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.

 

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