Mon
Nov 25 2013 4:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Philip José Farmer

Philip Jose Farmer The Maker of Universes World of TiersIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

This week it’s Philip José Farmer and his World of Tiers, an epic that bridges high fantasy, the pulps and whimsical science-fiction.

There are different styles of worldbuilding in fantasy. We’re just exiting a big vogue of building worlds through science, of an assumed heliocentric default, a world where gravity and mass and the concept of physics hold tight, where oftentimes “magic” is superscience in the style of Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim, like Andre Norton’s Forerunner or the dragons and Thread of Pern. There are worlds with a scientific default and magic as an exception, like Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions. There are worlds where magic and technology are in tension, worlds where they are blended—Eberron comes to mind—but there are other models as well. Spelljammer had many crystal spheres, and while most were heliocentric, trusty old Greyhawk was geocentric. An older, more fanciful novel…but don’t think that fanciful means fairy dust and kittens.

Philip José Farmer is of that older school. His World of Tiers and Riverworld are books of grandiose worldbuilding: quite literally manufactured. Which I suppose is a bit of a dodge; the World of Tiers is of the “any sufficiently advanced technology…” camp, come to think of it, as well as being on the “big gonzo physics” team. Ancient protoculture of humans so advanced they are basically gods, yadda, yadda. Unlike the usual “god-like technowizards,” the Makers of the World of the Tiers are really into being meddlesome. There is none of this “oh we’ll set up a colony on the moon” or “take me to your leader nonsense.” There are, however, plenty of abductions.

What they do is of course build giant impossible mega-structures, kidnap a bunch of people, perform a range of experiments or alterations on them—making them immortal or into centaurs or putting their brain in an ape (hey, like in Barsoom!)—and then letting them build a civilization…you know, where you are set up as a god, of course. Ah yeah, that is the life…until one of the other big fancy monarchs of space and time comes along and messes it up before stealing it from you. Or you do the same to someone else, because your species is in decline, and while you might know how to use all this future stuff, you don’t know how it works or how to make more…starting to sound familiar?

Now, I’ve got a personal softspot for this kind of thing. I ran in a great campaign in college that was sort of half-Planescape, half-Spelljammer; the different “worlds” were accessible through certain spells, but were separated by an Ethereal Sea, so travel could be done through strange vessels just as well. Each of the worlds or planes was as much one of these strange places with unique laws of physics as anything; a world where everything is always falling, bottomless and plunging, called The Fall, a world set on the inside of a hollow sphere, where it is always Night, hence the name…and a place called the Broken Ladder that very much resembled the World of Tiers.

What Philip José Farmer does that really charms me is…he cheats. So, the premise of The Maker of Universes is pretty simple. Well, relatively simple for a big ideas book like this. The main character starts out in a False Eden and has to climb up the pillars of the world, from plate to plate, from one flat world to the next, trying to get to the peak where the tyrant god-king lives. Because it is all fabricated and created according to whim…well, the “rules” of plausibility are altered. Not just physics, either; history and anthropology, too. Take for instance, Amerind.

See, what is the Amerind tier but a bunch of “pulp Western” clichés. In another book, that might have caused some consternation; after all, fanciful appropriation of real world cultures is not my idea of a good time. Here though, Farmer side-steps those issues by…well, making the people of Amerind, and of every other tier be synthetic “cultures.” The Maker of the World of Tiers wanted a pseudo-Greek land full of lab experiments, he wanted a pulp Wild West nation-world, he wanted a “best of feudalism” tier and a “Robert E. Howard’s fallen Atlantis” tier. The Maker is the kind of DM who runs pre-made settings but doesn’t want to have to pick just one.

