[GUEST POST] Christopher Paul Carey on Collaborating with a Grand Master of Science Fiction and Fantasy
Christopher Paul Carey is the coauthor with Philip José Farmer of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa. His next tale set in Farmer’s Khokarsa is Exiles of Kho, coming later this year in a signed limited edition from Meteor House. He is an editor with Paizo Publishing and the award-winning Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and the editor of three collections of Philip José Farmer’s work: Up from the Bottomless Pit and Other Stories, Venus on the Half-Shell and Others, and The Other in the Mirror. His short fiction may be found in such anthologies as The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, Tales of the Shadowmen, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. Visit his website at cpcarey.com and follow him on twitter at @cpcarey.
This month sees the release of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa, my collaboration with Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning author and SFWA Grand Master Philip José Farmer. Yeah, those honorific titles leave me humbled and in awe too, and they’re enough to make my inner voice frequently exclaim, “Whoa, wait a minute, how did this happen? How did I end up working with the Wizard of Peoria to complete the long-awaited-and long feared to be forever stalled-conclusion to his Khokarsa series?”
The answer, as is often the case with big inner-voice questions, varies wildly depending on how far back you want to trace it. You could say it began in the early 1970s when I was four years old and over at my grandfather’s house for Christmas, as my older brother tuned in a snowy, barely discernible image of Mr. Spock on a UHF channel. It might have been when, in grade school, I picked up and started reading a giant tome titled Science Fiction by H. G. Wells. Or when, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I obsessively read every single novel then in print by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I would have read them all in only a few months but it was the pre-Internet Age and the books were so hard to track down-but boy did I have fun searching them out!) Quite early in that latter period I picked up three books by Philip José Farmer: The Maker of Universes, Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke, and, fatefully, Hadon of Ancient Opar, which I regarded as the best of the lot. Other Farmers, of course, quickly followed, such as the Riverworld series; the rest of the World of Tiers books; the other Wold Newton “biography,” Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (which led to many more hours of reading during the lengthy hunt to complete my Bantam Doc Savage collection); Time’s Last Gift (a new edition of this classic novel of time travel is now available from Titan Books, with an afterword I’ve written to explain how this novel serves as a sort of prequel to Gods of Opar); Venus on the Half-Shell by “Kilgore Trout”; and on and on until, still in my teenage years, I had almost all of them.
Early on I knew there was something different about Farmer. He had this funny way of planting little magic seeds in his writing. Seeds that, if nurtured by the water of attention, would sprout into the most fantastically bizarre trees of the imagination. These seeds were little, seeming irrelevancies in his novels and short stories — here, an arcane factoid; there, a character that seemed a little off but who was so tantalizingly familiar; and over yonder, a genealogical incongruity that appeared undermined the storyline. But if you took notice of these disparate “mythemes” (to borrow anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s term for the smallest bundle of meaning in a narrative), and if you held them in your awareness as you read more of Farmer’s work, these seedlings squirmed and wriggled, sprouting roots and branches and then entire trunks, until you eventually had a whole Brobdingnagian World Tree rising up out of your imagination — a grand meta-story that suddenly made you feel like you yourself were a character in the Grand Adventure. And the weird thing, the gratifying thing — and I believe, the enduring thing — about Farmer’s palimpsest method of writing was that it was for the self-initiated only. You couldn’t sit there and read passively or you missed half the fun.
Farmer, above all, is a Trickster. He knew some people would grok the seedlings, understand they were a doorway, a pocket-universe-hopping “gate” that opened the way so that the normally too-passive reader could step through to discover a new kind of experience — not an inactive one, but rather one that can only be called creative reading. An opportunity not only to share in the writer’s experience, but to take the story beyond it until it seems like a living thing in your mind…and sometimes out of it. Farmer makes his readers pause on a mystical brink — sometimes with skepticism, other times with the sheer joy of faith — and consider that Kilgore Trout might really have written Venus on the Half-Shell, or that the identity of Tarzan of the Apes just might actually be discernible if you spent enough time poring over the dusty pages of Burke’s Peerage. When Farmer makes deadpan statements such as Doc Savage is “a man as real as you or I, and perhaps even more real,” his initiated readers understand this in a unique way. It’s a shared, knowing look between the author and the reader, a secret handshake of sorts.
