Up the Bright River by Philip Jose Farmer
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
12 January 2011
Philip Jose Farmer once said of the imagination that it was like a muscle. “The more I wrote,” he said, “the bigger it got.”
Before his death on February 25th, 2009, Farmer had presumably amassed quite a large imagination, having written some seventy-five books, a hundred or so short stories, two fictional biographies, and several essays on topics ranging from a “Blueprint for Free Beer” to the ancestry of Tarzan and his family’s coat-of-arms. At one point in the 1970s, Farmer was in the process of working on, and finishing, eleven different series. One of those series, Riverworld, is perhaps what he remains best known for. In those novels, he imagined a planet-long river valley along whose banks were resurrected everyone who had ever lived, plus a few that maybe hadn’t. Mark Twain, Jesus Christ, Odysseus, Cyrano de Bergerac, Farmer’s great-great-great uncle. Anyone Farmer could imagine, whether of his own creation or someone else’s, could appear. It must have been fantastic exercise for his wonder muscle.
In Up the Bright River, editor Gary K. Wolfe collects fifteen of Farmer’s short stories in the hopes of giving readers a reminder, or introduction as the case may be, to the breadth of Farmer’s imaginative wanderings. Along with Farmer’s final three Riverworld stories, Wolfe includes tales of intergalactic priests (“Attitudes”), murderous predestination (“How Deep the Grooves”), bowl-shaped afterlives (“A Bowl Bigger Than Earth”), worldwide medical conspiracies (“The Sumerian Oath”), and time-traveling monks (“St. Francis Kisses His Ass Goodbye”). These stories, presented in chronological order, span the bulk of Farmer’s career, from his early publications in the fifties and sixties, to those last Riverworld stories, written in the early nineties but not published in any of Farmer’s previous collections.
I came to these stories a Farmer virgin. My impression of him until now came mostly from visits to used bookshops, where I would invariably spy countless and lovingly worn copies of his books. Occasionally, I would pick one up and read the back, noting its religious and cross-genre attributes, and say to myself, “Hrm. Interesting.” Then I would replace the book and go on about my way. It turns out I may have made a series of horrible mistakes.
I say this not because each of the stories in Up the Bright River changed my life, or that I even liked them all, but rather that, of those ones I loved, and even the few that I didn’t, there was always present a spirit worth cheering. Farmer, with his brand of literary theft, lavender prose, and graphic fascination with sex, politics, and religion, strikes one as a sort of piratical, postmodern imp, complete with a maniacal twinkle in his one good eye. In one of the longer works here, he writes (or as he contends, simply “edits”) a memoir by Lord Greystoke (a.k.a. Tarzan). Adopting a perfectly Edwardian prose style, he both ruthlessly undresses humanity’s uncivilized civilities and also presents nigh-anthropological reports of bestial love and violence. It’s a juggling act of intellectualism, satire, scandal rag gossip, and pulpish ancestry, and it’s the sort of thing Farmer did throughout his career.
Seen as part of the New Wave movement in science fiction, along with the likes of Theodore Sturgeon, Ursula K. Le Guin, and J. G. Ballard, Farmer achieved success in the fifties by taking science fiction into more experimental and provocative places, writing about sex and death in an explicit, often purposefully excessive manner largely unknown to the world of commercial science fiction writing, which was at the time preoccupied with gleaming starship optimism and square-jawed, mostly sexless, heroes. His first big sale was the 1952 story “The Lovers.” It concerned a man, an alien, and some very unusual reproductive practices. It was rejected by several of the more prominent magazine editors before being published in Startling Stories, eventually winning Farmer the 1953 Hugo award for “most promising new writer.”
The stories in Up the Bright River do a good job of capturing the evolution of that promise, from Farmer’s mad, scathing start to the more contemplative and ancestor-focused imaginings of his later Riverworld stories. We begin with the 1953 story “Attitudes,” which introduces the character of Father John Carmody, a spacefaring priest with telekinetic powers whom Farmer would revisit throughout his career. In this initial outing, we have traditional science fiction and pulp tropes—gleaming starships, alien worlds, and a roguish and defiantly impious gambler—butting against sly religious commentary and a final scene of graphic and communal violence that seems inspired, at least in part, by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” published five years earlier.
