R.I.P. Philip José Farmer

One of science fiction's most original voices passed away today. Philip José Farmer, author of the Riverworld and World Of Tiers series, is also known for writing as Kurt Vonnegut's fictional author Kilgore Trout.

I read the Riverworld series as a teen and it still sticks with me - I was thinking about it the other day. It represents 1970s science fiction at its trippiest and most random. Everyone who has ever lived on Earth wakes up together on a huge planet with an endless, winding river. They're all naked and bald, and they discover at length that they cannot die - at least not at first. His second series, World Of Tiers, follows a group of humans traveling through a series of stacked artificial parallel universes.

Farmer is also known for his first published short story, 1952's "The Lovers," which broke the taboo on explicit sexuality in science fiction and won a Hugo for Most Promising New Writer. According to Christopher Paul Carey:

[T]ravel back in time to the early 1950s. A young new writer, struggling to support his family by working overtime in a steel mill, submits his first piece of science fiction to Astounding. John W. Campbell doesn't want it. The writer sends the story to H.L. Gold at Galaxy, but the manuscript is again returned. The story is just too mature for a genre marketed toward adolescent males: 'there is no sex in science fiction'. Disgruntled, the writer resigns to try one last time and submits the story to Sam Mines at Startling Stories. This time comes a different response. Mines, sensing he has a winner, albeit a controversial one; buys the story and publishes it in his August 1952 issue. The story is The Lovers and the unknown author bears the strangely exotic sounding name of Philip José Farmer. The response from readers is electric. "Letters poured into Startling Stories praising the story," says Michael Croteau, web-master of The Official Philip José Farmer Home Page, who has extensively researched the history of Farmer's groundbreaking novella. "Several commented on how good the story was for a first time author," Croteau continues, "while others speculated that the story must have been written by an established pro who used a pseudonym because of the story's subject matter."

The Lovers tells the tale of Hal Yarrow, an Earthman sent on assignment to the planet Ozagen, who finds himself daring to rebel against his own planet's religious fundamentalism by engaging in intimate contact with an alien female. The story is tame by today's standards, but the mix of Farmer's raw talent, his ingenious description of photo-kinetic reproduction, and subject matter that was risqué for its day led to an ecstatic reaction among science fiction readers, who suddenly found their misbegotten genre gaining some maturity. "So many letters came in [to Startling Stories] over the next several months," says Croteau, "that six months or so after the story appeared, people started writing letters about the letters." In fact, letters about Farmer's story continued to be printed consistently in the magazine for the next two years. Many came from readers who had missed the August issue in which the novella appeared and desperately wanted to get their hands on a copy so they could join in the excitement. It was not surprising that in the year following the publication of The Lovers, Farmer won the Hugo award for 'most promising new talent'. "Science fiction never had any sexual relationships in it," says the now 88-year-old Farmer. "I felt that that was a part of life and so should be a part of SF." History has proved Farmer unquestionably right.

And then there's Farmer's bizarre pseudonymous novel, Venus On The Half Shell, written under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout - who's the itinerant struggling science fiction author in Kurt Vonnegut's writing. VonnegutWeb quotes Edgar L. Chapman, explaining how this came to happen:

A strong admirer of Vonnegut, Farmer has also confessed to a deep identification with Trout (who was actually suggested by Theodore Sturgeon). The identification was strengthened by many things: Farmer's own years as a struggling science fiction author in the early and middle stages of his career; Farmer's experience as a misunderstood social critic; and Farmer's identification with pornography as an Essex House author, a fate that plagued Trout. Finally, not long after Farmer had returned to Peoria, he was accused in 1970 of having written a letter signed ''Trout'' in the Peoria Journal Star criticizing President Nixon's Vietnam policy-another ironic identification of Farmer and Trout. (The letter is believed to have actually been penned by a college student.)

At any rate, Farmer, when afflicted with a temporary writer's block, conceived the idea of writing one of Trout's nonexistent novels and publishing it under Trout's name. He obtained Vonnegut's permission and went to work. When Venus on the Half-Shell was published by Dell, with Farmer wearing a false beard and a Confederate hat as a disguise on the back cover, the book was a ninety-day wonder, until Farmer's authorship, which Farmer made little effort to conceal, became known. Although the novel brought Farmer some unaccustomed notoriety (and made Vonnegut regret giving his permission to the project), the revelation of Farmer's authorship created a tendency to dismiss the work as simply an amusing parody and literary hoax. An additional irony in this episode has been Vonnegut's claim in a recent interview with Charles Platt (recorded in a book published in 1980) that Farmer failed to avow his authorship of Venus for a long period, presumably in the hope that sales would be increased by association with Vonnegut's reputation. This allegation, however, is not borne out by fact: Farmer told numerous friends, colleagues, and fans of his authorship; in fact, he informed the present writer of it when Venus was appearing as a serial in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Vonnegut's reaction is perhaps not surprising, since Trout is his invention. But when Vonnegut professes to feel anxiety that Farmer's book may somehow have harmed his literary reputation, it is hard to take him seriously. Such concern might have been better devoted to the effect of Vonnegut's self-indulgent seventies novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick.