Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer

"'It was the hand of man struck him down, my boy.  If it's violent death you are trying to explain, don't drag in the supernatural.  There's enough murder in the hearts of humankind to take care of every case.'"
I don't run into the word "roistering" very often. But here it is on both the front and back covers of my 1966 printing of Philip Jose Farmer's 1957 novel The Green Odyssey. And from two different sources!

If these blurbs are to be believed, The Green Odyssey is a superlative, one-of-a-kind adventure.  According to the New York Herald Tribune it is the "most agreeable interplanetary adventure novel" ever, and according to Inside S-F it has a heroine who is "unique" and "magnificent."  (Alert the feminists, their dream book has arrived!) Sounds terrific, and the Powers cover sure looks terrific.  Let's see if this 152 page paperback lives up to the hype, and to Power's impressive illustration.

Like Adam Reith in Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure books, and Jason dinAlt in Harry Harrison's Deathworld 2, Alan Green crash landed on a relatively primitive planet.  (Ralph Nader should look into these persistent problems with space ships crashing.)  Green ends up in a country where most of the free people are short brunettes; he's a tall blonde, like most of the slaves, and is quickly enslaved himself.  As the novel begins he is a sort of butler and male concubine to a beautiful but stupid and annoying duchess, Zuni.  Green also has a wife, Amra, who is beautiful but domineering and only respects a man who can dominate her in turn.


(On second thought, do not alert the feminists, this is not their dream book after all.)

Word comes to Duchess Zuni's court that another space ship has arrived on the planet, and its two-man crew has been taken captive.  (The superstitious natives don't know about space and think these space men are demons.) The Green Odyssey follows Alan Green's adventures as he flees slavery and tries to hook up with these fellow marooned spacefarers and get off the planet.  He cuts a deal with a merchant, fights his way out of the castle, and sails away as part of the crew of the merchant's wheeled square-rigged land ship.  His canny wife figures out his plan, and joins him on the voyage with her gaggle of children, one of whom is Green's.

The land ship crosses a vast flat plain to the kingdom where the spacers are imprisoned. Along the way the land ship is attacked by pirates and then by cannibals.  Green also has trouble with the ship's crew and the merchant; fortunately the clever and resourceful Amra is there to help him; she is instrumental in saving his life more than once.  The cannibals kill some of Amra's children, but Farmer doesn't dwell on how horrible an experience this must be.   

One of the themes of the book is how absurd and counterproductive religion is, and how supernatural beliefs grow out of misunderstandings of mundane phenomena.  The planet is covered in high tech artifacts, which the superstitious inhabitants interpret as the work of demons or gods.  Green's modern and rational outlook enables him to outwit everybody else.   I think Farmer must have been an atheist or agnostic when Green Odyssey was written, but as I learned in his essay in The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, his thinking about religion would later evolve.

Green activates a huge aircraft the natives think is a hill, killing numerous people in the process, and takes to the skies, terrorizing the kingdom where the one surviving spaceman is held captive.  The king and the priests surrender the spaceman and the two-man scout space ship, and, after teaching Amra how to operate the invincible aircraft, Green heads to Earth, promising to return to Amra as part of a large expedition that will investigate the many secrets of the planet's ancient technological civilization.  (The flat plain, for example, was created by these mysterious ancients and has been maintained by their robots for centuries.  Like his famous Riverworld series and his World of Tiers books, Farmer's The Green Odyssey is set in an artificial world shaped by mysterious beings.)

The book exhibits considerable hostility towards the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie; I guess we could call this another theme.  The aristocratic women are sexy but stupid, and the aristocratic men are obese.  The merchant character is a skilled leader and sailor, but also fat, greedy, and a ruthless backstabber.   It is also perhaps significant that those children of Amra's who are killed by cannibals are products of her liaisons with aristocrats; we never learn their names.

When Green needs a land boat he just steals one, with the aid of one of Amra's sons. Green sucker punches the guy guarding it, while Amra's son beats him over the head with a pipe.  We are told the owner of the land yacht (whom we know nothing about and who never appears "on screen") must be rich, which in the eyes of some may excuse the theft, but what about the poor guard?

isfdb image of 1957 edition
This attack on the yacht's guard brings up some more themes of the novel, moral relativism and man's propensity for violence.  We are told that Green's modern space faring civilization is a peaceful one, in which children are taught to abhor violence.  Under ordinary circumstances Green would not enjoy any kind of violence, but life on this violent planet has had an effect on him. Green gleefully throws a dog who has been tormenting him for months off a castle balcony, enjoys shooting wild dogs from the crow's nest of the land ship, and is thrilled during a battle, crying out "This is living!"  He also forgives the bloodthirstiness expressed by Amra and her son.  What makes moral sense in some places and some situations doesn't make sense in others. Farmer further suggests that there is a "philosophy of the body," a natural propensity to enjoy action, danger, and violence, that is "older and deeper" than rational philosophies that teach a loathing of violence.  This "philosophy of the body" may lead the cannibals to commit horrible atrocities (we are told that "like all undisciplined primitives," in their initial assault they "killed indiscriminately and hysterically,") but Green needs it as much as his modern logic and science knowledge to survive.

Farmer's body of work is uneven--I recall Maker of Universes, the first volume in the World of Tiers series, being pretty lame--but in The Green Odyssey Farmer gives us a well-realized and interesting setting that includes a believable culture, strange natural and man-made elements, and entertaining characters.  I'd say it is moderately good; the reviewers are correct to say it is entertaining, though I would not share their breathless enthusiasm. 

I recommend The Green Odyssey as a fun adventure.  It is also your chance to see the word "roistering" in action; Farmer uses it twice in the text, presumably inspiring his admiring reviewers to follow suit.

**************

The last page of my copy of The Green Odyssey have some interesting advertising. 
There is a full page ad for the first of John Norman's Gor novels, Tarnsman of Gor.  In my teens I read Tarnsman of Gor, and thought it a fun Barsoom-style adventure.  It didn't (as far as I can recall) include so much of what the later Gor books became famous for, what Wikipedia calls a "focus on relationships between dominant men and submissive women."  I never read any of the later Gor books, I think they were not at the library (where I got Tarnsman of Gor.)

The final page of The Green Odyssey lists some "early classics" published by Ballantine, most of which I have some familiarity with.  Ahead of Time includes the very good story "Home is the Hunter," as well as "Or Else," which I recall not liking very much.  Brain Wave is good, and To Live Forever is alright, I think below average for Vance.  (I think nowadays we are supposed to refer to To Live Forever by the author-approved title Clarges.)  I read the novella version of Nerves and didn't think much of it. I haven't read Gladiator-At Law, which I assume is some kind of satire attacking lawyers.  I haven't read The Space Merchants, a satire attacking advertising, either.  I'm not into those broad satires, and I don't have any particular animus against people in advertising or the law. 

No comments:

Post a Comment