Through Whitest Africa: Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar by Philip José Farmer and The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey [Guest Post by J. Comer]

Few writers are as closely associated with the pulp tradition in SF and fantasy as the late Philip José Farmer (1918-2009).  Best known as the author of the Riverworld and World of Tiers series, Farmer penned five dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, winning three Hugo Awards across a writing career more than fifty years long.  He was the first major SF writer to deal with sexual themes as graphically as the mainstream authors of his time (The Lovers, 1952), carried to extremes with the horror-porn A Feast Unknown (1969), one of sixteen Farmer novels in which characters based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan appear. 

     The mention of Tarzan brings us to an aspect of Farmer’s work of interest to Cirsova.  Farmer was fascinated by the pulps and by classic adventure literature. He constantly pastiched their style and included characters referring to them, even linking many major pulp heroes and heroines into a “Wold-Newton Family” lineage.  Tarzan so intrigued Farmer that he deconstructed the science behind the ape man (Lord Tyger, 1970)  and wrote a ‘biography’ of His Lordship (Tarzan Alive (1972) as well as narrating the ultimate fate of Tarzan as a time traveler (Time’s Last Gift, 1972). 

     One aspect of Tarzan’s adventures is his penchant for discovering or finding lost cities and otherwise unknown civilizations.  Opar, which appears several times in Burroughs’ Tarzan tales, is one such, a city in the Congo whose men are hairy beasts and whose women are lovely Caucasians, such as the priestess La, modeled on Rider Haggard’s Ayesha.  Farmer could not help but be fascinated by questions about Opar’s origin and development, and pursued them in Tarzan Alive.[1]

     In Hadon of Ancient Opar he presents a tale of the Ice Age in Africa. Some readers will not care for the earthy, rough sexuality which still has the power to shock and disturb, despite the passage of decades.  Willy Ley’s “Chad Sea” and “Congo Lake” (Engineer’s Dreams, 1954) are present here as Mediterranean-like basins, while cities of a Jakob Bachofen-type matriarchy (Mother Right, 1861) flourish all around. Hadon, a sports champ/gladiator, is to become king but is instead sent on a deadly mission, and we’re off into whitest Africa, with Rider Haggard’s characters Laleela and Paga appearing alongside the Hercules-like Kwasin and the mysterious “grey-eyed god” Sahhindar; it will require very little effort on the reader’s part to realize who the ‘god of time’ is intended to be.

     While a place oddly near the actual Bantu homeland (Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1997) is designated as a black urheimat, the people of this ancient Africa are Caucasians or beast-people (Neanderthals and so on) and various crossbreeds.  While numerous black characters appear in Farmer’s work, the black erasure in these books is questionable to say the least. This reviewer understands the presence of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, but even when Farmer wrote these books, it was pretty clear that the Neanderthals, adapted to glacial conditions, would never have been numerous in a warm climate.

     The pulpy fun continues in Flight to Opar. The crew needs to reach Hadon’s home city for the birth of his daughter, and aren’t deterred by religious war, a usurper king, and graphic descriptions of sewage being dumped. As always Farmer’s grasp of action writing is a pleasure. Finally the motley bunch reunites with Hadon’s aged father and beloved brother, and the wild action comes to an end.

     And so did Farmer, who lived to be ninety-one and a beloved great-grandfather. He left unfinished work behind, including The Song of Kwasin, a novel about Hadon’s Goliath or Hercules-ish cousin.[2]  Christopher Paul Carey finished the book and published it in Gods of Opar (2012), which collects Farmer’s Opar novels and some addenda. Kwasin becomes King of one city, with Hadon’s scheming ex and the invading army of the Sun God to keep him busy. Minruth, the usurper king, attacks the city. Kwasin is captured and humiliated, with the great Queen Awineth, tortured and enslaved, with the Atlantean doom of Khokarsa looming nearer.  The ending neatly reverses the ‘lost continent’ version of Atlantis and returns the narrative to Hadon. Carey wrote two more Hadon novels and a Khokarsa prequel, which are really outside the scope of this review.

     Ten thousand years later, La, priestess-queen of Opar, met Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. The unrequited love between them clearly appealed to Burroughs as to his successors. La was mortal, or she wasn’t, but by and by she faded away, as the mystery of Africa faded into the twentieth century.

     What can we come away with, from Opar? A lost city, lost not only in Congo rainforest, but in lost colonialism? (Opar kept “Negro slaves” per Burroughs, who don’t play a part in the Hadon books.)  Who can resist a lost city of white matriarchs and bestial ape-men, a city crammed with gold?  Well, Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird (1972) was probably the last novel about such a place, and in that novel the city was a Zimbabwe-like ruin, seen in a dream. La has appeared in Disney’s Tarzan cartoon as well as in several of the many, many Tarzan films, but seventy years after Burroughs’ death, what is left of his lost Africa?