Besides which, there are the occasional flourish that, between you and me, are ripe for a clever DM to steal borrow. Maybe my favorite—and probably old hat to some—are the idea of Great Plains centaurs. A host of Nez Perce-inspired Appaloosas in Maztica, driving the PCs in toward the ancient ziggurat they must explore; put that in along side Aztec-y were-jaguars, have the expanding empire of Law be influenced by the Iroquois Confederacy…see, just that one little notion and I’m already dreaming up whole campaigns. The Jewish knights of the Yidshe is another quick grab; Solomonic nobles with a sort of Knight’s Templar vibe, but you know, Jewish. Putting them at odds with the German knights has a certain flair to it…

This isn’t a Player’s novel; this is a DM’s novel. I’ve noticed a difference in this re-read; stories like Howard’s Conan or the Lankhmar books are character driven in a way that creates archetypes, that sketches out behaviors and well, class roles. You want to know the default setting for “Barbarian” is? Conan is a pretty good starting place. Other books are more like primers for Dungeon Masters, stories like The Moon Pool and yes, even L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt; books that show off settings, or showcase how to come up with “big ideas” on the fly. The World of Tiers is the latter; it is a good teaching aid on how to get past the assumptions of a spherical, physical model, and how you can slide in ideas—like “I sort of want to run this adventure in Boot Hill…”—while making it work.


Mordicai Knode’s home Oubliette campaign is a post-historic hodge-podge of sources underlined by armchair anthropology, so that is his bias. Tim Callahan wasn’t here for this but maybe, like Kickaha, he’s secretly in disguise somewhere?

37 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I should also mention that I have a "thing" for harpies...probably caused by the harpy in The Last Unicorn.
Colin Bell
2. SchuylerH
@Mordicai: You see, glorious pulp insanity! Farmer did at least one other memorable story about alternate geology, "Sail On! Sail On!".

Farmer also created the Wold Newton family in an attempt to unite pulp heroes in one universe (Tarzan and James Bond are related in this series) and, similarly, he created the world of the multi-author "Dungeon" series, which arguably consists of pre-made campaign settings.

However, I've never been a fan. Most of the Farmer I've read seems to be, shall we say, aiming for clever but coming over as glib? I might wander back to pick up some of the early stuff but I don't think that much of his work has aged particularly well.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. SchuylerH

Sort of a pre-League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? I see that, I know there are historical & literary figures liberally peppered in his work. Personally, I think making John Carter & Randolph Carter related biologically & by spiritual happenstance is some of Moore's cleverest writing...

Anyhow, I liked this but it didn't have me rarin' for the next one, even though I had it in an omnibus. Unlike, say, The Dispossessed...speaking of, I said I'd share my thoughts on it, & I did; you can read them here.
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
I like the idea of Farmer as a "Gm's author." Settings and milieus just begging to inspire a GM to borrow, steal, or take from. Or just stick a few weird ones from supplements together by a device
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
I came to Farmer through Riverworld. I was in high school when the third book came out and either in high school or had just graduated when the fourth one came out (depending on which half of the year it was). I always looked at the Tiers books, but could never figure out where to start (Lavalite World was on the shelves at the time and that's fairly late in the series). But the wrap up of Riverworld pretty much put me off of PJP and later exposure generally confirmed my feelings. He's great at coming up with ideas and creating a setting and a setup. But he can't resolve his plots worth beans.

Of course, for the aspiring DM that's rather useful. You can find a cool setting or plot hook and tell yourself, "I can do better than this!"
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@3: I know, it sounds crazy at first but then, gradually, starts to make perfect sense...

I'm glad you liked The Dispossessed (What next? TLHoD?) but this has unfortunately, reminded me that To Your Scattered Bodies Go beat out The Lathe of Heaven for the Hugo. Riverworld itself is an interesting idea, so why was the execution so boring? I have a theory that, if anything can happen in a fictional setting, nothing actually will.

@4 & 5: Yes, that's about right: a neat grab-bag of world-building ideas for the aspiring subcreator.
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
4. PrinceJvstin
&
5. DemetriosX

Or heck, take the tiers idea & put whatever you want on 'em! Dark Sun down here, then Greyhawk above that, then Eberron above that then...SPELLJAMMER.

6. SchuylerH

Yeah, probably The Left Hand of Darkness. Once I finish up some reading for work & my book club.

Subcreator, that is a good word!
Hedgehog Dan
8. Hedgehog Dan
Hmm... I remember reading the Stone God Awakens. I liked the atmosphere and the strange world. Might be worth to take a chance too...
Colin Bell
9. SchuylerH
@7: Not mine: thank Tolkien for that one.
Hedgehog Dan
11. JohnnyMac
Mordicai @1, if you have a thing for harpies you should read Avram Davidson's "The Island Under the Earth". One of the secondary characters is Auntie Ghreck, an elderly and ill tempered harpy who complains about her 827 hatchlings: "Why don't any of them ever come to visit me?"