By 1964, it’s possible to note how Farmer’s imagination, while still orbiting familiar themes, has expanded into darker, more ambiguous regions. In “The Blasphemers,” Farmer gives us an alien world of strict religious and sexual mores (intercourse, for example, is to be had with only approved individuals and certainly never with more than four at a time). It is the sort of world where one might face five hours in a dungeon, listening to piped in sermons, for daring to suggest that ancestral ghosts might not exist. Jagu, a rebellious alien who has spent much time in many a dungeon, decides one night to hold, with many more than four of his friends, a love- and drink-filled picnic at the feet of a revered ancestor’s statue. At one point, Jagu smashes a bottle in the statue’s face. The cops arrive soon after this. Jagu and his friends are interrogated, tortured, and then sent on an exploratory mission into deep space as punishment and reward for being so excessively adventurous. They find something out there, on a planet much like Earth, that threatens to transform their unbelief in gods and ghosts. Jagu decides with his crew not to return home with their discovery. He wants, whatever the truth, for his ancestors to be “free of the past and its doubts and fears” (p. 69). And so he aims his ship for unknown space—the second star to the right, more or less, and straight on till death.
As dour and cynical as Farmer could seem, he was also very, very silly. He loved a certain kind of literary gamesmanship, indulging in pastiche and role-playing to a degree that some might find, well, indulgent. He was, after all, the man who garnered permission from Kurt Vonnegut to borrow that author’s alter ego and write a novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, under the name of Kilgore Trout. In “The Two-Edged Gift” (1974), Farmer introduces us to Leo Queequeg Tincrowder, his own alter ego in much the way Trout was for Vonnegut, someone through which Farmer could poke fun at himself and his profession—Tincrowder seems to have a predilection for writing about the sexual habits of Egyptian gods and their noses. Other examples of Farmer’s happy thievery and parody include “Father’s in the Basement” (1972), a kind of gothic parody in which an author works himself, literally, to the bone, and “Towards the Beloved City” (1973), which follows a ragtag band of people left-behind during what appears to be the end of the world as written in The Book of Revelations.
Up the Bright River concludes with those final three Riverworld stories and their author’s growing concern with things old and true. As Wolfe notes, “nearly all of the characters in these stories are [Farmer’s] own ancestors” (p. 11). Farmer had decided, it seems, to turn his imagination inward and backward, away from distant galaxies or future worlds, focusing instead on the dark matter of his own blood. Two of the three stories revolve around Farmer’s great-great-grandfather, Doctor Andrew P. Davis, who lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century. We follow him up the river as he searches for the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Along the way, he meets up with a Viking king, a twentieth century blonde, and a crazed, possibly brilliant man named Faustroll who styles himself a pataphysician—pataphysics being the science of the exceptional. In “Coda,” the last story of Riverworld and this collection, Faustroll becomes the central character, alone on a tall hill, betrayed by pataphysics. He is no longer sure how to “allow each man or woman to live his own life as an exception, proving no law but his own” (p. 254).
Presumably, some frequent readers of Farmer will wonder why this or that story was not included in Up the Bright River. Wolfe points out in his introduction that particularly famous or award-winning stories, such as “The Lovers,” were not included for a reason. He wanted this collection to focus on stories that even devoted readers of Farmer may have missed— “hidden gems,” as he says (p. 11). As such, potential readers should think of this posthumous collection as less a best-of volume, more a basement tape box-set.
Whether new or old, readers of a certain skewed and open mind should find in Up the Bright River an author worthy of the love attested to by those countless worn paperbacks so often glimpsed on used bookstore shelves. Farmer made a habit of wrestling with flesh and sin and the bumpy evolution of human civilization in ways occasionally ugly, sometimes silly, but always boldly entertaining. In “The Two-Edged Gift,” Leo Queequeg Tincrowder says that by the year 2010 everything between consenting adults would be acceptable. It is a statement which, in its gleaming wrongness, recalls the optimism of those early twentieth century tales of flying cars, buxom blondes, and wild, free men swinging from vine to vine. It is that golden-aged world from which Farmer emerged, and as much as he may have bent and broken and tortured some of those old tropes as an adult, something of their brightness and derring-do remained, giving a kind of sparkle to even the most cynical stories in this collection. Or maybe that’s just him winking at us from the banks of whatever afterlife he currently finds himself in. I wouldn’t put it past him.