Down In The Black Gang And Other Stories by Philip José Farmer (1971)

Down In The Black Gang And Other Stories by Philip José Farmer (1971)

(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 26.)

When I sat down to make my list of remaining paperbacks I noticed that I've got a lot of titles by Philip José Farmer to get through and he's completely new to me. So I figured I'd better get cracking. I chose Down In The Black Gang because it' a short story collection and seemed as good a starting point as any. The opening pages of the first, eponymous story made me feel like I might have chosen poorly. A sample:

We spent most of our time on the beach, inside our tent, which was made of a material to confine the more explosive byproducts of our lovemaking. During half a millennium, we'd dormantized our attraction–notice I say attraction, not love, if that'll make you feel any better–but even in dormancy attraction accumulates a trickle charge and 500 years builds up a hell of a lot of static.

I felt like I was jumping into the middle of a sexy, jargon-filled, staticky world where I didn't know the rules. And it got worse with references to a character called "Rooster Rowdy," "heliovalves," "bleedoffs," "thrust potentials," "the Crystalline Sexapod," and so on. Reading on, that dislocation felt like part of the point. After it gets past that initial sex scene, "Down In The Black Gang" reveals itself as a tale of demigod-like aliens who, between long-gestating lovemaking sessions, meddle in human affairs. Our hero, Mecca Mike–if hero's the right word–finds himself assigned to modern Los Angeles where a baby girl has been singled out as a potentially messianic figure. Mike's goal is to make sure she realizes her messianic possibilities. But there's a catch. Actually there are two catches. The aliens aren't being altruistic. They need such people–so-called "thrust potentials"–to exist in order to power their engines. (Or, as the cover copy puts it, "It took plenty of energy to drive the ship–and plenty of human lives to provide the fuel.") And only trauma can create them, meaning Mike has to help orchestrate some horrors around the would-be prophet. In other words, it's a cuckoo clock story. Remember Harry Lime's speech in The Third Man about how 30 years of Borgia "terror, murder, and bloodshed" produced the Renaissance while 500 years of Swiss peace produced the cuckoo clock? The aliens operate by the same principle. No progress without bloodshed. We've entered a beyond-good-and-evil zone behind the curtains of metaphysics and that's where, based on this collection, Farmer seems most comfortable. A later story, "The Blasphemers," concerns a planet where a bunch of young Turk types decide to spit in the face of the ancestor worship required by their religion, only to be informed that they're right, the State-encouraged religion is pretty much a sham and an excuse to control the populace and expand their interplanetary turf. Roped into the conspiracy they find themselves doubting their own doubt when they encounter evidence of the divine. All the thumbnail bios of Farmer I read mention the introduction of sex to science fiction as one of his most significant contributions. The stories here, which span the '60s, present him as a matter-of-fact pioneer. There's plenty of sex but, apart from the opening section of "Black Gang" it all spins out of the fabric of the stories. In "Prometheus," one of two comic not-so-distant future stories featuring a con man-turned-monk named John Carmody, Carmody is sent to live on a planet where birdlike creatures have started to show signs of higher intelligence. He forms a particular bond with one of them, who sleeps in his arms. "Her shoulders shook," Farmer writes, "and her beak raked across his chest as she pressed the side of her face against him. And, not for the first time, Carmody regretted that these creatures had hard beaks. They would never know the pleasure of soft lips meeting in a kiss." In "The Shadow Of Space," an accidentally enlarged spaceship has to navigate around, and ultimately through, the corpse of a naked woman. They're both kind of silly stories but Farmer writes as if this kind of frankness weren't relatively new to the genre. But the most memorable use of sex in this collection involves sex that never happens. In "A Bowl Bigger Than The Earth," for my money the best story in the book, a man named Morfiks awakens to find himself in a new environment, and a new, hairless, sexless body, one identical to everyone else in a new locale no one dares call hell. Earth is spoken of only as "We-Know-Where" and strict conformity is expected of all. That doesn't stop some small rebellions, however. Caught alone, Morfiks almost falls for the forceful seduction of a neighbor named Billie:

Billie's answer was to kiss him. Morfiks, though he had to repress revulsion, responded. After all, it was only the bald head that made Billie look like a half-man. They struggled fiercely and desperately; their kisses were as deep as possible. Suddenly Morfiks pushed Billie away from him. "It's worse than nothing," he panted. "I think something's going to happen but it never quite does. It's no use. Now I feel awful."

. Call it "I Have No Cock But I Must Screw." The afterlife is something of a Farmer obsession. (So, apparently, are old pulp heroes but we'll have to save that for a different entry.) He doesn't seem to be in any hurry to reach it, however. Born in Terra Haute, Indiana and now a resident of Peoria, Illinois, the 90-year-old Farmer maintains a website and a a MySpace page (with a not-so-current photo). He's probably best know for his Riverworld series, a novel cycle set in a world where every adult who has ever lived on Earth has been resurrected along a river bank, for reasons unclear to them. When killed, they're reborn again somewhere else along the river. The story here, called simply "Riverworld," follows cowboy star Tom Mix as he adjusts to his new environment befriending Yeshua and Bithniah, a Jewish couple born in different eras, as they navigate a world controlled by warlords. I liked "Riverworld" quite a bit. It's hard not to spot the twist concerning Yeshua's identity coming from far away, but Farmer treats it with great gravity and sadness and I liked the suggestion that Riverworld could be a fine place if the humans in it could let go of the concerns of their old lives. I'm not sure I'd want to spend five novels exploring it, even if Farmer did. But I'm happy to have stopped by .

Next: From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Then: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart