Thursday, December 24, 2015

Three late 1960s stories by Philip Jose Farmer from If

It has been a long time since I've read any Philip Jose Farmer.  When I was young I read quite a few of his novels, attracted by the adventure plots and the sexual content. As I got older my interest waned, though I liked To Your Scattered Bodies Go (the first Riverworld book) when I reread it in 2011, Dare when I read it in 2007, and The Green Odyssey, which I read in 2014, well enough.

The mark of D.L.
I bought Down in the Black Gang, a 1971 collection of Farmer stories from the 1960s, on a recent visit to Half-Price Books.  On the back cover is an ad for Len Deighton's novel Bomber, which is about an RAF bombing raid on Germany.  I'm interested in World War II air combat and all that stuff, but I've never read Bomber; I read Deighton's history book about the Battle of Britain, Fighter, in 6th grade and liked it.  (I was writing a report on the Battle of Britain--are grammar school kids still allowed to write reports on wars?)  My copy of Down in the Black Gang has a sort of insignia on its first page, inscribed in red by a previous owner, whose initials must have been "D.L."

Let's take a look at the first three stories in Down in the Black Gang.  All three of these tales first appeared in If, AKA Worlds of If.

"Down in the Black Gang" (1969-revised 1971)

On the publication page of my copy of the book we are told that "'Down in the Black Gang' was rewritten for this collection."

This is one of those stories, maybe we need to file it under New Wave, in which the narrator addresses you directly, as if you are part of the story, it is unclear at first what is going on, and there are references to sex with nonhumans.  The opening paragraph reads:
I'm telling you this because I need your love.  Just as you need mine, though you don't know it--yet.  And because I can't make love to you as a human makes love to a human.
As it proceeded I began to think of "Down in the Black Gang" as one of those "modern interpretations of angels" stories, like perennial Christmas favorite It's A Wonderful Life.  But later it becomes clear it depicts an exploitative supreme power, not a benevolent one.  I guess it is kind of like Damon Knight's "Be My Guest" or John D. MacDonald's Wine of the Dreamers, a story which proposes a supernatural or extraterrestrial source of human misbehavior and unhappiness.  

Our narrator is a space alien or robot (he weighs 2000 pounds without his anti-grav belt on and sweats mercury when stressed) in disguise as a human, moving among us here on Earth.  The universe is euphemistically or allegorically described as a "Ship," and our narrator is a stoker or engineer, responsible for maintaining thrust; he is occasionally contacted by the Captain or the Ship's officers, who are in some other part of the universe, and who are always demanding more thrust.

The narrator relates to us his final of thousands of missions (he has been on Earth trying to generate thrust as far back as when humans were mere apes.)  Deployed in a Beverly Hills apartment, he spied on the neighbors; equipped with spy rays and the like he was able to see and hear them, and he also has a device which measures people's psychologies or souls; this guy is depressed, that guy is full of rage, that woman is a narcissist, etc.  (There is a lot of psychoanalyzing of people, especially frustrated cartoonists and genre writers, in this story.)  It is detected that one young neighbor has considerable "Thrust Potential."  Our narrator, through disguises and other deceits, manipulated these people so that there was a terrible murder-suicide. This would, apparently, inspire the individual with "Thrust Potential" to become a religious leader in the future, creating the thrust that powers the universe.

That was our hero's final mission.  Sick of causing so much death and unhappiness, he has mutinied, and is pursued by the Ship's police forces.  This story is his message to humans, begging for sympathy and help overthrowing the current regime and figuring out a more humane way to run the Ship.

This story is silly, of course, and needlessly complicated.  I'm still not sure what the "thrust" really is--prayers?  Religious ecstasy?  Love (of the universe?)  Why does creating thrust always involve causing murders and bloodshed?

Perhaps the most interesting part about it is its depiction of frustrated creative people. One man has published detective and western novels but can't make ends meet without working a day job at a factory, another has published cartoons in periodicals as well as a book of cartoons he goes on TV to promote, but his family lives on the dole and handouts from relatives.  Maybe Farmer knew such people?
This one hovers around the "acceptable" mark.

"The Shadow of Space" (1967)

Here we have a story about a space crew, with space suits, air locks, energy guns, all that traditional SF furniture we love.  It also speculates about the nature of the universe and faster-than-light travel.  If "Down in the Black Gang" counts as "New Wave," "The Shadow of Space" surely counts as "hard SF" that tries to give you that "sense of wonder."

