Box Of Paperbacks: Flesh
(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 53.)
If you ever get a chance, be sure to read the opening chapter of Philip José Farmer's Flesh. A long, grippingly written setpiece, it imagines Washington D.C. a few centuries on from a cataclysm in which old ways have reasserted themselves in a new setting. Humans have developed a violent, sexually uninhibited, but fundamentally orderly brand of paganism. It's a syncretic faith, that's created fraternities and sororities out of familiar animals–Moose, Elk, Queen Bees, etc.–in service of the local goddess named Columbia. Their faith also involves a lot of fucking. Even a thumbnail sketch of the prolific writer Philip José Farmer has to mention that he helped bring to science fiction sex of the kind that doesn't coyly end chapters with a winking black-out. Pieces like Flesh's prelude don't so much open the door for a more explicit examination of sex as knock it off its hinges, even if the passage itself isn't that explicit. We see a Washington filled with familiar landmarks and unfamiliar rituals as it prepares to honor the Great White Mother, Columbia. How? How else but a violent orgy?:
Always, a number of women were badly mauled or killed. Always, a number of men were overpowered by long-nailed, sharp-toothed women who ripped off by the roots that which made men men and who ran screaming down the streets with the trophies held high in the air or clenched between their teeth before placing them on the altar of the Great White Mother in the Temple of the Dark Earth
It's all in the game, baby, the kind of violence expected at the annual introduction of the year's Sunhero. The Sunhero, after all, sets the tone. This year's comes from the Elk fraternity and comes complete with a pair of surgically grafted antlers that pump him so full of vim and vigor (and, you know, hormones) that, as he's led down the street astride an elk, the difference between man and beast has started to disappear. He's kept atop his ride only by his brother Elks, unable to take his pleasure with the "teen-aged girls who lined the street  shouting suggestions that would make a sailor blush."
He'll get to them later. And many more, as he tours from city to city conducting all-night, chemically enhanced orgies with the waiting populace. First he has to have public sex with the high priestess waiting to waiting for him in what used to be our nation's Capitol to the accompaniment of encouraging screams and fife and bugle music. In the 29th century, priapic abandon has become an American value.
Or at least one treasured in D.C. (or "Deecee," as it's now known). In subsequent chapters, Farmer reveals that other regions have their own gods and rituals, and that some sub-sets exist even within the Deecee region. It's pretty well developed, but nothing else in Flesh is quite as strking as its opening. Or as lyrically written, either. First published in 1960, Flesh was revised and expanded by Farmer toward the end of the decade. That's the edition I have–trippy, era-appropriate cover and all–and I'm not sure if the prelude is an addition or was always there. I do know that its heightened language disappears with the thudding first words of the next chapter: "Around and around the Earth the starship sped." And that much of what follows alternates between padding-heavy plotting and distracting sub-plots and the exploration of a post-apocalyptic world in which sex, violence and religion have been united–or maybe reunited–in the most public way possible.
The crewmen of that starship speeding around and around the Earth come from another century and we spend the book seeing what's happened to America through their eyes, most often through the eyes of Captain Peter Stagg (ha?). Stagg becomes that Sunhero with the grafted-on antlers, doomed to give himself to the demands of towns full of waiting virgins every night while making the journey north toward death in the form of a group of murderous, sexually demanding elderly women.
It's that kind of heightened, operatic thinking about faith, fertility, and death that made Flesh work for me and confirmed that Farmer's a writer I should check out more once this project ends. In the course of Stagg's journey, he learns about other regions where, like the city-states of ancient Greece, philosophy has become a public code. (One of the more colorful and dangerous societies is dominated by gay men who fill Stagg with more revulsion than a perpetually horny man-beast would likely feel. In fact, that whole sequence serves as a reminder that all future speculation has its roots in the time that makes it.)
The padding often makes Flesh read like a novel struggling to become a short story again. But the strength of Farmer's imagination, and his willingness to go all the way and then some with the notion of an America that's recreated itself out of rituals born from our basic needs and basest desires pushes it along. If everything orderly ended tomorrow maybe the new order would be both ugly and true.
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A couple of other things: The original 1960 cover took a less psychedelic approach to selling the story:
There's leering and winking here, but no hint of a third eye.
Also, Flesh is currently available as part of this collection, if you're curious:
Next: The Avengers: The Afrit Affair by Keith Laumer
Then: A Life In The Stars by James Blish
"From the embankment of the long-abandoned Erie-Lackawanna-Pennsylvania Railroad, Chris sat silently watching the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, preparing to take off, and sucked meditatively upon the red and white clover around him."