RETROSPECTIVE: The Maker of Universes by Philip José Farmer

Monday , 8, June 2015 12 Comments

This is another of those stories that starts off with the protagonist suffering from amnesia. Now, that might seem like a tiresome cliché by now… but really, the freakier your setting is the more that sort of thing starts to look like a great trick for gradually easing the reader in to just how everything works. And this setting gets weird fast. In the opening pages the protagonist is an old man with an overweight harridan for a wife. By the end of the first chapter, he uses some sort of magic trumpet to open a portal into a fantastic world peopled by mermaids, zebrillas, nymphs, satyrs, and dryads.

And this place isn’t just some sort of crazy Eden where everyone stays perpetually young. (Even our hero ends up regaining his youth.) It’s not even some kind of Zardoz style nudist colony with people that have had the concept of killing stricken from their imaginations. It’s also some kind of Big Rock Candy Mountain where alcoholic beverages grow on trees. If you think it can’t get any weirder, then hold on. These people were kidnapped from earth by some sort of insanely powerful god-like being that transplanted their brains into the bodies of these mythological creatures.

But Farmer is still not done. It gets even weirder than that. These people aren’t just folks that were whisked away from Greece at about the time that Homer was writing. Some of them are actually people that Homer wrote about:

Wolff questioned him further for he was interested in what Ipsewas could tell him about Agamemnon and Achilles and Odysseus and the other heroes of Homer’s epic. He told the zebrilla that Agamemnon was supposed to be a historical character. But what about Achilles and Odysseus? Had they really existed?

“Of course they did,” Ipsewas said. He grunted, then continued, “I suppose you’re curious about those days. But there is little I can tell you. It’s been too long ago. Too many idle days. Days?– centuries, millenia!– the Lord alone knows. Too much alcohol, too. (page 68)

But wait, there’s more! (I’m telling you, Farmer simply does not quit!) It soon becomes clear that not only is this some sort of “flat earth” setting. You see.. when it says “World of Tiers series” on the cover, it means exactly that: a world… of tiers! The bottom level is some kind of weird paradise. The next level up is loaded with centaurs and Indian tribes. The one after that has Teutonic knights that act like they just got up from the iconic round table. The penultimate level is an Atlantis where its people are in the process of undertaking the ill-advised project of recapitulating the story of the Tower of Babel. And finally… at the very top is the Boss Level– the domain of the “The Lord” who has access to the control panels that allow him to reign down divine wrath on anyone that dares to defy him.

Honestly, any one of these levels could have supported an entire book-length adventure on their own. I kept thinking that Farmer would come back around and explain how all of these figures from Greek myth could have been actual historical persons. He doesn’t, though. He keeps making his setting wilder and wilder, repeatedly increasing the scope until it’s almost impossible to keep up with it anymore. Or care. You see, the man that created this insane “World of Tiers” and that abducted all manner of people from all eras to populate it in weird bio-engineered bodies is not alone. There are others of his kind that have created similar worlds and that come and go from Earth as well. And just like Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, they’ve all ended up in a nonstop war among themselves.

“The Lords are heir to a science and power far surpassing Earth’s. But the scientists and technicians of their people are dead. The ones now living know how to operate their devices, but they are incapable of explaining the principles behind them or repairing them.

“The millenia-long power struggle killed off all but a few. These few, despite their vast powers, are ignoramuses. They’re sybarites, megalomaniacs, paranoiacs, you name it. Anything but scientists.” (page 104)

Now that’s a familiar trope right there. I mean everyone wants their fancy toys, but no one wants a situation that completely destroys “game balance” or its literary counterpart. You see this in everything from D&D’s magic items to Gamma World’s ancient artifacts to Traveller’s relics. You see it echoing in The Lord of the Rings with the Númenóreans being nothing but a shadow and a remnant of their former selves… but still able to take charge of the Palantiri that are rightfully theirs. You see it the charlatanry of the wizards in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. This sort of thing is the backbone of adventure fiction.

Because unrestrained technology ends up turning settings into grey goo, world builders invariably develop some kind of Ordnung to keep everything in the Goldilocks zone. One place to look if you want to see how shameless authors can get about this is at the way they nerf firearms. Farmer does not cover up what he’s doing here with even the hint of a fig leaf:

“By the way, why don’t the gworl– or the Indians, from what you’ve told me– use firearms?”

“It’s strictly forbidden by the Lord. You see, the Lord doesn’t like some things. He wants to keep his people at a certain population level, at a certain technological level; and within certain social structures. The Lord runs a tight planet. (page 106)

You mean everything’s set up just so in order to optimize everything for the kind of adventure story we love to read? That’s… that’s…. Well, actually that’s kind of brilliant. I mean why wouldn’t you do that?! Dune’s critics could never accept that stuff like shield/lasgun interractions, the spice, and the spacing guild could actually explain the setting of that science fiction classic. So you know… why fight it? If you want to go write some sort of thinly disguised homage to A Princess of Mars, why ruin it with a bunch of hard science and painstaking world design that no one’s going to believe anyway…?

