The Pataphysics of Philip Jose Farmer

When I was writing The Revolutionary Tapestry there were two key influences on the novel – ‘Pataphysics and Philip Jose Farmer.

The ‘Pataphysics influence is fairly obvious – Alfred Jarry is one of the main characters and those familiar with his work will notice lots of implicit and explicit references to it. One of the conceits is that things that happen in the book feed through into his later writing. While the character of Jarry is reasonably accurate (I hope) it changes because of the experiences he has in this alternate world.

The Farmer influence is primarily in a shared love for “pulp” or popular writing – in the case of the novel mainly French serials, novels and films with the odd nod to Britain. Not all of these were written during or before the time in which the novel is set but most of those that followed are either set in that period or follow the zeitgeist of that time of anarchy, experimental art, street gangs and furious scientific innovation.

What I didn’t try and do is to write a “Wold Newton” book. There is only one character taken directly from a novel of the time, and he is only mentioned in a single paragraph and doesn’t appear directly.

However, Farmer’s Wold Newton universe is itself a Pataphysical concept as it deals with a universe supernumerary to this one ruled by the science of exceptions.

The Wold Newton universe is one where the heroes and villains of popular fiction not only exist, but are generally all related. First explicitly detailed in Farmer’s Tarzan Alive it suggests several families – including a number of characters from popular fiction – were travelling by coach through the village of Wold Newton in Yorkshire in 1795 when a meteorite fell nearby and its radiation caused genetic mutations in their descendants which gave them extraordinary abilities. Farmer then proceeds in Tarzan Alive and his biography of Doc Savage to trace those family trees back and forward and shoehorn in hundreds of characters in popular fiction.

This is, of course, an extension of the methods of the Sherlockian Game where members of the Baker Street Irregulars and other fans of Doyle’s character use the methods of academia to try and reconcile the contradictions within the Holmes canon – which they treat as factual and written by Dr Watson with Conan Doyle as his literary agent. The best starting point for this is Baring-Gould’s Biography of Holmes: Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.

After writing the two biographies Farmer proceeded to set stories featuring characters who were integrated into the Wold Newton family tree – some by other authors and some original. Other authors have since expanded both the family tree and the number of stories set in what Win Scott Eckert dubbed the Wold Newton Universe. Eckert himself and others have also written quasi academic articles. The four volumes of Crossovers by Eckert and Sean Lee Levin as well as Randy Marc Lofficier’s Shadowmen encyclopaedias detail a dizzying amount of links – most of which can be found via the Wold Newton website. They have swallowed up thousands of novels, TV shows, comics and films and incorporated them into this universe.

This approach seems to mirror the work of the College de ‘Pataphysique – founded in 1948 – and its various departments in exploring the work of Jarry and his antecedents and descendants in a way that is both rigorous and playful. Andrew Hugill’s ‘Pataphysics: a useless guide is probably the best overview for the Anglophone.

Both programmes have been extremely influential and the roll call of the societies and associated groups such as the London Institute of ‘Pataphysics includes a stellar list of names in literature and art.

Although Farmer never linked the two in his Wold Newton books he does feature Jarry as a character in his Riverworld series – where everyone who has ever lived on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a world long river. I was not entirely convinced by his portrayal of Jarry, but enjoyed the addition to the series in the stories Crossing the Dark River, Up the Bright River and Coda.


London Book Fair pt 2

Further work to prepare myself for visiting the London Book Fair.

I have looked through the list of agents who are attending and researched which (a) are open to submissions (b) are interested in science fiction (c) which agents within the company are those who hold that brief (d) what books they like and other interests (e) were they are based. The idea is to have a short list of a dozen or so who seem a good fit – they would potentially like the book and could we work together.

I’m not expecting to get signed up there and then, but want to have a better chance of being looked at if they agree to receive the manuscript. As it inevitably says in most of the rejection letters I have received, whether an agent decides to take on a client is as much about “fit” as the quality of the book. Do they personally like it, does it fit the current marketplace, and are you the sort of person they will be happy to work with.

The marketplace issue is an interesting one. Publishers need to signal to potential readers why they should stump up the cost of buying the book. If they can describe it as “like a, b or c” that make that job easier. Everything from the blurb to the cover to the media releases will then be geared to make it look as much like other books you like as possible. Breaking through a book that doesn’t fit that easily into a category is that much harder.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was a wonderful book but not one that slotted comfortably into an existing genre. The hardback was therefore heavily discounted when it was launched and a lot of effort was put into getting advance plaudits from people who the public recognise and like. Once it had taken off, it opened the door to market other books as being “like The Night Circus”. Almost inevitably there will be a lot of books over the next few years that are pale imitations and dilute the genre. That category of novels will either grow if there are sufficient which are good enough to build a market, or will wither away leaving Morgenstern to stand alone.

