(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 35.)
We've covered Philip José Farmer before via the short story collection Down In The Black Gang. Here's a quick refresher course before we tackle his first novel: 1. He was key at bringing sex, and not just the suggestion of sex into science fiction. That doesn't really play into The Green Odyssey so much, but it seems to have been a big part of his breakthrough short story "The Lovers" (later expanded into a novel). And I'm going to venture a guess that it plays a part in a forthcoming Box Of Paperbacks subject, Flesh. Here the sex is mostly suggested. 2. He's something obsessive about old pulp fiction, especially Edgar Rice Burroughs' creations and Doc Savage. That does figure in here, since much of the book plays like a lighthearted version of one of Burroughs' John Carter stories, or at least what I understand those stories to be by way of reading a knock-off. 3. He's most famous for his Riverworld series, in which everyone who ever lived on Earth now lives simultaneously in a weird, childless, feudal afterlife along a great river. That's not too relevant here, but there is some of the culture shock that plays a key role in the one Riverworld story I've read. 4. He's still alive and living in Peoria. He has a website and a MySpace page. (As I write this, his current mood is listed as "Nostalgic" and there's an emoticon of a frownie face with three question marks above his head. Got it? Okay! I mostly really liked Down In The Black Gang so I was looking forward to The Green Odyssey. Though I can't say it floored me, it didn't disappoint me greatly either, largely because it worms away at the clichés of its chosen genre. It's a tale of high adventure starring someone largely ill-suited for adventure of any kind. Our hero, Alan Green (joke on that name to follow, most likely), is an Earthman who, thanks to a failing rocket, now lives as a slave on a planet of humans who live in arrangements roughly equivalent to feudal Europe. Eventually he becomes a swashbuckling adventurer who overcomes great odds, but only after defeating, largely by accident, the sloth and cowardice of his character. Or maybe it's just pragmatism holding him back. Having lived with little hope of escape for the two years prior to the opening of the book, he's resigned himself to the henpecked existence of a favored slave. Tall and blonde in a city-state filled with short, dark-haired people, he's become the favored plaything of a Duchess whose beauty fails to hide both stupidity and poor hygiene:
She looked so beautiful, she thought. And stank so horribly. At least she had at first. Now she looked less beautiful because he knew how stupid she was, and didn't stink quite so badly because his nostrils had become somewhat adjusted. They'd had to.
He's also married to Amra, a beautiful, strong-willed slave with multiple children by other lovers. It's an exhausting existence, and one he hopes to end once the word of another stranded spacecraft reaches him. But first he has to reach his probable fellow Earthmen. To this end he schemes with a merchant to take live fish to a fish-worshipping city that largely knows only dried fish. It's a daring scheme that involves a long trip across a grassy plain on the merchant's wind-driven wheeled vessel. And it's one he can't even embark on without first tricking the Duke and escaping his wife. He only manages one of these goals. Insisting that they've gotta staayy together (there's your Alan Green Joke), Amra joins Green on the voyage. What happens next feels largely plotted on the fly, especially as the story rushes to its unsatisfying conclusion. But it's a lot of fun along the way, thanks to Farmer's willingness to zag where others would zig. And then zag some more. Where someone like Burroughs' John Carter would probably be running the place in the time it takes Green to resolve to escape slavery, Green's sees his situation as helpless until he hits on one good scheme. Then he fumbles in accomplishing it and fumbles again, rescued repeatedly by his far more competent wife's skills. It reminds me of what little I've read of Michael Moorcock's Elric, someone who gets through his adventures in spite of who he is rather than the overwhelming force of his character and physical presence. It's an interesting world Farmer creates here, too. Eventually Green discovers remnants of much more advanced civilization from which this society seems to have devolved. As on other planets, they clearly have a common ancestor with the humans of Earth, but what the relationship is remains unclear. I wonder if Farmer meant to return to this world, especially since the ending leaves so many questions unanswered and fates unresolved. But maybe leaving it alone was just another way to subvert cliché. A side note: I've made a list of writers I want to explore further when this project's over and Farmer's definitely still on it. Deeper in the box is the third entry in Farmer's "World Of Tiers" series. Can anyone who has read this series tell me whether it's necessary and/or recommended that I read the others before tackling this one? Also, it seems like this series features humans who live among technology they no longer understand, so maybe he did kind of end up revisiting The Green Odyssey after all. Oh, and apparently this is now public domain as there's an ebook version here and the full text here. Finally, how amazing is that completely unrelated cover?
Next: Not This August (a.k.a. Christmas Eve) by C.M. Kornbluth
Then:The X Factor by Andre Norton