Why do I think he did all this? For one, because it’s the way his mind worked. To cite another term used by Levi-Strauss, Farmer was a bricoleur. That is, someone skilled in taking what’s at hand regardless of its intended purpose — whether that be, in Farmer’s case, a rich background in pop lit (i.e., pulp, SF/F, children’s, etc.) as well as classic literature; or his Renaissance man’s knowledge of anthropology, or linguistics, or religion; or the love he had for lighter-than-air craft, or Sir Richard Francis Burton, or Krazy Kat, or you name it — and crafting it into a new thing that often transcends the original. Farmer created bricolage because that’s how his deep love for knowledge imprinted him — he couldn’t help but plant the seedlings in his work because that’s how he saw the world. You can see this bricolage clearly at work in his merging of the peoples of different ages and cultures in the Riverworld series; or in how he took hundreds of literary characters and ingeniously linked them all together to form the Wold Newton Family; or in the many backbiting and closely related Lords of the World of Tiers series, who formed pocket universes of their own, all of them linked via cleverly booby-trapped gates, but which somehow could never manage to keep the other Lords out. All of these examples are metaphors for how Farmer couldn’t prevent the neural pathways in his brain from finding ways to connect seemingly disparate bundles of information (quite appropriately, Joe Lansdale once called Farmer “the Man with the Electric Brain”).
Of course, just as often, I think Farmer sowed his magical seedlings throughout his bricolage simply because he wanted to laugh his ass off. I did say he was a Trickster, after all.
In any case, if I had to provide a single answer to the question of how I came to coauthor a novel with Philip José Farmer, it would be because of those seedlings, those mythemes, that were planted in my imagination so long ago. Without them I never would have begun writing articles about his work in the early 1990s (the one I’m most proud of having been reprinted in revised form in Win Scott Eckert’s 2005 Locus Award Finalist anthology Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe). Nor would I have begun corresponding with Farmer in 1997, or a year later hopped in my car and drove halfway across the country to just meet him and listen to him talk about his work. Eventually, Phil Farmer and Michael Croteau called on me to serve as editor of Farmerphile, a digest magazine dedicated to printing rare and previously unpublished works by Farmer. And it was while working with these materials that Mike uncovered in Phil’s files the partial manuscript and outline to what would eventually be titled The Song of Kwasin, the final installment of the Khokarsa trilogy. (Incidentally, these papers were found on the same trip during which Mike Croteau and Win Scott Eckert discovered the materials relating to The Evil and Pemberley House, which Win would later go on to complete with Phil’s permission.)
In the next few weeks after the find, I carefully drafted a proposal and sent it off to Phil. It was one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever done. Phil, who by this time had retired from writing and was experiencing a declining health, wrote back with great enthusiasm, saying he approved of my proposal and wanted me to complete the novel. As late as 1999, Phil himself had been considering writing the conclusion of the trilogy, and I think the unforeseen prospect of making good on his intentions excited him. We discussed some details about the novel’s close, and Phil told me what he had in mind now that The Song of Kwasin would be the conclusion to a trilogy rather than a novel in the middle of a longer series. I was attending graduate school for writing at this point, and needed to finish my thesis before I could break ground on Kwasin, but Phil and his wife Bette were firmly supportive of this and wanted me to hold off until I’d earned my degree.
I completed the first draft of The Song of Kwasin in early 2008. Phil wasn’t doing so well now, but Bette Farmer read the novel aloud to him, telling me how Phil lit up at hearing of Kwasin’s adventures, which made me very happy to say the least. Then, in January 2009, while visiting Phil about a month before he passed, I uncovered another trove of Khokarsa materials in the files (in addition to another assortment of Khokarsa files I’d found in 2006 and to which Phil graciously gave me access while I was writing the novel). These newly found papers included the complete Khokarsan syllabary and several drafts of an article on Khokarsan linguistics as well as other addenda — the best sense I can give you of Phil’s world building is to say that it’s truly Tolkienesque in its breadth and detail. In any event, it was a lucky find. I used this new information to make some adjustments to the final draft of the novel, which is at last seeing print Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa, an omnibus of the series now available from Subterranean Press.
The road to Khokarsa has been a long, strange, and winding one for me, and it’s not a path that I could ever walk again if I tried. But I’m glad I did, just as I’m glad for all those seedlings Philip José Farmer planted in my imagination so many years ago. I know I wouldn’t — and couldn’t — have written The Song of Kwasin without them.
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