Hello Ghouls and Boils,
Today we have a special treat – a republished article written by Henry Covert. If you stumbled onto this and would like to know why we republished it here, refer to The Not-So-Savvy Reader. Thanks again to Henry for giving us his time. I hope you all find this article as informative and intriguing as I did. Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
Hello Ghouls and Boils,
Today we are going to do something a little different. During my time here at Savvy Reader’s Bookshelf I have been giving you some interviews and introducing my world to you. Today I want to do that in a very different way. Philip José Farmer is a brilliant example of how Science Fiction, Strange Tales and Horror make perfect companions with romance, love and eroticism. Tomorrow, on my last day here at Savvy, I will be interviewing Win Scott Eckert. So please take some time to get to know the universe that has become his playground. Below you will find an article written by my brilliant husband, Henry. We will feature a more in-depth version on She Never Slept soon. I hope you learn just as much as I did. As I always tell our readers at SNS – Enjoy, my fiends!
Sarah L. Covert
by Henry Covert
Who is Philip José Farmer? And what is Wold Newton anyway?
Philip José Farmer is a groundbreaking, iconoclastic, award-winning, and endlessly inventive author of science fiction and related genres. Farmer’s work, in this age of overnight literary phenoms driven by irony, deconstructivism, and endless multi-media shilling, lacks the recognition and attention he should so richly be afforded. Philip Jose Farmer was essentially the catalyst that forced science fiction as a genre to take the last painful steps into adulthood. He crafted the first truly adult – explicitly adult – genre tales. He was recognized early on for this by winning a prestigious Hugo Award in 1953 as “Most Promising New Talent” for his story (later expanded to a novel) “The Lovers” – a frank, graphic, and emotionally wrenching tale of an inter-species love affair on a distant planet. Farmer revolutionized all science-fiction from then on – his heroes were fully human (even when non-human) – capable of sensitivity, sexual passion, spiritual yearnings, and unspeakable violence.
Farmer’s influence sent ripples through two generations of aspiring genre writers, opening – or crashing – the floodgates to make way for the far-ranging, disparate likes of Harlan Ellison, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Norman Spinrad, Philip K. Dick, and other mavericks of the form. These authors didn’t really coalesce into a brain trust as did the earlier “California Sorcerers” group (Bradbury, Serling, Beaumont, Matheson, Nolan, Johnson, et al.), but these were science fiction/ fantasy’s “New Wave” – and no one rode that wave faster, more furiously, or with such total abandon – as Philip José Farmer.
Farmer’s work reached its first massive peak with the Hugo Award-winning novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first in an ambitious five-novel cycle that enthralled millions of readers with the idea of the Riverworld, a planet bounded by a vast river, along whose banks co-existed all of the Earth’s resurrected dead – from the Stone Age until (interesting this) 2008 AD. Farmer here was able to construct stories of meetings between such well-known and legendary real-life figures as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Sir Richard Francis Burton, Cyrano de Bergerac, Tom Mix, Hermann Goering, and scores more. To Your Scattered Bodies Go gave readers their first, most potent dose – after portentous tastes in earlier works – of Farmer’s lifelong penchant for blending and blurring empirical reality with the realms of the imagination – and often, erasing the lines between altogether.
If all of known history was the playground where he “crossed over” legendary characters who nonetheless truly lived – what if Farmer exercised the same conceit with all of the innumerable fictional characters he had ever loved or had a fascination with? If Riverworld was Philip Jose Farmer’s first major playground in which to weave a new reality from existing materials, what was to come was an even vaster metafictional sandbox that was ultimately to become popularly known as the Wold Newton Universe. In this setting, Farmer employed crossovers between, pastiches of, and homages to, his most cherished literary icons. How he was able to do this will be explored shortly, as we examine his next major critically and commercially lauded book after the launch of Riverworld – a book inspired by the work of many other writers, but the likes of which had never quite been written before. For though it had its antecedents, Tarzan Alive would not be the book it is but for Philip José Farmer.
But first, to answer the second query put forth for this essay: What is Wold Newton?
