Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Riders of the Purple Wage

As I finished Philip Jose Farmer’s Riders of the Purple Wage, I closed the book and set it in my lap, then stroked the kitten who had taken up residence on the arm of the chair. I tried to gauge my feelings about the stories in the anthology, especially the titular novella, which were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, I have been a fan of Philip Jose Farmer for about as long as I can remember. I enjoyed the Fabulous Riverboat series, though towards the end of it, it felt like Farmer had lost the thread of his initial ideas. I am also a fan of his World of Tiers series, although as often happens, taking off decades between books sometimes shifts the direction of those books. Then there were the Dayworld books, which I thought had a really thoughtful premise that just got lost in the sequels.
So yeah, there was a pattern to my thinking about Farmer. And this book was more of the same...and the novella really had my head spinning. If ever there was a story meant to be about style over substance, this seemed to be it. "Riders of the Purple Wage" is filled with wordplay and characters acting outrageously, with little in the way of what I would call meat, descriptions of how the world got to where it was or how people adapt to the differences. In some ways, it felt a great deal like the interstitial chapters of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, but not nearly so carefully developed. Perhaps that had to do with the differences between a novel and a novella, but I did what I usually don't do and started doing research on the web.
The first thing I found was that "Riders of the Purple Wage" was originally published as a part of Harlan Ellison's classic Dangerous Visions. So I knew that, in fact, Farmer was writing on consignment more or less, fulfilling the purpose of an anthology, which in this case was to be edgy and stretch the boundaries of science fiction. I then pulled out my copy of Dangerous Visions and read Ellison's introduction to the novella. According to that writing, "Riders" is a masterpiece of the potential of science fiction, and the only people who would really get it were the folks who were not interested in being spoon-fed pap. Well, I had read Dangerous Visions a while ago and liked it, and I thought I liked edgy material. I was among the first people I know who read Mieville and have been evangelizing it to everyone I know. Hell, I proselytize Zanzibar and Bester to whomever I can.
I then read Farmer's afterward and was pleased to find that Farmer himself had cut out 20000 words (which left 30000 published), including the kinds of things I thought were missing--the origin of the culture that was being described and scenes that further detail the interactions of its members. Well, okay. Ellison thinks I'm an idiot (which he probably would have anyway) and Farmer tells me there are pieces missing that might help. I feel better about my problems, though I still can't explain what the first chapter was about.
The stories that precede "Riders" are an interesting mix that go some ways toward setting the mood of melancholy for the dystopian states being described. The opening story, "One Down, One To Go," posits a world where the welfare state is mixed evenly with people still able to support themselves. And in an attempt to cut down on the welfare costs, the government offers to pay people to sterilize themselves. But all of this serves as a background for the narrator who describes his daily life as a government agent selling these sterilizations. Nothing unexpected happens to the narrator or the story he tells, and a description of this welfare state is all the depth we get. But the events are strongly written, even if they don't go very far. And this is how I feel about most of the rest. "UFO versus IRS" has a potentially funny premise that never gets very far. "St. Francis Kisses His Ass Good-bye" has an interesting premise that gets waylaid by the descriptions of how inhumane people are to one another. "The Long Wet Purple Dream of Rip Van Winkle" again has a time-travel premise, but it gets wrapped up in the descriptions of perverse sex that Van Winkle stumbles into without testing the science fictional aspect that allows the story to be told. The most complete story, "The Oogenesis of Bird City" has a clear beginning, middle and end, and deals with the issues it brings to the table--the potential sacrifices that must be made for the betterment of generations that follow--but upon starting "Riders," it's clear that it is just a prequel to another story (in fact, it is one of the chunks that Farmer edited out).
So, the book feels incomplete. There is some fine writing in dribs and drabs in the various stories, and there are some thought-provoking and even extremely comedic scenes. But it doesn't hang together well. It is a fine study of stylistics, but it's a lot like gravy without the meat. It's clear the chef has talent, but I would dearly love to see it more completely played out; I'm just not a big fan of stylistic prose for the sake of style alone. And if that makes me a digester of pap, so be it.

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