Pearls from Peoria by Philip José Farmer
Reviewed by Danny Adams
15 November 2006
Philip José Farmer’s new collection, Pearls from Peoria, (Subterranean Press, 2006) is not the place to find his most popular works (those abound elsewhere, including The Best of Philip José Farmer, published earlier this year by Subterranean). And overall it is not light reading—in any sense. Not literally, at 773 pages. Nor figuratively, since most of the pieces are heavy with the intellectual exploration—often laying out all the ramifications of the loops Farmer throws into his stories’ worlds—he enjoys doing so much. But no matter how deep Farmer takes you, he never goes so far above your head that you’re out of reach of a helping hand up.
Fans will also rejoice that Pearls contains not just stories but also poems and essays—many of which were either previously unpublished or published decades ago in venues so obscure it would be nigh impossible to find them today. As Mike Croteau (webmaster of the official PJF fan site) puts it late in the collection, “We could have named this book The Short Cut to Collecting Philip José Farmer.”
Since it’s packed with such a variety of material, editor Paul Spiteri chose to arrange it by theme rather than chronologically (which he rightly admits could have been confusing). Considering the nature of Farmer’s long myth- and legend-oriented career, Spiteri appropriately opens the collection with the category “Myths and Paramyths.” “Myths are to be taken seriously,” Farmer says in the section’s epigraph. “Paramyths are also to be taken seriously, but they have an element of the absurd. But that element is just as serious as the nonabsurd. One becomes the other.” That quote could sum up the driving force behind much of Farmer’s work.
The myths presented here are well-known tropes twisted in ways both new and as strange or poignant as Farmer’s readers always expect. “Wolf, Iron, and Moth” is a werewolf tale with Farmer’s take on the overwhelming nature of compulsion. “Opening the Door” is an almost surreal dive into the nature of consciousness in relation to the external world and the dangers inherent when we learn to focus our will a little too well. “The Wounded” sees the tables of love turned on Cupid (not to mention modernizes his methods). “Heel” reveals that the Trojan War was apparently one big setup by extraterrestrial “gods” who were alien filmmakers, and their interference as chronicled in the Iliad simply reflects changes in the script—or their getting a little too close to the unwitting actors.
The best example of Farmer’s in-story intellectual exploration is his epic science fiction piece “Seventy Years of DecPop,” featured in “Lost Futures.” DecPop means steadily decreasing population, thanks to an antioverpopulation zealot named Clabb who released an aerosol that rendered nineteen out of every twenty people sterile. While most of the action takes place in the small Illinois city of Busiris (another mythical element Farmer slips in), the planetary ramifications over the course of seven decades—personal, sociological, economic—are not ignored. Some may find all this extra detail to be story halting, but sticking through it will make the reader feel as if seventy years really have passed by story’s end, with the world becoming a strange place indeed—though in some ways unsettlingly familiar.
Not every story here is speculative. Fans will also get the treat of Farmer's first published story, “O’Brien and Obrenov,” a straight-up World War II episode that originally appeared in the March 1946 Adventure and is reprinted here under “Psychological Tales.” The science fiction aspect may be missing, but even sixty years ago the hallmarks of a Farmer story were not just present but thick, including the characters’ need to take matters into their own hands when a bad situation gets worse—regardless of whatever the rules happen to be.
All of Farmer’s known surviving poems are reprinted here. Most date from the 1950s, and each is highly stylized (especially the one sestina) but enjoyable, as if Farmer were testing his literary abilities the way a pterodactyl stretched its wings, as seen in Farmer’s poem “The Pterodactyl.”
What makes Pearls unique among Farmer collections is that the nonfiction outnumbers everything else. There are seventeen pieces in the section “PJF on SF” alone, plus seven more in “PJF on PJF,” including the autobiographical “Maps and Spasms,” which chronicles his life from birth (and before—he talks about his ancestors) to his groundbreaking 1952 sale of “The Lovers,” which put both him and sex on the science fiction map. Here you can explore the gamut of the lifelong interests he has turned into stories: pulp adventure fiction (particularly Doc Savage), Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs, languages and linguistics, anthropology, L. Frank Baum, other SF authors (and pro fans like Forry Ackerman), and, of course, religion and mythology. Each essay is insightful, chock-full of detail, and a small glimpse into the mind of one of SF’s greatest authors. These are treasures that may outweigh even the stories for many, and it is worth getting the book for these alone.
Pearls' penultimate section features essays by Croteau, Spiteri, and contributing editor Christopher Carey about Farmer and their experiences assembling the collection together over the course of years. The book concludes with a welcome appendix: a two-page photo montage chronicling Farmer from his days as a student athlete through the 2003 meeting about Pearls, when the author was eighty-five years old.
Readers who are new to Farmer might be better advised to start with his more famous stories (including “The Lovers” and his Riverworld and World of Tiers novels). But for those who already know him, this collection will fill a large gap they may not have realized existed. There are great depths in Farmer’s numerous books and short stories to wander through, and Pearls from Peoria looks like the best modern contender to not only round out the story reprints but also explain, in Farmer’s own words, how we came to have the author himself, his myths and paramyths, and the stories that left an indelible footprint deep in the world of science fiction.