A good example is steam punk, which my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry shares elements with. The initial examples by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, K.W.Jeter, and the one off collaboration by Sterling and Gibson “The Difference Engine” used the idea of an alternative Victorian setting in interesting ways. Most of the subsequent works have taken the superficial elements of the setting and lost what the originals were about. That doesn’t mean they are bad books – just ones that are comforting rather than challenging. One of the joys of the Difference Engine is that it makes you look at not only Victorian England but the present day in a new way. I hope The Revolutionary Tapestry does the same, but also incorporates the fun element of Steampunk at its best – Powers The Anubis Gates being the best example of this.

The same goes for alternative history. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle was a brilliant novel which asked important questions about being human in a world under a malign government and the nature of reality.  Just as with Steampunk, other worthwhile novels in the same genre are fun explorations of “what if”. However there are also scores of novels that simply write a straightforward  narrative with some historical research for seasoning.

I have always loved the writing of Alfred Jarry and the many other movements and artists he has inspired. His life is as fantastic as any of his writings and he lived in a period which not only was filled with equally enthralling people, but contains the seeds of our world today in the issues it faced. The scientific advances, the political challenge of anarchism and communism. Imperialism and its effect on the subjugated populations. The enormous gap between rich and poor. Struggles with equality and sexuality and what it means to be a man or a woman. Not to mention the anti-Semitism and general racism. At the same time people were investigating the nature of mind with neuroscience, psychology and altered states of consciousness as well as exploring the works of eastern science and esoteric beliefs.

An alternative history novel where the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t fall but succeeded and ran France seemed a good way of exploring some of these themes and the idea of the Tapestry – a proto internet based on a combination of radio and punch cards gave me not only a way of looking at information, disinformation and its political effect but also a metaphor for the way the story weaves together different lives and plot strands   as well as themes. I also stole a few techniques from John Dos Passos (without the level of skill or complexity I fear) to paint the society in both width and depth.

Most of all, I wanted it to be fun –  not laugh out loud funny but fast paced, exciting and witty in both the overall story and lots of the details. It is not Jarryesque in its style (I am definitely not worthy) but hopefully it has his sense of invention and playfulness. Some of the jokes also come from weaving some of the ideas in his writing into the plot and scenes.

One of my pre-readers suggested it could easily be taken as an historical novel if you didn’t know enough about the period to see where the timelines diverged and where the real ends and extrapolation begins. However Alastair Brotchie’s marvellous biography of Jarry and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years do such a good job of describing the reality it would be pointless retelling the truth.

Jules is doing a wonderful job re-reading it to identify issues (as well as the typos etc I have inevitably still missed so I will do the final revise today, cut it up again into the various different sizes that are needed for different agents, and rehearse an elevator pitch so I can make the best first impression I can.



London Book Fair

rough coverI’m off to the London Book Fair next week to see if I can find an agent for The Revolutionary Tapestry and in the throws of getting prepared.

First job is looking at the actual novel again – I am broadly happy with it, but in scanning again I noticed a dozen or so typos and other mistakes. More importantly my wonderful wife Jules suggested I started by writing page long back stories/ sketches of each of the main characters to make sure the way they behave in each situation is consistent with who they are as people. There were several places where I was able to improve things having done this work first.

Jules is now busy reading it through again to make sure it is as good as it can be. She has spotted further mistakes – why it is always hard to sub your own writing as you see what you think you have written rather than the actual words.

Jules’ sister is also busy seeing if she can mock up a cover for the book to give people a quick visual idea of its contents and tone. I did a rough sketch myself which is above but I am sure the final version will look a lot less as if it was drawn by a five year old. Jules’ sister is an extremely talent artist – see her page Asmarabella Art for some of her work.

I addition I have been doing all of the background work. A key thing for agents and publishers to know is whether you are going to do your part in marketing the book. Not everyone can get away with Salinger or Pynchon anonymity and most first time authors are expected to get out there and publicise their work online and in the flesh. I have been updating my Facebook page and anyone who visits and likes this will earn my undying gratitude. Likewise anyone who buys my self published short story collection The Cat Factory and other Stories. A bargain at £2.08 for around 400 pages.

