Philip José Farmer (ed. by Gary K. Wolfe): Up the Bright River

Philip José Farmer’s strength as a writer of speculative fiction has always been his willingness to push the conceptual boundaries of the genre. He is, after all, credited with being the one who brought sex into science fiction, with his story “The Lovers” (1953). Farmer seems to have recognized no limits on the possibilities for the form — who else would come up with ideas as diverse as fictional biographies of pulp heroes (“Extracts from the Memoirs of Lord Greystoke” is included here) and a world in which every human being who ever lived has been resurrected (the Riverworld series, of which there are three stories in this collection)?

And those two mentions also might serve to point up another of Farmer’s characteristics — he was, to a greater or lesser extent, both a literary pirate and an archaeologist. “Attitudes,” for example, which opens this collection, is a space-age Wild West tale, about a professional gambler who happens to have extraordinary luck — due, no doubt, to his exceptional psychokinetic abilities. This one is also the first of the Father Carmody stories, later collected in Father to the Stars. “Attitudes” is fairly hum-drum compared to some of Farmer’s more pyrotechnic works, but it’s a very early story — 1953 — and sticks pretty much to standard-issue science fiction tropes.

“The Blasphemers” (1964) is a more complex story, and somehow strikes me as very 1960s — youth in rebellion against stodgy elders, striking out in new directions and leaving worn-out traditions behind.

“The Voice of the Sonar in My Vermiform Appendix” from 1972 is almost as raucous as some of Farmer’s more high-profile works, and gives a good picture of his gifts as a sometimes off-the-wall satirist. In this case, the target is the medical profession, particularly its propensity for solemn discussions of what to the rest of us is nearly word salad. It’s also got a bit of New Wave to it in that willingness to just cut loose.

“Father’s in the Basement” (1972) is, ultimately, a rather poignant story, of a young girl who will do anything to help her novelist father finish his last great work. That includes staying home from school. The school and the truant officers don’t agree that her father’s magnum opus is a valid excuse. It is by turns horrific and touching.

Another one that bends the boundaries is “Down in the Black Gang” (1969), about a group of aliens on Earth working to get an interstellar ship crewed and in working order. The components of both ship and crew are somewhat surprising. “Toward the Beloved City” has some of the same atmosphere, this time in a post-Apocalyptic world in which the Book of Revelations is recent history — or perhaps current affairs.

I found “Extracts from the Memoirs of Lord Greystoke” somewhat problematic. Unlike The Evil in Pemberley House, also set in Farmer’s Wold Newton universe, it’s a fairly distanced narrative, one supposes because Greystoke is telling his story as dispassionately as possible.

The last three stories are also the last three stories from Farmer’s Riverworld series, and reflect his obsession with his own ancestors, many of whom appear — in fact, according to Gary K. Wolfe, almost all the characters are Farmer’s ancestors.

It’s rather difficult to avoid giving in to the urge toward adulation of a figure like Farmer. He’s written books and stories I thought were brilliant — “The New Riders of the Purple Wage” in my own estimation is one of the best science fiction stories ever — but I also have to recognize his shortcomings. He was not one of the great stylists of speculative fiction, which is glaringly evident not only in the earlier stories, where it’s expected, but also in some of the later ones, which suffer from a somewhat pedestrian narrative. And there are times that the concept got in the way of the storytelling — “Crossing the Dark River,” for example, could have been tighter and the better for it. Farmer was one of those writers who, when he was “on,” was absolutely stellar, but he wasn’t always on.

Like many other science-fiction writers of his generation, Farmer also was often pre-occupied with the idea of religious belief (a tendency that dominates the The Magic Labyrinth), and, as was so often the case, the idea overshadowed the story. Happily, most of the stories in this collection that touch on that theme touch much more lightly.

Up the Bright River is somewhat of a mixed bag. It’s not a collection I’d recommend as an introduction to Farmer’s work, but it’s an important one for anyone interested in Farmer’s career. Not only is it a survey of forty years of his work, but it gives a good overview of his concerns and development as a writer.

(Subterranean Press, 2011)

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