200 Years of Illinois: Death of a science fiction master

On February 25, 2009, science fiction master Philip José Farmer—author of the Riverworld series and the Hugo-winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go—departed our reality at age 91. When it happened I wondered, How did Philip José Farmer end up in Peoria? But it turned out he had grown up there. Watching a zeppelin pass over the city, he once said, sparked his imagination and led him to SF. Farmer churned out seventy-some novels. He famously juggled eleven (!) ongoing series of books in the 1970s and earned a much-deserved rep for, first, productivity and second, maybe needing to rewrite a little more before going on to the next project.

night of lightFarmer won a Hugo for his early story “The Lovers,” a much-rejected manuscript that had offended the morals of many an editor with its graphic portrayal of interspecies intimacy. Years passed until the sock-it-to-me Sixties embraced Farmer’s frank discussion of sex and sexuality. Essex House, a publisher of pornography, published two of his late 1960s books. That thread of creative exploration peaked with controversial “biographies” of Tarzan and Doc Savage featuring the pulp icons in, well, amorous adventures as well as the other kind.

Farmer had signficant influence on pop culture and SF. Legend has it that Jimi Hendrix found “purple haze” in Farmer’s Night of Light. Robert Heinlein, inspired by Farmer’s delves into sexuality, dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land to him. Further afield, Farmer stoked renewed interest in Tarzan and Doc Savage by publishing straighahead adventure novels featuring each of the heroes. He also wrote Venus on the Half-Shell as Kilgore Trout, the obscure SF writer in several Kurt Vonnegut novels, only to have everyone assume Vonnegut wrote the book.