[Derek J. Goodman's short story "Northern Girls With the Way They Kiss" appeared in M-Brane #4. He will appear in M-Brane #6 with "Rental Property," and is live now on Dunesteef Audio Magazine with "In Absence of Mind Wiping Thingies."--CF]
Welcome to what will hopefully be the first in a series of guest blog-posts where I will be looking at obscure sci-fi books. Before I go into my first book, I should probably take a moment to explain how I’m defining “obscure” for this. I decided to write this after reading some similar columns on other blogs that, while incredibly informative, did not go into the kind of stuff I wanted to read as much as I would have liked. In trying to find such a blog, I came to the conclusion that if I couldn’t find other people who would point me in the direction of older, harder-to-find works I might like then I would just have to be that person myself. The problem with this was that A)my access to older works is limited, being that I live in a small town and the nearest used book store is an hour away, and B)my personal knowledge of any sci-fi older than ten years old is somewhat limited. So when I say that I’m going to be looking at obscure sci-fi what I mean is I’m looking at sci-fi that was obscure to me before I started looking into it. So if I go into something that you don’t necessarily find “obscure,” then please bear with me. I’m learning about some of this stuff right along with you.
My first find for this column is The Cache by Philip Jose Farmer. Farmer by himself is a writer who is well-known enough in certain circles, and well he should be. He has two major claims to fame within the spec-fic world. First, he was one of the first science fiction writers to inject a sense of sexuality into his work. Prior to Farmer most sci-fi writers stayed away from the taboo subject of sex, but Farmer explored it as just another part of the human condition. Many of his works that delved into this, especially his short novel The Lovers, are considered tame by modern standards but were revolutionary at the time. Secondly, Farmer is considered by many to be the father of fan fiction. Through his Wold Newton stories he found a way to connect many famous pulp fiction heroes together into one universe, including Tarzan, Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, and many others.
While The Cache does not readily fit into either of these two famous Farmer motifs it still showcases his playfulness with existing ideas and his use of sensuality even when it isn’t central to the story. Published in 1981, The Cache is technically a story collection, although it only contains three stories. The two shortest ones, “Rastignac the Devil” and “They Twinkled Like Jewels,” while worth a read, would not by themselves be enough to recommend this book. “They Twinkled Like Jewels,” telling the story of a man who meets the sinister beings that infected him with unexplainable wanderlust as a child, reminded me in some ways of James Tiptree Jr.’s famous story “The Screwfly Solution” (although I think Farmer might have written this story first, as it was originally published in 1965), while “Rastignac the Devil,” about a man trying to start a real revolution on a world where rebellion is mandated and required by the government in order to keep unsavory types satisfied with their lives, is a great idea that unfortunately reads very flat.
So the true treasure in The Cache is the short novel that opens the book up, “The Long Warpath.” Originally published by itself in 1965 under the title The Cache from Outer Space, this story managed to have me fascinated and scratching my head from the opening page. “The Long Warpath” is a rare piece that keeps you engaged from the get-go yet still manages to not even let you know what you are reading for most of the story. Based on both the blurb on the back of the book (which woefully fails to summarize anything about the story) and the first couple pages I at first believed I was reading a fantasy. Then I thought maybe I might be reading an alternate history. By the time I finally realized I was reading post-apocalyptic science fiction I was thoroughly engrossed.
The story starts out focusing on two youths, Joel and Benoni, as they are coming back to their city of Fiiniks after helping the men of their people prepare weapons with which to fight the rival tribes that threaten their land. Joel is brash and tends to get under everyone’s skin while Benoni is quiet and honorable and instantly recognizable as the hero. Both boys are in contest against each other to win the hand of the same young woman, but before either of them can try wooing her they must go on the Warpath, a right of passage among their people that requires young men to go out naked into the desert wilderness and not come back until they have scalped a man from the competing Navaho tribe. This is the point where Farmer really starts to mess with the reader’s expectations, as the people of Fiiniks show many aspects of a Native American tribe but are very clearly described at white.
Before Benoni and Joel can go on the Warpath, however, they are each selected by their elders for an additional task. The land around Fiiniks has become increasingly unstable with earthquakes and volcanoes, and it will not be possible for their people to live there much longer. And so they are instructed to go even further out into the wilderness than the Warpath has ever required before in order to search for possible new places to settle. Although Benoni is not sure that he wants to do this, he ultimately decides to continue on after Joel betrays him and leaves him for dead. Not only does he need to explore the world in the name of his tribe, but he also feels the need to extract his vengeance.
It is as the reader experiences Benoni’s account of his travels that it starts to be understood that all this is taking place in the far future. The names of all the places are bastardizations of names in the real world (I didn’t even realize until Farmer said that the boys’ city is named after a bird that rises from the ashes that it is actually Phoenix, Arizona), and the geography matches that of the United States. Something has happened at some point in the distant past that sent civilization back to the stone age, and Benoni unwittingly finds himself slowly uncovering the secrets of the ancient alien race that almost wiped humanity out. And by the time Benoni finishes, he realizes that he wants more from life than just the hand of simple girl. He has seen the world and the wonders it once had, and he wants to be a part of it.
At times Farmer’s prose can seem a little archaic and stilted, but this is overcome by Farmer’s imagining of an America that has been forcefully returned to the wilderness of the past and civilizations rebuilt on ancient models. While still not on par with Farmer’s better known works, The Cache still has much to offer for anybody who seeks it out. To the best of my knowledge this has not been in print for a long time, though, so you may need to do some hunting to find it.
Do you have any thoughts you wish to share, on either this book or obscure books in general? Do you see any errors I may have made in my research? Do you have other books you would like to suggest for future Retro Reads columns? Please feel free to leave a comment and let me know. Remember, I’m not an expert, here. I’m more than open to anyone who might be more knowledgeable and would love to hear from you.
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