     According to Farmer and to Carey, good clean fun. Leslie Fiedler called Farmer the best SF writer; Dr Isaac Asimov simply said that Farmer was “a far more skillful writer than I am.”[3] While pastiche was central to Farmer’s work, his books are both well-written and fun, and in some cases more carefully thought out than the ‘originals’. In the case of Opar, the original idea of homage to Burroughs almost vanishes behind the vast worldmaking, but a Burroughs adventure rife with gold, battle and love-hate is the result.  Recommended to pulp fans.


[1] Super-fan Den Valdron presents Oparian Fanon here; NSFW:  https://www.erbzine.com/mag19/1937.html

[2] An additional Kwasin piece finished by Carey, “Kwasin and the Bear God,” was not available to the reviewer. A future printing of Gods of Opar would do well to include this novella.

[3] This reviewer believes Dr Asimov’s remark to derive from Farmer’s well-known skill as an action writer with a penchant for sex; Asimov was infamous for writing neither of these very well.

My Theory on Philip Jose Farmer’s The Maker of Universes (Spoilers)

TheMakerOfUniverses

The Maker of Universes is a work of metafiction about SFF.  The title “The Maker of Universes” refers not just to the Vaernirn “Lords” who create and maintain personalized pocket worlds, or even specifically to the Lord of the realm in which the novel takes place, but to writers who are themselves Makers of Universes.

Consider that the tier-world is made up of various earth myths and pseudomyths that have been molded to the Lord’s whims.  Also consider that we are told the Vaernirn cannot truly create on their own, but rather draw on what is available from their more glorious past.  If one approaches with a religious world-view, one can take away that Lords/writers are seeking to create with what true tools of creation have been left behind by the true creator; a more secular approach suggests merely that writers do not create beyond that from which they can pull (experience, knowledge, history, example, etc.), hence why the tier-world so strongly reflects earth’s mythos.

Kickaha (or “Kickass-a”, as I like to think of him) is a stand-in for and tribute to all Pulp heroes.  Though he’s been in the tier-world for a few decades, he’s an American mid-westerner who left earth in the early 40s; on earth, he would’ve been the age and audience for the pulps. There is more than one off-hand reference to Burroughs made throughout the story, and on the Atlantis tier where Kickaha leads an army of apes, though it’s not explicitly stated, Kickaha is (most likely) known as Tarzan.  Kickaha, the pulp hero, is the one man who is able to transition between the tiers of myths with ease (much moreso than the protagonist, for whom it is always a long and agonizing journey), and is a capable hero in all of them.  This is because the pulp hero is of myth and mythical, but at the same time transcendent of old myths; the modern pulp hero is as at home in ancient Greece as in medieval Germany as in Atlantis as in an alien’s laser fortress.

Here is where the theory gets a bit dicey and speculative.  Extrapolating the writer/creator symbolism, each world created by a Vaernirn represents a body of works.  The Vaernirn are lonely solitary creatures, however sometimes a Vaernirn will travel to another Lord’s world, try to displace him and become the new lord (as what has occurred in the plot of The Maker of Universes).  The new Lord may twist, distort and bring chaos to the world he has taken.  While Farmer makes ample use of homage, he does not tread, even lightly, on the names of other writers; that Kickaha is not EXPLICITLY named as Tarzan is important to this.  What we seem to have is a condemnation of other authors moving into a “universe” to try to take it over.  Given the time in which Maker was written, this would be understood (with a wink and a nod) to be representative of how the works of pulp greats were being taken over and expanded upon by the less great; Derleth, DeCamp and Carter could easily be cast as rogue Vaerirn Lords who had arrived at the worlds of Lovecraft and Howard, proclaimed themselves Lords and began mucking with the true Lord’s universe, however given Farmer’s Burroughs love, the numerous unauthorized Tarzan stories are just as likely a target.

Ultimately, the Maker of Universes is the story of an older author (Wolff is in his 60s) who trying to reclaim and regrasp his work and creativity; he does this by taking a long journey through it, seeking his muse and uncovering the many facets of his protagonist by adventuring with him. The journey makes him stronger, a better Lord(writer), and revitalizes him.  This is why, despite his hypercompetance, Kickaha is insistent that Wolff is the only one who can finish the job and defeat the usurper Lord. Only Wolff knows his world and its inhabitants well enough (though he must fight to remember the details he has forgotten) to arrive at the Laboratories, the factories of creation, from which his world is made and populated and take back the reins.