This requires a much shorter answer than our first query. On December 13, 1795, a meteorite fell at 3 p.m. near the tiny hamlet of Wold Newton in Yorkshire, England. The Wold Newton meteorite was the first observed meteorite in Britain, and after scientific study, it was acquired by naturalist James Sowerby, who gave away fragments to some curious folk. Sowerby’s remaining fragments now reside at the Natural History Museum in London. In 2003, a local brewery, Wold Top, was founded in honor of the meteorite, and produces an ale called “Falling Stone”. In 2007 Wold Newton aficionado Paul Spiteri brought the first bottles of Falling Stone to America to distribute at an event in honor of Philip Jose Farmer (an event which I was honored to be able to attend).
So, at what point does the life of this brilliant and influential author intersect with the fate of a meteorite that fell over three centuries ago? And how has Farmer’s use of the very name ‘Wold Newton’ (usually followed by the words ‘Family’, ‘Universe’ or some other epithet) come to denote a unique and ever-expanding take on crossover and shared universe/ world building? Dropping the phrase ‘Wold Newton’ in certain circles now provokes reactions from an entire subset of fandom – though those reactions vary wildly. Everyone engaging in “Woldnewtonry” (a term believed to have been coined by Dr. Peter Coogan) brings to it their own notions of just how to go about expanding this metafictional House That Farmer Built.
Wold Newton studies (in the context of Farmer, not of the real-life meteorite) began in earnest in 1972, with the publication of Tarzan Alive (henceforth TA), a biography of the man Edgar Rice Burroughs variously called John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and Tarzan of the Apes. In TA, Farmer asserts that Greystoke was a real person, and that Burroughs greatly exaggerated Greystoke’s exploits for his pulp adventure audience. In TA, Farmer establishes a template for all Wold Newton works to follow. He does this by employing three major tropes that formed the bedrock of Wold Newton studies.
First, as noted, he claimed that Tarzan, and a great number of other fictional characters, were in fact real people. Here he followed the lead of William S. Baring-Gould’s ‘biography’ Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. A great number of these co-called “fictional biographies” have appeared in the decades since; Baring-Gould himself even continued the trend with his Nero Wolfe of 35th Street, where he contends that Nero Wolfe was actually the son of Sherlock Holmes (this relationship link also undoubtedly influenced the course Farmer would take with TA in conceiving the Wold Newton Family). The fictional biography conceit will be further explained below.
A second hallmark of Wold Newton studies concerns continuity among a character’s published exploits. Farmer again followed Baring-Gould’s example as the Holmes appreciation group, the Baker Street Irregulars, had devoted themselves to this minutiae for decades. The Irregulars were named for a group of street urchins that would at times assist Sherlock; they were introduced in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1886). It was Farmer’s induction into the Irregulars and his thorough study of Baring-Gould that surely planted the seed that was to, not so much bloom (as in Leopold?), as to burst, Athena-like, from Mr. Farmer’s formidable brainpan. Much as Baring-Gould and the Baker Street Irregulars scrutinized the Holmesian canon for lapses in continuity, Farmer analyzed Burroughs’ ‘fictionalized’ texts of Tarzan’s adventures and attempted to reconcile any conflicting information. Holmesian scholar Professor H.W. Starr was particularly influential on Farmer’s embrace of these methodologies.
Lastly, Farmer created the concept of the Wold Newton Family – a grouping of fictional characters that Farmer claims are blood related, including: Tarzan, Holmes, Doc Savage, Nero Wolfe, the Scarlet Pimpernel, A.J. Raffles, Professor Challenger, the Shadow, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Bennett Darcy, and many others. Farmer accounts for the prodigious talents of Holmes, Tarzan, etc. by revealing that they are descended from a group of people traveling by coach in Wold Newton, Yorkshire, England in 1795 when a meteor struck a nearby cottage, twenty yards from the coaches. The passengers of those coaches were exposed to radiation from the meteor, and all of the women in the coaches were pregnant at the time. As Farmer says in TA, “they The passengers of those coaches were exposed to radiation from the meteor, and all of the women in the coaches were pregnant at the time. never guessed, being ignorant of ionization, that the fallen star had affected them and their unborn”. But it was indeed this event that has accounted for the benevolent mutations of their offspring. The descendants of those affected intermarried, strengthening the mutant gene pool, and the Wold Newton Family grew very complex…
Farmer continued to explore all of the above described concepts in his follow up to TA, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (henceforth DS: HAL), a ‘biography’ of the classic pulp hero. In DS:HAL, not only does Farmer further the conceit of the hero being a real person, but he adds many branches to his Wold Newton family tree. By the end of DS: HAL, we see a huge family of extraordinary folk taking shape, a family that includes classic pulp and adventure heroes (and villains) such as Professor Moriarty, the Spider, the Avenger, James Bond, Sam Spade, and Fu Manchu. It becomes a family that encompasses Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and Captain Nemo; Leopold Bloom from Ulysses; Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout; and Farmer’s own hero Kickaha from his World of Tiers series – among many others. Farmer also adds extraordinary characters who were not descended from those at the meteor crash, but are either related to them or are their ancestors. Examples include Captain Blood, Solomon Kane, and Allan Quatermain. Farmer also adds more outre source texts (from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos to the talking canine detective Ralph von Wau Wau) than in his previous work, and also doesn’t claim his source texts are fictionalized to the degree asserted in TA.
