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

What is it: A collection of thematically related short stories, all of which were first published separately in various 1950's Sci-Fi mags. It's the third work collected in the 2008 paperback collection also titled Strange Relations.

What it's about: Five stories, each titled with a type of family relationship (two of them were originally published under different titles) explore the theme familial relationships and reproduction through a lens of bizarre speculation. There's quite a bit of Freudianism weaved throughout as well, particularly in "Mother" and "Son." The stories, briefly summarized, are:

"Mother," A man and his doting mother are shipwrecked on a desolate planet. They are each separately trapped by the planets native sentient organisms, sedentary creatures that have a very strange way of trapping their mates and reproducing.

"Daughter," A direct sequel to "Mother" re-tells a familiar children's story with a sci-fi twist.

"Father," The passengers of a ship that crash-landed on a mysterious planet discover an Edenic paradise ruled by a god-like being who may have some darker purpose.

"Son," A recently divorced man with serious mommy-issues is captured by an enemy sub that torpedoes the boat he's on. Soon he learns that the sub is an intelligent robot that is designed to prey on his precarious psychology.

"My Sister's Brother," A man exploring Mars encounters strange life form and begins to form a bond with a humanoid alien, who may hold a secret that he can't handle.

What's good about it: As I've commented about other books by him, Farmer is better in idea than in execution, and there are some pretty mind-twisting ideas about the different ways that organisms could reproduce. It's surprisingly low on actual sex -- or at least on what we humans would think of as sex. "Father" is the best of the stories, since it has the most fully developed cast characters, a ship full of lost souls for whom the surrounding paradise seems to offer welcome relief.

What's not good about it: Remember what I said about Freudianism? Farmer is pretty heavy-handed with it, and often uses Oedipal symptoms as a substitute for character development. "Mother" and "Son," despite their surface differences, tell virtually the same story -- although with very different outcomes. Character is a weak spot in all of the Farmer works I've read so far -- his characters tend to be hastily sketched, broadly drawn sci-fi archetypes, and their development often comes across as hasty and insufficiently motivated. In "My Sister's Brother," for example, the protagonist is a sympathetic guy until right up at the end, when the story suddenly degrades into horrific violence.

Why it's a classic: The more I read of Farmer, the more I wonder how much influence his work had on the writing of Orson Scott Card, particularly on the evolutionary/biological speculation in the last 3 books of the Ender Quartet.

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