DemetriosX @5, "He's great at coming up with ideas and creating a setting and a setup. But he can't resolve his plots worth beans." Too true alas (not that PJF was the only author to suffer from that flaw).

One of Farmer's novels that I would recommend for simple light entertainment is his "The Adventure of the Peerless Peer". Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson encounter Tarzan in the depths of Africa during World War I. Also features a battle on a Zeppelin, a fiendish German spy, a lost civilization and a beautiful high priestess.
j p
12. sps49
World of Tiers was fun, despite it's faults.

Riverworld looked like a downer, so I have never read those.
Alan Brown
13. AlanBrown
Farmer was one moment of deus ex machina after another, and always drove me crazy. His stories had no rules, and for me, even fantasy has to have consistent and predictable rules and consequences, or the whole thing falls apart.
Hedgehog Dan
14. Eugene R.
I came to Mr. Farmer through his shorter works like "Sail On, Sail On!" and "Riders of the Purple Wage" ("Win again Winnegan"), then his pulp-ish novels. I find I prefer the original pulp like World of Tiers to the more recycled varieties, but Farmer still brings a much more contemporary and adult sensibility to his pulp fiction, even if he don't need no steenkin' rules of writing.

And if Mr. Callahan is "secretly in disguise somewhere", ala Kickaha, we shall spot him by the initials PJF.
Hedgehog Dan
15. Eugene R.
mordacai (@1): Oh, and if you have a "thing" for harpies, you should check out the old Australian RPG Lace & Steel, which featured harpies as a character race, along with centaurs, too.
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@11: Davidson was a great fantasy author, Gene Wolfe before Gene Wolfe. The first one I read was his wonderfully eerie Hugo winner, "Or All the Seas with Oysters".

@14: "Riders of the Purple Wage" was one of my first Farmer stories. I couldn't help but think "and this was considered dangerous because?" throughout its length. For that matter, I felt much the same about most of the rest of those two anthologies. (The way I see it, Ellison defined the New Wave as "everyone except Heinlein".)
Gerd K
17. Kah-thurak
@5
"He's great at coming up with ideas and creating a setting and a setup. But he can't resolve his plots worth beans."

Exactly my feelings about Farmer after reading (most of) the World of Tiers and the Riverworld books.
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
11. JohnnyMac
&
15. Eugene R.
&
16. SchuylerH

Ooooooooh, harpies! Okay. Wait, harpies & a proto-Wolfe?

13. AlanBrown

As a caveat or counter-point, I think rule-less portrayals of the supernatural-- I'm thinking Twin Peaks for instance-- that ascribe to a kind of "dream logic" or poetry rather than a cogent system...that is my scene, my sweetspot.
Colin Bell
19. SchuylerH
@18: "Davidson was beyond question one of the unjustly neglected writers of the 20th century, an author of immense talent." - Gene Wolfe

I don't mind dream logic or unrevealed logic, just as long as there appears to be some.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
20. hoopmanjh
What I remember most about the Riverworld books is being incredibly pissed when, somewhere around book 5 or 6, he just kind of threw everything he'd been telling you about the world right out the window and came up with a new, much worse backstory.
Mordicai Knode
21. mordicai
20. hoopmanjh

That sort of thing happens with distressing regularity in science-fiction & fantasy. I won't name any names, but I think we can all agree on more than a few...
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
22. hoopmanjh
20. mordicai -- Yeah, he's not the sole (or even worst) offender, but I think that was the first example I really ran into, and it was pretty egregious, so it's always stuck with me.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
23. hoopmanjh
D'oh. Stupid double post. My favorite Farmer is probably Dark is the Sun, but that'd be much more relevant to a Gamma World discussion.
David Levinson
24. DemetriosX
@18 mordicai
Davidson can be very, very good, but I find him a little uneven at times. The more fantastic he gets, the better I like him. His Limekiller stories on the other hand do nothing for me. But for genuine DM inspiration, I recommend tracking down his Adventures in Unhistory collection of factual essays that originally appeared in Asimov's. He looks into various legends (the phoenix, dragons, unicorns, Prester John, etc.) and digs down for possible original causes for those tales. Fascinating stuff.
Mordicai Knode
25. mordicai
24. DemetriosX

"The griffin & its love of gold are from protoceratops bones buried with gold veins along the Silk Road" & "cyclopes were probably invented because of dwarf mammoth skulls" are two of my favorites.