Over the years, Farmer penned other novels and short stories set within the milieu he had thus created. The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, “After King Kong Fell”, The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (a Tarzan-Holmes crossover), Hadon of Ancient Opar, Escape from Loki (a Doc Savage novel), “The Freshman”, “Skinburn”, the Ralph von Wau Wau stories, and a good number of others. What is amazing is the sheer scope of Farmer’s accomplishments in establishing what longtime Wold Newton torch-bearer Win Scott Eckert finally dubbed in 1997 ‘The Wold Newton Universe (or WNU)’. Eckert noted the vast range of fictional characters that Farmer had chosen to co-habitate within this marvelous new shared universe, and observed that obviously not all characters were necessarily blood relatives, descendants, or ancestors of those present at the 1795 meteor strike, but may still exist within the same shared fictional universe as the Wold Newton Family proper. Hence Eckert’s choice of the title ‘Wold Newton Universe’. For instance, to use an oft-cited example, Farmer demonstrated in “After King Kong Fell” that King Kong co-exists in the same fictional reality as both Doc Savage and the Shadow. Obviously, however, Kong is not a blood relative of either hero (at least, not as far anyone has been able to discern…).
All of these titles are currently in print:
Tarzan Alive by Philip José Farmer (1972; reprinted Bison Books, 2006)
Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe (edited by Win Scott Eckert, MonkeyBrain Books, 2005)
Farmerphile: The Magazine of Philip José Farmer (published by Michael Croteau, webmaster of the Official Philip José Farmer Home Page; authorized by Farmer; many WNU-related essays and a WNU column by Win Scott Eckert each issue)
Pearls from Peoria by Philip José Farmer (edited by Paul Spiteri, Subterranean Press, 2006; essential Farmer anthology; many rare stories set in the WNU
Venus on the Half Shell and Others by Philip José Farmer (edited by Christopher Paul Carey, Subterranean Press, 2008; essential volume collecting all of the stories Farmer wrote under the guises of fictional characters – even his own. The vast majority of these tales are set squarely in the WNU, most notably the original Tarzan-Holmes version of The Adventure of the Peerless Peer (with Phil writing as Dr. Watson).
Unfortunately, none of the following titles are currently in print, but I’d be sorely remiss in in not recommending them here. The proverbial eBay, Amazon.com, or used bookstore hunt should yield copies, however. One certainly must do their homework in studying Woldnewtonry – but the reading is never dull.
Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip José Farmer (1973; most recently reprinted in 1981)
Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street by William S. Baring-Gould (1962; most recently reprinted in 1995) This “fictional biography” of the Great Detective started it all – for Mr. Farmer and so, for the rest of us.
The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip José Farmer (1973; most recently reprinted in 1982)
A Feast Unknown by Philip José Farmer (1969; most recently reprinted in 1996). This very graphic pastiche of Tarzan and Doc Savage (here known as Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban) is widely seen as not taking place in the WNU proper, but there have been compelling arguments for its inclusion. Regardless, a fantastic read, but most definitely “Adults Only”.
The Many Worlds of Wold Newton, Philip Jose Farmer and the Genesis of Wold Newton and complete text are Copyright 2010 George Henry Smathers Jr.