Jules also came up with a brilliant idea to help agents and others I talk to which will form the basis for a competition over the next couple of days.

Finally I have been going through the list of agents exhibiting to see which are open to submissions in the genre of the book and which person in the agency is likely to most positive towards it. As there are dozens of them and you need to visit each individual website to research this it is not a trivial job.

Wish me luck.


Under review

I was pleased to find in looking at the Amazon page for my short story collection – The Cat Factory and other stories by Tim Newton Anderson – that it had some very positive reviews.

One of them was from a friend – albeit one I have only seen once since leaving university thirty odd years ago – but the other two were from people I don’t know. All of them gave me five stars and very positive reviews.

It is always worrying when you put something out there that it will be received negatively. Performing on stage is not too bad. You may not get the reaction you want but it is over quickly and you move on to the next event. It’s only if you continually get bad responses you start to worry. My former band guitarist always reckoned you get gigs in a set of three threes – one bad, one ok and one good. Sometimes you just aren’t feeling it, sometimes the audience are not in the mood or are more interested in chatting, and sometimes there isn’t enough audience there to create any kind of atmosphere.

With music you can also quickly go back and work out how to improve the next performance. It is harder with a book. Once it is out there it stays out there. Jules is doing an audio recording for me of the collection and in preparing the files for her to scroll through I’ve noticed several typos I missed despite lots and lots of proofreading. Nothing that major but still annoying to me – and more importantly to the reader.

I also keep thinking of ways to tweak the stories to make them better. If I’m totally honest I’m not sure I would award the collection five stars, because I can see ways in which it could be improved. Perhaps the important thing is the reader’s reaction. They only know what they read and whether they enjoy it – not what I was trying to do with the story. cover

Rocket Man

Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.

I was researching occult artists – specifically Majorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel – or Cameron as she always signed herself. She was a friend of Kenneth Anger, Juliet Greco and follower of Alastair Crowley as well as setting up her own multi racial occult group called “The Children”.

In researching Cameron I came across details of her husband Jack Parsons and was astonished no-one had used him for the basis of a novel (although he features as a character in Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue and L Sprague de Camp’s Gun for a Dinosaur). He led a life you couldn’t make up.

Parsons was a largely self taught rocket scientist whose pioneering work with a group of friends and later with Caltech and other organisations in the late 30s and early 40s  helped the US space programme to take off.

He was also an active communist, and a follower of Crowley – he became the leading member of Crowley’s Agape Lodge in the USA and set up a commune with his wife, her sister, and other OTO followers. It was too early for rock and roll, but there was plenty of sex and drugs. He had worked for months on a ritual called Babalon designed to incarnate the Thelemite goddess. When Cameron arrived, he was convinced she was that incarnation, although she did not know about the ritual until years later.

In the meantime one of his lodgers was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard who swindled Parsons out of his life savings.

Parsons had been eased out of the rocket industry by the security services because of concerns about his behaviour and associations – including supposedly working for the Israeli secret service. He was still working on rocketry, while being employed as an explosives expert by the film industry. On June 17 1952 he was working on some explosives when his laboratory was destroyed in what seemed like an accident. However friends and colleagues suggested it was sabotage or suicide.

An amazing life filled with cameos by many of the important figures of the age including key members of the Beats, science fiction writers, occultists, scientists and more.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Although people will tell you otherwise, the comment that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12 was supposedly said by fan Peter Graham (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

For me that means 1964/5. At that time I was indeed reading lots of writing from the “official” Golden Age of 1938 to 1946. The time giants like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke were t the peak of their powers and transforming SF from its twin US heritages of adventure stories and Gernsback’s gadget based tales to something which used science as a way of exploring our place in the universe as human beings. The spaceships, robots and aliens were there but often as a metaphor of the way we deal with society and each other and the characters and their social interaction -as well as the societies and politics they inhabited – were more realistic. The adventure was still there but in plots that had a resonance for wider society.

I was also reading lots of mainstream fiction, and a lot of books aimed at my age like Billy Bunter, Jennings, and Molesworth. In many ways, those tales of jolly japes in the dorms of a minor public school were as alien to my everyday life living on Tyneside as stories of life in the future.