22. hoopmanjh

I actually draw that shroud-- "read the first one, only the first one!"-- around a lot of stuff. Stuff...other people like. So that is also why I'm being so coy. I mean, stuff like Lucas is easy peasy.
Alan Brown
26. AlanBrown
"Or All the Seas with Oysters"
I read that story when I was VERY young. And I thought the contents of my closet were scary BEFORE I read it. Little did I know the sleepless nights that were ahead of me...
Hedgehog Dan
27. JohnnyMac
For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of reading Avram Davidson's work, an excellent introduction is the collection "The Avram Davidson Treasury" edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis, with afterwords by Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. It was put together by his friends after his death in 1993 and covers stories from the 50s to the 90s. It also contains tributes from people like Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. LeGuin, Frederik Pohl, Poul and Karen Anderson, Michael Swanwick and Peter S. Beagle (among others). The Kindle edition is a steal at $7.59. I also noticed when I checked Amazon just now that several of his novels, including "The Island Under the Earth" which I mentioned above, are available for Kindle at a mere 99 cents.
Hedgehog Dan
28. Eugene R.
SchuylerH (@16): If Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthologies may not appear so dangerous these days, it is likely that they are victims of their own success, so that their originally unsettling New Wave sensibilities and imagery is now a thing of mundanity. Still, I think that there are dangerous visions lurking within; Poul Anderson's "Eutopia", with a protagonist who is an old-school Hellene who seduces a young man, is likely still treading on taboos these days.

For me, at the time or just after the Dangerous Visions anthologies came out, I was going through the Golden Age of Science Fiction (aka age 12) and coming from the realm of '40s and '50s classic sf into contemporary sf, I found stories like "Riders of the Purple Wage" or Frederik Pohl's "The Gold at the Starbow's End" or Ellison's "Repent, Harlequin! Said the Tick-Tock Man" went through my literary cortex like buzzsaws.

And leaving out Heinlein would not necessarily be Ellison's fault; Dr. Asimov wrote an introduction for Dangerous Visions, and in it he mentioned that he was invited but chose not to submit a tale, fearing he was too "square" for the hipster New Wave.

On the matter of Avram Davidson, I would not hesitate to recommend any anthology of his works, whether "Adventures in Unhistory" (I picked up the last Adventure chapbook, The Wailing of the Gaulish Dead, at Readercon) or the excellent collection that JohnnyMac (@27) mentions. But, if Farmer frustrates due to his inability to end a series well, Mr. Davidson frustrates by his inability to *end* a series. Peregrine: Tertius, where art thou?
Colin Bell
29. SchuylerH
@28: One thing that amused me about the New Wave is that you had Mike Moorcock in Britain, arguing for what was fundamentally a very narrow and restrictive view of what SF could be, constrasted with Harlan Ellison, who just let everyone in. As such, the first story in Dangerous Visions is by Lester Del Rey, of all people. Again, Dangerous Visions manages to include both Ray Bradbury and Ross Rocklynne. Also, I will note that neither anthology was a good place to launch your career.

There's still quite a few stories I like in both volumes, particularly "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ. "Riders of the Purple Wage", however, I am not fond of. The future society seems deeply implausible (though not as bad as Farmer's Dayworld) and it always felt to me like there was a large amount of set-up to deliver a weak punchline. I can appreciate that, hard as it presently is to believe, it probably was quite dangerous in its time.

I mentioned everyone except Heinlein since he seemed to be opposed to the broad political zeitgeist of the New Wave. Then again, you could claim that with Stranger in a Strange Land, he had already been there and done that. Dr. Asimov did, I think, attempt a New Wave novel: The Gods Themselves has aliens, sex and alien sex in one volume.

I'm not sure I entirely agree with you on the matter of Avram Davidson: while it's true he started plenty of series he couldn't finish, at least this way you got to imagine how good the last volume would have been based on the ones you did read, rather than find yourself enduring the reality of the latest helping of Riverworld or yet more rewritten pulp. However, I will agree that the collection is indeed excellent and note that readers in the UK can also experience Davidson in epub format.

