A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 76.
While there are several writers I’ll happily never read again after I finish this box of paperbacks and pack it up, there are a few whose work I’m looking forward to exploring further, either for some future variation on this column, or for my own pleasure. Edgar Rice Burroughs, for one. I can’t say I much enjoyed the Burroughs I’ve read, but the more I read of him, and the more books I read inspired by his writing, the more he seems like the common source for much of the science fiction and fantasy that followed. Ed McBain, on the other hand, I just look forward to reading more of, and I’ll probably back up and catch the Ian Fleming Bond novels that aren’t in the box. But the writer who intrigued me most is one I knew only by name before this project: Philip José Farmer.
Another writer deeply inspired by Burroughs’ John Carter and Tarzan, and other pulp creations of the era, Farmer helped introduce a new era of sexual frankness into science fiction, beginning with stories like “The Lovers” in 1952. His 1960 novel Flesh, about post-apocalyptic pagans, was one of the most striking books I read over the course of this project. Ditto the short-story collection Down In The Black Gang, though I have to confess to barely remembering a third Farmer book, The Green Odyssey. When he gave it his all, Farmer was a fine writer. But he could also churn out fiction to pay the bills. No one writes 75 books while laboring over every sentence.
A Private Cosmos feels like a churner, though that may just be because I joined the story too late. It’s the third entry in Farmer’s World Of Tiers series, a series he returned to periodically from 1965 until 1993. I can see why, too. It’s a neat concept: Powerful, godlike humans have used advanced technology to create a planet that contains distinct worlds within worlds. Or, more accurately, worlds on top of worlds. It’s literally a world of tiers, where a section modeled after the Great Plains, and home to scientifically reproduced Native Americans, rests below a world modeled after medieval Europe. A moon modeled after Burroughs’ Barsoom floats above it all. But the creator of the world, a man-god named Jadawin, had a whimsical streak. So the “Amerind” level doesn’t just feature Native Americans, it also contains centaurs, or “Half-Horses,” with human portions modeled after Native American warriors. Also, mer-people and so on.
It’s a neat world, one I might appreciate more fully if I’d read the first two books in the series. But I doubt that prior knowledge would make A Private Cosmos seem as if it had more of a story. Its trickster hero runs from place to place, fleeing the bad guys when he can’t defeat them, and romancing a woman who initially behaves haughtily, but eventually succumbs to his charms. It’s all very Burroughs-like, flatness and all. Farmer invested a lot of imagination in creating the world, but not much in the drama playing out within it. I kept thinking that with its discrete goals, varied enemies, and leveled world, it would provide fine foundation for a videogame, but those were years in the future when it was written.
But I didn’t want to give up on Farmer, even though A Private Cosmos had few of the qualities I found appealing about the fiction of his I’d enjoyed in the past. So I sought out To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in his most famous series, Riverworld. It wasn’t my first time visiting that universe. The Down In The Black Gang collection contained the story “Riverworld,” the seed of what would become a five-novel series. A melancholy story of life after death—perhaps—the Riverworld stories take place along a seemingly endless river. It’s the unexpected home of apparently everyone who has ever lived on Earth, from the prehistoric era until its apparent destruction in the 21st century. Sixteenth-century inhabitants of the Russian steppes live beside 20th-century cowboy stars, and so on. Why are they all there? That’s the subject of much speculation, and by the end of the first book, only a few questions have been answered.
I may just leave it there. I really liked To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but I don’t necessarily need to find out its secrets. The setup and the philosophical questions it raises are satisfying in their own way. Farmer uses the 19th-century explorer/writer/man-of-the-world Richard Burton as a protagonist whose restless spirit drives him to push for answers that the world isn’t eager to yield. Along the way, he’s forced to confront questions about the life he lived on Earth. These include, for instance, opinions he expressed about Jews, ill-chosen sentiments he’d almost forgotten writing, but which are burned into the memory of a concentration-camp survivor who recognizes that 19th-century figures like Burton helped create the conditions for the horrors of the century to come. Burton’s reflection intensifies when he enters into an antagonistic relationship with Hermann Göring, who begins his Riverworld life by falling back on his fascistic ways, then becomes haunted by nightmares he can’t shake. Whether brought there by scientific or supernatural means—and by the end of the book, it’s become fairly clear that science is behind their reincarnation—Riverworld has become a stand-in for purgatory.
It’s a fascinating environment that puts the cultures and attitudes of many centuries in collision, even as its characters discover that humans everywhere, and from every time, need pretty much the same things. And not just the basics, either. Whoever, or whatever, brought them to Riverworld’s endless, winding shores supplied them with food, water, alcohol, and even a psychedelic drug. But what they need beyond that—companionship, security, ineffable desires—dictates their behavior. Some seek it through power, some through the harmony of religion. Yet contentment remains elusive, and only the disciplined, the good, and the stubborn refuse to bend their personal beliefs to fit the situation.
Farmer wrote To Your Scattered Bodies Go just a few years after A Personal Cosmos, and while they share some elements—most notably an unnatural world—they’re very different books. Farmer reworked versions of the Riverworld setting for years before getting the first novel published, and it feels like a personal work, a space where his characters can sort through troubling issues of morality, religion, sex, and cultural ethics. And if they don’t get it right, they can try again. As if in some kind of sped-up Hinduism, death is only a temporary condition. Riverworld’s inhabitants perish, then wake up fully conscious on some other shore, filled with questions about what brought them there and what they’re to do next, as well as time to consider the mistakes they’ve made.
That’s why I don’t necessarily need to know what happens next. The burden of serialized fiction, just like serialized television, is in providing answers even when those answers inevitably can’t live up to the expectations raised by their questions. I’m not going to join the chorus of those who hate the finales of Battlestar Galactica and Lost. But I will say that the pleasant disorientation of their unanswered questions will stick with me longer than the answers those shows supplied. I kind of like Riverworld as I left it, with Burton pushing on undeterred, and apparently only inches closer to finding answers life will never supply.
On the other hand, the second book has Mark Twain in it. So I’ll probably read it after all.
We, on the other and, are almost at the end:
Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities / O.F. Snelling, 007 James Bond: A Report
Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters