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Classic Sci-Fi Book Reviews: Philip Jose Farmer's "Flesh"

What is it: A 1960's speculative fiction novel. It's second in this collection. The subject matter of this book is pretty graphic. I'll try to keep the review SFW, but be aware.

Who is it by: Philip Jose Farmer, same as the last review I wrote.

What it's about: On a futuristic Earth, humans who have survived cataclysmic events have reformed a religiously based society.... wait, what? Isn't that the plot of The Lovers? It's appropriate that these two are collected together, although not really for the reasons the editors seem to have thought. Both deal with the uneasy relations between sex, religion, and society, and both speculate about what current trends could lead to in the far future.
In a lot of ways, Flesh is the mirror image of The Lovers: instead of Earthmen heading out into space, you have Earthmen returning to an Earth 800 years removed from their experience (thank you, Twin Paradox). Instead of religious fundamentalism that has gone out of its way to eliminate sensuality, you have sensuality made into religious fundamentalism. And so on.
The protagonists of Flesh, led by Captain Peter Stagg, have been on a journey to find habitable planets for human settlement; they return to find Earth devastated by man-made environmental catastrophes, such as global warming -- keep in mind, this was written only as late as 1968 -- and massive volcanic eruptions -- caused, no doubt, by experimental drilling. Humanity -- or at least the part of it living on the Eastern Seaboard -- has reverted to an agrarian lifestyle and a fertility religion. This is the most interesting part: they have shaped the mythologies of our own (well, Farmer's own) day into their own mythology. Washington is literally "the great father," and the Washington Monument is exactly what you'd think the Washington Monument would be to a fertility cult. Columbia is a Mother Goddess. Vassar is a school for virgin priestesses. The highlight of their religious year is the festival of the Sunhero: a man surgically enhanced with antlers (did I mention that this society, although primitive, somehow has the technology to do that sort of thing?) that grant him superhuman strength, appetite, and virility. And oh my, is it a lot of virility: it's the Sunhero's job to deflower and impregnate as many women as possible. The sex isn't too explicit, but it certainly is copious. When a man named Stagg literally descends from the sky, who do you think will end up as the Sunhero?
As it turns out, being the living god of a fertility cult isn't all it's cracked up to be. Those familiar with the basic structure of these sorts of myth can see where this is going; for those that aren't, I won't spoil it for you. Moreover, Stagg finds himself increasingly at odds with the mega-man personality that takes him over, body and mind, every evening. Adding to the complication is the fact that the surrounding states -- the remnants of Pennsylvania, New England, Florida, etc. -- practice different versions of the same religion and all really hate each other. Meanwhile, in the b-story, the rest of the crew of Stagg's ship -- a UN of ethnic types -- try to survive in this brave, new world.

What's good about it: Some of Farmer's writing is ... vivid, particularly in the opening scene -- it's a bit more explicit than I really want to describe here, but you can read an excerpt and another review here. Farmer also does some really interesting things with ideas, particularly the development of myths and beliefs from familiar institutions and the version of baseball, which has been transformed into a ritualistic bloodsport/surrogate warfare.

What's not good about it: Even more so than with The Lovers, Farmer is more about ideas than execution. The novel is clearly padded -- perhaps that's what the 1968 revision was. In particular, the b-story about the rest of the crew doesn't seem to serve any purpose. There's a few love stories that don't really feel earned and a resolution that comes too quickly and tidily. One part in particular that bothers me is an ugly, homophobic scene in which Stagg is captured by a group of gay men. It's hard to know what to do with writing like this: Farmer is a product of his own time, but it still bothers me.

Why it's a classic: You could call it a classic in terms of it's combination of science, myth, and speculation. It certainly is creative.

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