EDIT: Something I just noticed: there is a Thieves' World story by Farmer entitled "Spiders of the Purple Mage". Can Zane Grey be mangled any further?
Hedgehog Dan
30. Eugene R.
SchuylerH (@29): Nice observation on the inclusivity of the American New Wave ("everybody into the pool!") versus the greater exclusivity of the British founders ("out with the old, in with the new!"). And, further, as you note, that Heinlein may have already been a member of the club, thanks to Stranger in a Strange Land, where he does move into New Wave territory on the topics of love and sex, albeit in his usual format (highly competent male youth, verbose older male mentor, surfeit of nubile females). I would also point to RAH's The Number of the Beast as an example of his attempt at stylistic experimentation akin to New Wave writing. Thus, we may view Heinlein as bookending the New Wave. Just as Moorcock hoped, I guess.

Regarding the greater or lesser frustrations of Messers. Farmer and Davidson, I admit that the pleasure of anticipation may exceed the joy of possession, so being left unserved by Mr. Davidson may be less of a burden than being underserved by Mr. Farmer. Still, better to have read and lost than never to have read at all? It is an individual matter of taste, I think.

And "Spiders of the Purple Mage" was a decent story in the Thieves' World universe, featuring Smhee, a wizard hunter under religious taboo to stay coated with butter ... making him Smhee smeared with ghee. All this from the author of "The Doge Whose Barque Was Worse Than His Bight". Puns a-poppin'. SF was different in those days.
Colin Bell
31. SchuylerH
@30: I feel that Heinlein and Moorcock were rather more similar to each other than either of them could ever have admitted.

EDIT: I've just learned that Farmer's Venus on the Half-Shell is being reprinted. Given that this is a book where PJF impersonates a Kurt Vonnegut pseudonym, the only remaining question is this: why?
Hedgehog Dan
32. Eugene R.
SchuylerH (@30): Why reprint Venus on the Half-Shell? Because it is an (admittedly imperfect) collaboration between Vonnegut and Farmer? Because the title is a good visual pun with the Botticelli painting used on the cover (The Birth of Venus)? Because it is one of the (in)famous "lost books" of sf/f (akin to the Necronomicon)? Ultimately, of course, because someone at Titan Books thinks they can sell copies and make money off of it.

I also note that they have reprinted Mr. Moorcock's first two Oswald Bastable books, too (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan).
Colin Bell
33. SchuylerH
@32: Also because Vonnegut died in 2007 and is hence unlikely to sue. (When I read it, some years go, I had an edition as by Kilgore Trout, so I went in expecting Vonnegut. It took me a while to recover.)

Since I've managed to make this into the most anti-PJF PJF appreciation thread on the internet, I would like to mention that he did make a genuine and important contribution to the SF world.

I suppose that being harsh on Farmer for his later, weaker stories is like ignoring Lord of Light because of Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. Works such as The Lovers, Strange Relations and the revised edition of Flesh had a significant impact on how SF handled sexual themes and paved the way for the greater freedoms of the New Wave. Farmer gets one third of the dedication in Stranger in a Strange Land and I don't think anyone could deny that he earned it.
Hedgehog Dan
34. Eugene R.
SchuylerH (@33): Hear, hear! Well said, sir, well said.
David Levinson
35. DemetriosX
@33 SchuylerH
True enough and those titles were very important for the evolution of the genre. The problem is that, while when people talk about Zelazny it's Lord of Light and short pieces like Rose or Doors/Lamps, with PJF it is precisely those later and weaker pieces that get all the recognition. The first Farmer 90% of people are likely to think of is Riverworld, followed by the pulp stuff. (And that's almost certainly what Gygax had in mind, since he specifically mentioned World of Tiers.) But yes, there should be an effort to push his better and more important work.
Colin Bell
36. SchuylerH
@34: Thankyou.

@35: Baen's (yes,I know) omnibus Strange Relations was a fairly recent mass market release. It contains all three of the early works I mentioned @33.
Hedgehog Dan
37. Nate C
That guy coating himself in butter in Spiders of the Purple Mage is literally the only thing I recall about Thieve's World. Funny stuff, when I was 13.

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