This is not to say that that Philip José Farmer never thinks anything through. His take on centaurs addresses things I never even imagined could be problems:

They were indeed centaurs, although not quite as the painters of Earth had depicted. This was not surprising. The Lord, when forming them in his biolabs, had had to make certain concessions to reality. The main adjustment had been regulated by the need for oxygen. The large animal part of a centaur had to breathe, a fact ignored by the conventional Terrestrial representations. Air had to be supplied not only to the upper and human torso but to the lower and theriomorphic body. The relatively small lungs of the upper part could not handle the air requirements.

Moreover, the belly of the human trunk would have stopped all supply of nourishment to the large body beneath it. Or, if the small belly was attached to the greater equine digestive organs to transmit food, diet was still a problem. Human teeth would quickly wear out under the abrasion of grass.

Thus the hybrid beings coming so swiftly and threateningly toward the men did not quite match the mythical creatures that had served as their models.  Their mouths and necks were proportionally large to allow the intake of enough oxygen. In place of the human lungs was a bellowslike organ which drove the air through a throatlike opening and thence into the great lungs of the hippoid body. These lungs were larger than a horse’s, for the vertical part increased the oxygen demands. Space for the bigger lungs was made by removal of the larger herbivore digestive organs and substitution of a smaller carnivore stomach. The centaur ate meat, including the flesh of his Amerind victims. (pages 118-119)

And the chapter long running battle between the centaurs and the Indians is fantastic. It’s some of the best action I’ve read in any Appendix N book. But Farmer also grasps what the real payoff of this sort of thing should be:

They rode on for two weeks and then were at the edge of the Trees of Many Shadows. Here Kickaha took a long farewell of the  Hrowakas. These also each came to Wolff and, laying their hands upon his shoulders, made a farewell speech. He was one of them now. When he returned, he should take a house and wife among them and ride out on hunts and war with them. He was KwashingDa, the Strong One; he had made his kill side by side with them; he had outwrestled a Half-Horse; he would be given a bear cub to raise as his own; he would be blessed by the Lord and have sons and daughters, and so forth and so on.

Gravely, Wolff replied that he could think of no greater honor than to be accepted by the Bear People. He meant it. (page 133)

This is the sort of moment I really wanted Andre Norton’s Fors to have in her seminal work, Star Man’s Son. This is the sort of respect I wanted Sterling Lanier’s Heiro to earn before he charged off into the wilderness with a bunch of sailors that reflexively treated him like he was some kind of chief. And again, I would have gladly read an entire novel about just the Indians and the centaurs, but Farmer has the equivalent of three game settings to trek through here before he gets to the climatic battle at the end with its cascade of multiple big reveals. We go from each moment being delivered with lavish detail, to days passing in a single paragraph, and on into months of travel being summarized in a single sentence. And so it is that a transition that would normally be a major plot element gets a quick gloss just before the finale:

By now through some subtle process, Wolff had become the nominal leader. Before, Kickaha had had the reins in his hand with the approval of all. Something had happened to give Wolff the power of decision-making. He did not know what, for Kickaha was as boisterous and vigorous as before. And the passing of captainship had not been caused by a deliberate effort on Wolff’s part. It was as if Kickaha had been waiting until Wolff had learned all he could from him. Then Kickaha had handed over the baton. (page 221)

Eh, I just don’t buy it. I mean, sure… there’s plenty of plot to justify this. But this sort of transition is exactly the sort of thing I want to experience vicariously when I kick back with this sort of novel. A quick note explaining that this just sort of happened somehow really doesn’t cut it.

I enjoyed this book a lot. Yes, this is essentially an entire world that boils down to being a gigantic upside down dungeon. And many of the settings it contains are a brilliant fit for gaming. In fact, the kind of world building on display here is almost identical to that used by Steve Jackson in his Yrth setting: real cultures placed in fantastic circumstances and then left to adapt over time. Even better, they’re equipped with all the “ancient artifacts” and trimmings a gamer could want.

But as a novel… at some point it all gets to be so much that I lose my capacity to care about how things turn out. I’ve had similar reactions to Isaac Asimov’s post-trilogy Foundation stories, John Varley’s Titan novels, and David Brin’s second Uplift series. Sometimes authors get so intent on making something so epic, so mind-bending, so over the top that they forget the sort of things that actually make it meaningful in the first place.

