I couldn’t finish either Poul Anderson’s THE STAR FOX or Robert A. Heinlein’s FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD. Both were terrible: Anderson’s book in the expected ways re: space capitalism, space imperialism, and space sexism, and Heinlein’s in long-established SFF tradition of sexist, authoritarian libertarianism. I only got about ten to twenty pages into each, and so didn’t feel like they’d be worth writing up.
And so I decided to read one of my favorite writers who had a book in the Unpulped box: Philip José Farmer. The book in question is called TONGUES OF THE MOON and I’d never heard of it and there’s perhaps a reason for that.
The reason: It’s not very good.
Compared to most of the Unpulped novels I’ve read so far, it isn’t bad. There isn’t a lot of overt sexism or racism–or there is, but it’s emblematic of characters we are supposed to hate rather than being the seeming default worldview of the author.
The story is this: A thermonuclear war has broken out on Earth destroying all life there, which leaves the colonized moons and planets of the solar system as the only survivors. These colonies were shared, generally, by different competing powers on Earth, but after Earth’s governments are gone, they fight among themselves, eventually devolving into an echo of what happened to Earth–a struggle between the atheist communists which had controlled most of the planet (America included) and the Catholic fascists who held out in South America.
Most of that is somewhat obvious from the brilliantly cartoonish cover. The cover is detailed enough to even include the deep space colony ship which, for some reason, was designed to look like a miniature Earth, and that plays a sort of major role in the first part of the novel.
So what’s holding me back here from loving this book? Maybe it’s that most of the Farmer I love either takes an old idea/character and reworks it (A BARNSTORMER IN OZ, the RIVERWORLD series) or his novels play with a central, unavoidable and fascinating conceit (THE WORLD OF TIERS and DAYWORLD). Farmer is wonderful at creating characters and making them live and breathe in a short amount of time. Of course, most of them are almost Bond clones, not in terms of womanizing or suavity, but in how they manage to get out of scrapes easily, and how there’s really very little doubt they’ll succeed in succeeding.
[Is that a symptom of pulp SF? That the hero always wins out, in the same way that Romance novels are required to have a happily-ever-after? This isn’t true for Philip K. Dick, and I’m sure it’s not true for countless other writers, but maybe for a specific sub-set of pulp novels where the power fantasy of the hero is key?]
The most troubling part of this novel is how the hero, an American Soviet officer named Broward, falls fully in line with the it’s-them-or-us mentality when considering the future of the human race. Earth is dead! The only chance for a future is in the colonies! And the majority of the surviving population is on Mars! And yet Broward goes along with his superior’s plan to get a world-buster bomb from Earth and destroy Mars, even though there are thousands of people living there and only a few hundred, at most, living on the moon.
Not to mention that all of this takes place after he’s seen humanity destroyed by the same hatred of the other and political strife Broward’s helping to keep going after countries and political philosophies have become, in some way, meaningless. So we are to hope for the success of this hero (sorry, “hero”) who is willing to kill thousands even though he knows that might mean the end of the human race entirely?
It’s true that he doesn’t look down on Jews (as his superior does) and doesn’t see making the women still alive baby factories as the proper solution for their future (again, as his superior does). Although, since his argument for the latter is that he doesn’t want to share his lover, it’s hard to see that as fulfilling a belief in the autonomy of women so much as an example of irrational possession of another.
Is this a result of the book being published in 1964? Or is it something underlying Farmer’s writing that I simply haven’t recognized until now? Is it like my reaction to reading Poul Anderson again and finding his beliefs and writing style are nothing like what I remembered?
I don’t think there’s any other Philip José Farmer in the Unpulped collecton. I’m not sure if I’m glad or sad about this. Not having any more means I don’t have to continue confronting one of my literary heroes, one of the first writers where I decided I would collect every one of their books.
And yet, is it good to see someone I respect as a writer fail? Does that mean it’s more likely I can be of equal or better rank someday? (You know, when we’re all ranking writers as though there’s only one standard of good writing, rather than a vast array of writers all expressing their unique voices…) There’s no denying he’s a good writer, and that he engages with ideas in an interesting (rather than reductive) way. Unlike a majority of the books I’ve read for this series, TONGUES OF THE MOON isn’t bad.
It just could’ve been much, much better.