The period of science fiction I embraced most completely was the New Wave of the mid to late 60s and early 70s. This was partly because of availability – there were no dedicated bookshops in South Shields – a few shelves upstairs in the T&G Allen store and some carousels in newsagents. I had to get on my bike and cycle to Sunderland or Newcastle to access a wider stock. Other sources were Woolworths – which had a lot of cheap US imports shipped as ballast – and “adult” bookshops which drew their window dressing from the same source. A lot of these volumes were from Ace including the new Ace Science Fiction Specials which opened my eyes to Zelazny, Delany, Le Guin, Lafferty, Ellison and others. You could also get the occasional US science fiction magazine.

UK publishers such as Sphere and Panther had also embraced both the US and UK new waves and Panther’s “Best of New Worlds” series and the Judith Merril “Best SF” series by Mayflower also widened my reading. This was exciting in the same way some of the veterans of the Golden Age and just after like Farmer and Leiber were exciting and the best of that generation had also embraced the new freedoms to write some of their best work. At the same time Lin Carter was resurrecting semi forgotten fantasy writers at Ballantine in an attempt by the publishers to find the next Tolkein and Penguin’s Modern Classics grey spines had allowed me to discover Peake, Vian, the Beats and many more.

When I went to University in Manchester, discussions with people like Savoy founder David Britton at his House on the Borderland and Orbit Books introduced me to even more great writers including Jarry and Lautreamont and I was able to fill gaps in my library with books by authors I loved that never received UK publication. Plus the occasional trip to London to visit Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and Compendium.


Unique Voices

I’ve always loved authors who are unique. Not just in their “voice” or subject matter but in the way they look at the world.

There are lots of authors who have one of these qualities which makes them instantly recognisable. Lovecraft, of course, or Ray Bradbury, can be recognised from the first few lines. Both also have their own distinct view of the world. But they don’t quite make my top five because they are possible to imitate. My top five are so unique that few people would dare to imitate them.

The first in the list is Alfred Jarry. The late 19th century French author and playright had a number of influences and certainly influenced others in turn. He was close to the symbolists and decadents and inspired Dada, surrealism and those associated with the College de ‘Pataphysique but stands apart from all of them in his brilliant eccentric vision. In many ways he could be said to have created a form of literature that has only one proponent – Jarry himself. Most of his work is available in translation if you look for it – much by the wonderful Atlas Press. Most who know Jarry at all do so via Ubu Roi but everything by him is worth reading.

Second in the list (and from now on this is in order of birth rather than favouritism) is David Lindsay. Again, if you have heard of him it will be for one work – A Voyage to Arcturus. This is certainly his best book – his prose is often uneven and the unique vision compromised by attempts to shoehorn in elements of more conventional settings – but all of his work is worth reading -especially Devil’s Tor and Sphinx. If you haven’t read Acturus, see if you can find the Savoy Books hardback which is beautifully produced and includes Colin Wilson’s insightful essay on Lindsay.

Third, born a couple of years after Lindsay, is James Branch Cabell. Again, mainly know for one book – Jurgen – which came to prominence for an obscenity case over some very mild sexual innuendo. Cabell could be accused of writing the same book over and over – he explicitly had a trio of themes which he worked out over the Biography of Manuel series of which Jurgen is a part. Many of the books are fantasies but all are comedies of manners. Like Lindsay and Jarry his those he influenced are nowadays far more famous than Cabell himself.

The fourth author is R.A. Lafferty. Like Cabell, you can instantly recognise a story by Lafferty, and no-one else can write a Lafferty tale, although Michael Bishop and Gene Wolfe have made brave attempts. Often drawing on the odd facts and throwaway theories of Charles Fort Lafferty has an oblique view of the world and its mysteries. His novels are sometimes hard work but the short stories – magnificent. From his first collection -900 Grandmothers – he burst into science fiction with a unique voice. A special mention should be given to editor Terry Carr who helped launch or boost the career of a number of great authors through his two Ace Science Fiction special series and his short story collections. As well as Lafferty, he also supported the final author in our list.

Avram Davidson is as erudite as Jarry or Cabell with the allusive style of Lafferty. Davidson also has Gene Wolfe’s ability to construct a story of details that seem mere embellishment but later prove to be a key element of the plot. Like Wolfe he also uses his encyclopedic knowledge to build worlds that have enormous depth without drowning the reader in exposition. His characters live in their worlds rather than exploring them. His short stories are more accessible than his novels, but the novels are more rewarding – especially the Virgil Magus series. My own favourites are the stories featuring Dr Englebert Esterhazy in his imaginary turn of the century middle European empire and the Jack Limekiller stories set in central America.