Monday, November 5, 2018

Flight to Opar

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) was a well-regarded genre author during his lifetime, and even if his star has dimmed somewhat over time, in the 60s and 70s he was considered a pioneering writer and is still mentioned in the same breath as names like Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. He won three Hugo awards in his life, and is still spoken of with respect today, which makes it all the more mysterious that this book is so bad.

Farmer had a deep fascination with classic pulp characters, and famously wrote literary mashups where he posited the “Wold Newton family”, creating elaborate family trees that connected characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and Dorothy Gale as part of a single bloodline created by aliens. It was undertaken with enormous affection for the pulp era, but it amounts to little more than an epic work of fanwank at this point.

The unfinished Hadon series falls into this category, as the setting for the two books is a fictionalized Africa circa 10,000 BC, where inland seas set the stage for massive prehistoric empires centered on the city of Opar. Opar was a fictional city created by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his Tarzan novels, set deep in the (then) unexplored interior of Africa. He depicted it as a lost colony of Atlantis filled with fabulous wealth, probably influenced by the tales of the land of Ophir, mentioned in the Bible as a wealthy land that paid tribute to King Solomon.

So the Hadon stories – starting with Hadon of Ancient Opar and continued in Flight to Opar – were essentially a fan writing backstory for a setting from Burroughs’ Tarzan continuity. As such, it is not really meant to take place in the real world, and Farmer is free to be as creative as he likes. The essential idea seems solid. Howard did much the same kind of historical-fantastical imagining to create the Hyborean Age, and as a place to set stories of adventure, it has real promise.

I have the first book around here somewhere, but this was the one I could find. It features a remarkably poor Ken Kelly illustration on the cover, making it look like a supremely generic barbarian fantasy novel, and it would probably be more entertaining if it was something more on the level of The Alien. Inside are a bunch of pretty piss-poor Roy Krenkel pen and ink illustrations, which might look better if they were printed at a higher quality, but maybe not.

The prose in this book is just terrible, with rote, declarative sentences and a very mechanical, dry style of narrating action. Some of the violence in this book is quite bloody, but it is never exciting, because Farmer uses a tedious “then this, and then this happened, and then this happened” method of describing it. At its best the writing is workmanlike and passionless, at worst it is criminally dull and almost unintentionally funny in the way it belabors unimportant details and elides past anything that might be actually exciting.

The pacing and structure are even more egregious, as we open up with a closely-detailed yet extremely uninteresting sequence where Hadon has to find a way to head off pursuers who chased him out of the previous book. He’s got a narrow pass to defend, a girlfriend with a sprained ankle, and like forty guys coming after him. You would think this could be an awesome opening action sequence, and yet it is so dull you will be flipping ahead to see where it ends. There’s more chasing, traipsing around in the woods, this and that, and yet nothing gathers any kind of momentum or excitement.

Then the heroes reach the city they were headed to (not Opar) and the plot, such as it is, screeches to even more of a halt. Now we pull back and instead of scenes and drama we get narration and stultifying amounts of infodump, followed by tension-deadening time skips and then more arbitrary plot points to move things along to the actual flight to the titular Opar. Again we get action that is described so badly it is boring and static, a lot of summarizing and time skipping, and a drawing back from the narrative to treat it like part of a synopsis.

The violence and the setting are very S&S, despite that there is no actual, real magic onscreen, as it were, just stories and superstitions. The theme of one man fighting to protect what he loves is the right kind of angle, and Hadon is certainly no paladin. He tries to do the right thing, but he often lets people die when it’s the expedient thing to do, and he doesn’t try to save everyone.

What this book doesn’t have is any spark or fire to it. Any blood and thunder. The action is at a remove, and none of the characters seem to have very strong feelings. Even Burroughs’ more Victorian sensibilities allowed for more emotion and character than this. I don’t know. Farmer made plans for more books, but he never got very far, and the third book was never published in a complete form, being pieced together by author Christopher Paul Carey and put with the first two in an omnibus edition much later. Maybe Farmer was sick of the story, and just didn’t care about it. It certainly reads like he didn’t.

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