Thanks to a generous invitation from his grandson Tom Josephsohn, I said a few words at Philip Jose Farmer’s memorial service in Peoria Sunday. There were four speakers in addition to the pastor of the First Federated Church: Tom, who spoke on behalf of the family; Mike Croteau and Paul Spiteri, who have been centrally involved in bringing Phil back into print through Mike’s Farmerphile fanzine and several recent Subterranean Press volumes; and me. Predictably and unavoidably, we all mentioned his generosity, warmth, and wit, and Tom in particular presented a moving portrait of a playful grandfather—perhaps not quite what many of his readers would expect, but not at all surprising to anyone who knew him.
Even though we’d been friends for a quarter of a century, I think my role was more or less to talk about Phil’s importance to the SF world. What I said might have been a bit different had I been talking to an SF audience rather than a gathering of friends and family members from Peoria, and I’ll recapitulate a bit of it in the April issue of Locus, but there was one observation I wanted to test-drive here (and it comes partly from some conversations I had with Jonathan Strahan and Charles Brown long before Phil’s death).
The observation is this: there are some SF writers who seem to have an immediate and dramatic impact on other writers, and younger writers in particular. The early ’50s saw a fair number of imitation Bradbury stories, and the ’80s a fair number of imitation Gibson stories, for two examples.
But there are other writers who seem so idiosyncratic that it takes some time for their real influence to become apparent, as though their ideas and techniques have to seep into the groundwater of the field, or as though the field itself has to gradually mutate to accommodate them. Phil Farmer, I think, was one of these. His notion that you could take whatever you wanted from any genre in order to make the story work, that you could draw equally on James Joyce and L. Frank Baum, on William Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs, is almost familiar to us now that genre barriers have grown permeable, but when Phil started doing it, even from the beginning of his career, it must have seemed completely off the wall.
I can think of a few other writers whose influence seems to have grown more profound over the years—Jack Vance and Avram Davidson come to mind—but I wonder if there might be others. And I wonder if others see Farmer’s influence bubbling to the surface now in a far more visible way than it ever did during the ’70s and ’80s.