that those other two series had on me.
It took me until a couple years ago when I was reading author Charlie Stross’s blog that the real impact of Farmer on my life as
a reader sunk in. Stross was discussing publishing cycles, and if I
recall correctly, his formulation had about a 15-20 year shelf life
(literally) for pop fiction like Stross’s work. In other words, he was
writing now what teenagers would be reading in 2025. It hit me that
Farmer’s work was an important part of the pop canon in the
1960s-to-1980s period. That was also the last gasp of science fiction
as literature, rather than as movie tie-in. The great imaginative
works of sci-fi that have come after that, with few exceptions, have
been very closely associated with movies and television: think ‘Star
Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and the Harry Potter series.
The World of Tiers series remains blessedly unfilmed. I’m sure a
director could put it on screen, but as a teenager reading it avidly,
over and over again, I could and did construct the whole universe in
my head. My individual imaginative renderings of Kickaha and his bride
Chryseis will always populate my conception of the bizarre,
picturesque, and dangerous pocket universes they inhabit. There are
other great sagas of pulp, including some of my other favorites: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom/Mars books and E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, but Farmer’s books still claim a
place in my heart because they explicitly endorse escapism: Kickaha,
the World of Tiers hero, shares his initials with the author and had
been an ordinary plain-jane from the USA before stepping through a
magic gate into the World of Tiers. The Riverworld series, which
posits the resurrection of all human beings at once on a purpose-built
planet and the heroic struggles of a few of them to figure out what
they were doing there, is purpose-built for adolescent escapist
fantasies. According to the conceit of the books, both you and I are
there on the Riverworld too.
Here’s a bit from The Green Odyssey, which is readily available at manybooks and is the only thing of Farmer’s I have

Strange and strong magic to the savages. What myths they must have built about this room, what tales of horrible and powerful gods or demons imprisoned in that wall of dirt! Surely their old women must whisper to the wide-eyed children stories of how the Great Cat-Spirit had been caught by their legendary strong man and savior, some analog to Hercules or Gilgamesh or Thor, and how the Cat-Spirit was the tribe’s to keep prisoner with their magic and to appease from time to time with human kills from other tribes lest it become so angry it burst through the wall of earth and devour everybody upon the floating island!”