February 27, 2009
Philip José Farmer, Daring Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 91
By GERALD JONAS
Philip José Farmer, a prolific and popular science fiction writer who shocked readers in the 1950s by depicting sex with aliens and challenged conventional pieties of the genre with caustic fables set on bizarre worlds of his own devising, died Wednesday. He was 91 and lived in Peoria, Ill.
His official Web site, pjfarmer.com, announced his death, saying he had “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”
Mr. Farmer’s blend of intellectual daring and pulp-fiction prose found a worldwide audience. His more than 75 books have been translated into 22 languages and published in more than 40 countries. Though he wrote many short stories, he was best known for his many series of multiple novels. These sprawling, episodic works gave him room to explore the nuances of a provocative premise while indulging his taste for lurid, violent action.
In his Riverworld series Mr. Farmer imagined a river millions of miles long on a distant planet where virtually everyone who has died on Earth is physically reborn, strong and vital, and given a second chance to make something of life.
In the first of the series, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go,” a reborn character discovers that his “skin was smooth, and the muscles of his belly were ridged, and his thighs were packed with strong young muscles.”
“He no longer had the body of the enfeebled and sick 69-year-old man who had been dying only a moment ago. And the hundred or so scars were gone.”
In his Dayworld series, an overpopulation crisis on Earth has been relieved by a technical fix: each person spends one day a week awake and the other six days in suspended animation. In his World of Tiers series, mad demigods create pocket universes for their own amusement, only to face rebellion from their putative creatures.
In a genre known for prolific writers, Mr. Farmer’s output was famously prodigious. At one point in the 1970s he had 11 different series in various stages of completion. Even some of his admirers said he wrote too much too fast. The critic Leslie Fiedler said that his work was sometimes sloppily written but added that was a small price to pay for the breadth of Mr. Farmer’s imagination.
Mr. Farmer made no apologies for his excesses. “Imagination,” he said, “is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.”
Philip José Farmer was born Jan. 26, 1918, in North Terre Haute, Ind. He grew up in Peoria, where his father, a civil engineer, was a supervisor for the power company. A voracious reader as a boy, Mr. Farmer said he resolved to become a writer in the fourth grade. After washing out of flight training in World War II, he went to work in a steel mill while attending Bradley University in Peoria at night and writing in his spare time.
His first success came in 1952 with a story called “The Lovers,” about a man seduced by an alien with an unusual reproductive system. The story was rejected by the two leading science fiction editors; both said that its graphic description of interspecies sex made them physically ill. Published in a pulp magazine called Startling Stories, the story won Mr. Farmer his first Hugo as “most promising new writer.”
Emboldened, he quit his job to become a full-time writer. Entering a publisher’s contest, he won the $4,000 first prize for a novel that held the germ of his Riverworld series. But an unscrupulous editor failed to deliver the money, and the manuscript was lost. Struggling financially, Mr. Farmer left Peoria in 1956 to become a technical writer. He spent the next 14 years working for defense contractors, from Syracuse, N.Y., to Los Angeles, while continuing to write science fiction on the side.
With the loosening of social taboos in the 1960s, Mr. Farmer emerged as a major force in the genre. In a 1966 story set on Riverworld, one of the resurrected is a resentful Jesus, angry that he had been deceived about the nature of the afterlife.
Mr. Farmer won a Hugo for his 1967 novella “Riders of the Purple Wage,” a satire on a cradle-to-grave welfare state, written as an exuberant pastiche of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” His 1971 novel “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” also won the Hugo.
After moving back to Peoria in 1970, Mr. Farmer published 25 new works over the next decade. A 1975 novel, “Venus on the Half-Shell,” created a stir beyond the genre. The jacket and title page identified the author only as Kilgore Trout, a fictional character who appears as an unappreciated science fiction writer in several of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Although Mr. Farmer claimed he had permission for this playful hoax, Vonnegut was not amused to learn that some reviewers not only concluded that he had written “Venus on the Half-Shell” but that it was a worthy addition to the Vonnegut canon.
Mr. Farmer also wrote full-length, mock-scholarly “biographies” of Tarzan and Doc Savage, two of the pulp heroes whose stories had inspired him to become a writer.
Mr. Farmer had his detractors. “A humdrum toiler in the fields of science fiction,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times in 1972. But Mr. Fiedler saw in Mr. Farmer’s approach to storytelling a “gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present and to come, and to spew it out again.”
In the Riverworld series, for example, Mr. Farmer resurrected not just historical personages like Samuel Clemens and the explorer Richard Francis Burton but legendary figures like Odysseus and Gilgamesh.
He is survived by his wife, Bette, his son, Philip, his daughter, Kristen, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
An agnostic from the age of 14, Mr. Farmer was ambivalent about humanity’s hunger for life after death. “I can’t see any reason why such miserable, unhappy, vicious, stupid, conniving, greedy, narrow-minded, self-absorbed beings should have immortality," he said in Science Fiction Review in 1975.
But he added, “When considering individuals, then I feel, yes, this person, that person, certainly deserves another chance.” Life on this planet, he said “is too short, too crowded, too hurried, too beset."