The experimental ship Sleipnir is to be the first vessel to travel faster than light.  What unexpected effects could exceeding light speed have on matter and people?  Soon humanity will know!  But before starting the experiment the ship rescues a woman scientist, Mrs. Wellington, from a damaged craft.  Mr. Wellington was killed in the accident that wrecked their ship, and Mrs. Wellington goes insane, becoming obsessed with the Sleipnir's commander, Captain Grettir, even thinking he is her own dead husband.  She locks herself in the engine room and holds off the space marines with an energy pistol while she tinkers with the engine--soon the ship is going 300,000 times the speed of light!  The marines blast open the engine room door with a ray cannon, and she strips naked and jumps out an airlock to her death!

Under the influence of physics nobody can understand, the Sleipnir, and the nude corpse, grow to tremendous size and pass outside the universe into an area of blackness.  Behind them is a grey sphere--the universe.  Grettir and the other members of the crew come up with and try out various methods of getting back into the universe; on one attempt they break through the "skin" of the universe, but the ship is so incredibly huge that they crash into galaxies and exterminate entire civilizations, trillions of people, causing major psychological problems for the crew!

They eventually get back inside the universe and back to normal size, but they have no idea what the Milky Way and human civilization will be like when they return home.  How much time has passed inside our galaxy during the brief time they were outside?  Has our home galaxy suffered any ill effects from the Sleipnir's astounding growth or repeated rupturing of the outer surface of the universe?

Pretty good, full of weird images and crazy ideas as well as the usual rocket ship and ray gun stuff.  It's like an above-average adventure of van Vogt's Space Beagle or Roddenberry's Enterprise.  (UPDATE JANUARY 4, 2016: Check out ukjarry's comment below on the connection between "The Shadow of Space" and TV's Star Trek.)

"A Bowl Bigger than Earth" (1967)  

This is a satire of conformity, collectivism and egalitarianism, and a depiction of the afterlife. The afterlife is a topic Farmer was very interested in; his most famous work, the Riverworld series, depicts an afterlife.

Our main character, Morfiks, dies and reappears in a city made of brass.  There is no sex or gender here, everybody, including Morfiks himself, has the same sexless and hairless body and the same voice.  Everybody does the same work and lives in the same kind of house--the unseen Protectors forbid people to even have names!  It is also illegal to talk about your life back on Earth, as it might foster envy or a sense of superiority, and in order to inspire collective spirit the entire community is punished for the antisocial actions of individuals.  "If a crime is committed, the guilt is shared by all because, actually, all are responsible."  Every person is the same, every day is the same, and Morfiks is doomed to live in this brass world forever.

As Morfiks looks back on his life on Earth, we learn he was the kind of guy who always followed the rules, obeyed society's dictates, worked hard to support his church and the Democratic party, even if he didn't agree with the Democrats' positions on some issues.  He didn't act this way because he really wanted to, but because he thought it his duty to his family and to society.  Farmer strongly implies that by living such a life, Morfiks chose this tyrannical, egalitarian and nightmarishly boring afterlife, and suggests that more individualistic or independent types have a different afterlife.

This story is OK; it is more of an idea, or a statement, or a setting, than a story with a plot and characters.    


Farmer's novels often come across as kind of half-baked, like he had an idea, developed it part way, then filled in the rest of the required pages with competent but mediocre chases and fights.  After reading them these novels often left me feeling unsatisfied, as if there should have been something more.  I liked "The Shadow of Space," but "Down in the Black Gang" and "A Bowl Bigger than Earth" left me with that feeling of incompleteness.  The former could have used some revision to make what the hell is going on more clear, the latter had what felt like unnecessary detail and set up which didn't pay off, and neither had much emotional punch, even though both were trying to say something about how we live, and how we should live, our lives.

Well, more Farmer stories in the future.


  1. "The Shadow of Space" WAS intended as an adventure of Roddenberry's Starship Enterprise. It was one of PJ Farmer's submissions to Star trek when the production team contacted various sf writers for possible story ideas. My recollection of the PJF's recycling of the story is that it's possible to convert various crew members into their ST corollaries.

    - matthew davis