Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, May 3, 2019


The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer (1957)

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) didn't quite burst on the science fiction scene with his first published story, but it was close.  He actually burst on the scene with his second published story, "The Lovers", which told of a human's affair with an alien.  For the time -- 1952 -- it was a bold departure from the nearly puritan SF that had preceded it.  Imagine.  A story about S-E-X.

Sex has played an important role in Farmer's work, so when his first published novel, The Green Odyssey, appeared and there was a decided lack of expected sex, a number of Farmer's readers were disappointed.  As were some of the critics.  "Here's a disappointment...The story winds up in a blaze of Tom Corbettism...The whole thing is miserably dull and must have been drudgery to write..." (Damon Knight, Infinity November 1957)   "Galaxy's Floyd C. Gale was a little kinder.  "At first glance, this would seem to be a routine space opera...The Farmer boy is big handsome, blond and strong...He is also lazy, cautious to the point of timidity and not very bright...[Farmer] almost makes a mish-mash of the ending, but doesn't."  (January 1958)  Astounding's P. Schuyer Miller (also January 1958) compares The Green Odyssey with his story 'The Lovers', despite the fact that he had never read the earlier story!  "I must be about the only fan now alive who is not either enthralled or appalled by the publication of Philip Jose Farmer's "The Lovers" back in 1952.  The reason's simple:  I've never read it...The book that Shasta promised never appeared*...The Green Odyssey is, therefor, the author's first book in print--and I still don't know what all the shouting is about...'Rollicking science fiction adventure' the blurb calls it:  'uproarious'...'hell-bent'...'swashbuckling'...'sheer fun.'   These it is not, although it could have been.  What was with 'The Lovers' that blew up such a storm?"   Of all the SF critics, Anthony Boucher had a distinctly opposing view:  "Wonderfully lusty and roistering adventure story, with a shrewd hero, a magnificent heroine, and accurately inserted s.f. details -- one of the yer's most entertaining tales."  (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1957)

I'm in Boucher's camp.  I found the book to be an amusing, well thought out satire on the planetary adventure tales that have littered the SF landscape for years, the type of book on which L. Sprague de Camp built his reputation.  Farmer was never all about sex, despite what many of his early fans believed.  Farmer was about having fun.  He played with things that greatly interested him:  pulp novels, popular movies and books, approaches to religion, puns, and (of course) science fiction.

In The Green Odyssey our hero is Alan Green, a marooned spaceman on a distant planet.  About one in four inhabited planets that mankind has discovered have human inhabitants.  (Farmer toys with why this is, but wisely does not tell us.)  Anyway, the planet on which Green crashed is a human, albeit a sort of feudal, one with various religions and a strong belief in witchcraft.  Green had been captured and put to work as a slave, eventually working his way up dogsbody for the local duke.  Green's duties include being a not-so-secret lover to the duchess, something that was tacitly approved by the duke and was common knowledge (nudge nudge wink wink).  Appearances are all -- if the affair became blatantly public, the duke would have to act and Green would be executed, as were a umber of the duchess's former lovers.  Green was also given a wife, a sharp-tongued beauty of a slave who already had four children by three men and soon had her fifth with Green.

The planet was so isolated the thought of another spaceship landing was remote.  The inhbitants of that planet believed they were the only ones in the universe; the thought of someone coming from another planet was ridiculous.  But the impossible happened.  Rumors of two men who claimed to have come from outside and who were held captive as demons in a country across the wide sea; according to local custom, the prisoners would be held for two years before being executed.  This was Green's chance:  if he could escape, somehow free the two captives, he might be able to leave the planet on their spaceship and return to Earth.

But the planet was alien.  The sea was not a sea.  It was a vast thousands-mile-long flat field of grass and was traversed by daring sailors in wheeled windjammers.  This large plain of grass was inhabited by fierce animals, violent natives, pirates, moving mounds of dirt, and rumored monsters.  (If you wanted a large body of water you had the ocean, which was nowhere near the sea of grass.)

Green's plans to escape did not include his wife Amra, nor his children.  His wife would never adapt to Earth life and would be better off remaining where she was, he reasoned.

Green's plan of escape soon went belly up and he found himself a wanted fugitive.  When he finally managed to get aboard a ship and sail way from the city, he found Amra and the five children already aboard.  did he really think that he could leave without them?

And so starts his odyssey, along with its concurrent dangers -- cannibals, pirates, and, um, giant lawnmowers.  Green is a reluctant but likable hero and Amra is kickass.  Great fun all the way!

The Green Odyssey is nowhere near as canonical a Farmer work as his World of Tiers, Riverworld, Dayworld, or Wold Newton novels but that is minor quibbling. 

Highly recommended.

* Farmer won a novel writing contest sponsored by Shasta Books with his book Owe for the Flesh, written in one month in 1952.  Shasta, the contest, the $4000 prize, and the promised publication of the book all vanished when Shasta went belly-up, causing Farmer severe financial hardships and curtailing a full-time writing career for years.   The manuscript was lost, but Farmer reworked the concept as his Riverworld series, beginning in 1966.  A revised version of Owe to the Flesh was discovered years later and published in 1983 under the title River to Eternity.

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