But hey… if this book was a letdown, I sure wouldn’t mind to have a few dozen more like it. It’s a masterfully executed page turner that’s just plain loaded. If you’re struggling with coming up with a game setting, it should inspire you to take whatever measures are needed in order to really make it work. Farmer does as much as anyone to show us just how big of a palette we have to work with. I think we’ve gotten a little more conservative, a bit more derivative, and just a tad predictable with our fantasy settings since Farmer’s time. Reading him will inspire you think outside the confines of habit and received conventions.

12 Comments
  • Cirsova says:

    It is hard trying to write fantasy cranked up to 11, when you find that the dial goes to 14. How can I go on trying to write envelope pushing Fantasy even knowing that this exists?

    “He told the zebrilla that Agamemnon was supposed to be a historical character.”

    HE TOLD THE ZEBRILLA THAT AGAMEMNON WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A HISTORICAL CHARACTER!

    ANYTHING I WRITE WILL BE GARBAGE UNTIL I HAVE READ AND DIGESTED THIS WORK :O

    • Jeffro says:

      It’s getting harder for me to be gobsmacked by these old books… but Farmer sure does deliver!

      • Cirsova says:

        On an unrelated note, one thing I’m starting to notice is that for all of their daring do, cunning and fighting prowess, Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser aren’t very successful as adventurers. While all of the stories I’ve read so far have been great, I’d really like to see them finally score some loot that isn’t an integral bait piece of some death trap that they have to abandon or destroy to foil whatever wizard or god they’re up against.

        • Jeffro says:

          Fritz Leiber is no Monty Haul Style Dungeon Master!

          Although, the fact that that sort of thing is hard wired into the premise is a big part of why I dislike Gardner Fox’s Kothar the Barbarian.

          I would like to see characters I like from different points along the Adventurer, Conqueror, King arc. That’s a big part of the appeal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories if you ask me.

          (And if I could name drop another Appendix N author here, I would! But hey… it’s my job.)

          • Cirsova says:

            At least with Fafhrd & Mouser, it comes from a cross between being a bit greedier than they are lucky and evil forces knowing what would happen if they could catch an even break. I mean, after the incident with the Castle-golem, they probably should’ve figured that the diamond eye of the elder god was a literal magic eye of the elder god, but hey, a diamond bigger than your head!

            And I guess Mouser DID end up with some of those jeweled Master Thief bones; the Thief-wraiths were probably too busy terrorizing the Guild to worry about a couple pilfered rubies.

  • Eric Ashley says:

    ….It looks like Hell, but it has a whole alien lifecycle.
    ….Bronze Age electro riders, and a space empire with mechs whose choices echo each other.
    ….The granddaughter of a drug lord creates a world in which her beloved Grandpa is El Presidente of the greatest nation in the world.
    ….The followers of the Black Throne and the General duel in the streetsof Paris while Yggdrasil grows up to hold the City of the Gods above them.
    ….The Tower of Rhodes is in a bubble universe held up by thirteen arch mages, with a giant candle for a sun, and the books saved from the burning of the Alexandrian Library.

    I played Champions, and Vampire, and DnD, but Multiverser freed my mind from old patterns.

  • Eric Ashley says:

    My favorite Vampire setting is ‘World of Obsolescence’.

    Its 2035, and things are much the same. But…

    /Streetlights are configured to match the sun as studies show such improves human mental pschyology by 3.5 percent.
    Same with police headlights.
    And police cars all have IR scanners…and since a vamp is cold….
    Marijuana is legal; tobacco is illegal.
    All major feminist orgs are run by transgendered males with large beards.
    Many people self identify as vampires of various kinds, and have the ability to mimic them, and they believe this for the duration of the drug induced pschyosis.
    Total surveillance society with real time updating.
    The collapse of belief in evolution led to a Great Revival, hence lots more True Faith.
    Most vampires have been destroyed.

    A friend described it as ‘Being a Kryptonian on a planet where everyone wears kryptonite jewelry.’

    • Jeffro says:

      2035 is a very special year for me. That is a great year for CAR WARS campaigns…!

      • Eric Ashley says:

        Its around the year in which my Starsong Systems setting has America invade China, aided by targetted, limited duration bio virus attacks, and win.

        I wish I’d played more Car Wars.

  • Cirsova says:

    “Eh, I just don’t buy it. I mean, sure… there’s plenty of plot to justify this. But this sort of transition is exactly the sort of thing I want to experience vicariously when I kick back with this sort of novel. A quick note explaining that this just sort of happened somehow really doesn’t cut it.”

    I think I may have solved this riddle.

  • Jorgeman says:

    The premise of this setting reminds me of that of the River World series, in which every human being that ever lived awakens at the same time next to a world-encompassing river.

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