By Philip José Farmer and Win Scott Eckert
This is a book I knew going in I would have mixed feelings about coming out. They are pretty much the same mixed feelings I have about Philip José Farmer as an author. And this review is mostly going to be about that, as well as the larger context in which this novel resides.
On the one hand, Farmer is indisputably one of the grand masters of 20th-century science fiction, with a special place in my heart for his creation of the “Wold Newton Universe” in which this novel resides – the context I mentioned. In case you don’t know, the Wold Newton Universe is a literary construct by Farmer which ties together most of the big names in literature, especially those in the genre of fantastic and heroic adventure fiction, via intricate webs of relationship that ultimately go back to a documented historical event, the fall of a meteor near the northern English village of Wold Newton in the 1790s [LINK] – according to Farmer, in close proximity to a number of members of the English upper class who happened to be riding by in a carriage at just that moment and who were affected by ionizing radiation from the meteor which caused a series of beneficial mutations among their descendants, literally creating an extended family of geniuses and supermen. These include the “historical prototypes” of such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Doc Savage – as well as Professor Moriarty and Captain Nemo (who may or may not be the same person) – and many, many more, both heroes and villains. Farmer’s thesis first found expression, I believe, in two extended essays and genealogical charts appended to his faux biographies Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973). At least that’s where I first encountered it. Those two essays are truly tours des forces of literary-historical synthetic rationalization and are well worth reading on their own. Both have been reprinted in newly edited, by Win Scott Eckert, expanded editions within the past few years (2006 and 2013). I devoured the paperback volume on Tarzan when I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven (and for a brief time, bought the thesis – hook, line, and sinker!), and the Doc Savage book within just a few years afterward (age thirteen?), and would not hesitate to hand either of them over to any young reader interested in those specific characters and a fantastic introduction to a world of great literature and a lifetime of great reading.