Philip José Farmer, 1918-2009

Philip José Farmer died today, aged ninety-one, a good science-fictional age. According to his homepage, he died peacefully in his sleep.

I never met him and know nothing about him personally. But he was one of the giants of science fiction and it’s almost impossible to overstate his importance in the field. He was the first of the new generation of science fiction writers who came along to revitalise the genre in the fifties and sixties. He was one of the pioneers of SF that was about people and sociology and weird ideas rather than engineering. He came up with ideas and “what ifs” that were impossible and brilliant and wrote about them in a science fictional way. He was an ideas writer, and judging by the introductions to his short stories he threw off ideas like firework sparks. But he was also a terrific stylist. People talk about “luminous prose,” well, Farmer had a meteoritic prose style that blazed across your eyeballs at lightspeed and left you dazzled and blinking. He could delineate a character in just a few words. He was irreverent and funny and clever, and he had ideas like “what if William Burroughs had writen Tarzan instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs”  or “what if Jesus was born again and burned at the stake this time” and then carried them through.

His Riders of the Purple Wage in Dangerous Visions blew my head off, so did The Alley God, and so did the original Riverworld novella—what an idea, everyone in all of history ressurected naked along the banks of an enormous Mississippi. It was later expanded to multiple volumes which were one of the first things I waited for, thus starting me on a lifetime of waiting for books to come out. He wrote more than thirty novels but his best and most memorable work was at short lengths, at a time when that was the lifeblood and the experimental crucible of the genre. Heinlein dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land to him. He was influential on the way the genre developed, he was the New Wave before there was a New Wave, and by the time it had been formed he’d moved on and was doing something else. He was always an exciting writer, you never had any idea what he was going to do next, he brought modernism into science fiction, and there really wasn’t anyone like him, ever.

I’m very sorry to hear that he’s dead. I’m glad he lived long enough to be named a Grand Master (2000) and the be given World Fantasy Life Achievement Award (2001).

They should name an extra-solar planet after him.


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