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From Bradbury to Farmer

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The death of Ray Bradbury this week has been all over the media and, as we mourn the loss of one of the great science fiction writers, it calls to mind one of Bradbury’s contemporaries, Peorian Philip Jose Farmer, who passed away on February 25, 2009. Bradbury and Farmer were equally acclaimed in the science fiction world, although Bradbury’s work seemed to appeal to broader audiences. Isaac Asimov praised Farmer as a great writer and “a far more skillful writer than I am.”

Farmer was born January 26, 1918 in Terre Haute, Ind., the son of a civil engineer. When he was very young, the family moved to Peoria where his father went to work as a supervisor at CILCO. Philip was a bright and precocious child, vowing to become a writer in the fourth grade and, at the age of 14, decided he was an agnostic. He married in 1941 and tried to join the war effort as a pilot but washed out of flight training. So he went to work in a steel mill while continuing his education at Bradley, where he earned a degree in English in 1950.

His first success as a writer came relatively early on, with a novella called The Lovers, which was about a sexual relationship between a human and an extraterrestrial. The novella caught the attention of the publishing industry and Farmer won the Hugo Award as a “most promising new writer.” At the age of 34 he was able to quit his job and become a full-time writer. All the years of hard work, starting when he was 10, were paying off for Farmer – or so he thought. While he won an award for a novel that contained the seeds for his Riverworld series, the novel itself was never published and Farmer had to become a technical writer to support himself and his growing family (he would father a son and daughter). During those years he was working in New York and Los Angeles and writing science fiction on the side.

In 1967, Farmer had his second big breakthrough with Riders of The Purple Wage, which drew heavily on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and was a wry satire of the welfare state. The novella earned him another Hugo award and reinvigorated him as a writer. He returned to Peoria in 1970 and, over the next 10 years, published 25 books. He garnered some national attention when his novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, was published because the novel was centered around a character named Kilgore Trout, who was a character featured in several of fellow Midwesterner (and science fiction writer in his own right) Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Even though Vonnegut gave Farmer permission to use the character, many people were confused and thought the book to be written by Vonnegut himself.

Farmer is distinguished by his two major series of novels: the Riverworld series and the World of Tiers series. The Riverworld series is about a river valley that stretches over an entire planet where all those who have died are resurrected and spend their afterlife. There are six books in the series: To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), The Fabulous Riverboat (1971), The Dark Design (1977), The Magic Labyrinth (1980) and Gods of Riverworld (1983). His World of Tiers series concerns multiple parallel universes created tens of thousands of years ago by an advanced race of human beings. It follows the adventures of godlike humans who exist in these universes as well as some “normal humans” who stumble upon the alternate universes. The series consists of The Maker of Universes (1965), The Gates of Creation (1966), A Private Cosmos (1968), Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), The Lavalite World (1977) and More Than Fire (1993).

To find out the 10 things you should really know about Philip Jose Farmer, visit:

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.