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Up The Bright River by Philip Jose Farmer

1/12/2010. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy Up The Bright River in the USA - or Buy Up The Bright River in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 333 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-329-7.

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Like many people, I read Philip José Farmer’s ‘Riverworld’ saga many years ago, but I don’t recall ever having come across any of his short fiction. Subterranean Press have pulled together the first posthumous collection of his stories, edited by Gary K. Wolfe and containing 16 stories written over the course of forty years between 1953 and 1993. Although the stories encompass a wide variety of settings and themes, there’s a certain attitude and style that shows up among many of them – an irreverent humour, a disdain for the establishment, whether represented by the government, religion or the medical profession and a satirising of literature and of writing itself. Of the sixteen stories, several stood out to me as particularly effective or enjoyable.

‘Attitudes’ is a very 1950s story, where men sit round playing cards and smoking cigars on the voyage between the stars. Utilising his psychokinetic skills, an inveterate gambler makes a living by tipping the odds in his favour and when he discovers the natives on one of their planet-falls involved in what seems to be another game of chance, he can’t help but join in. This is a very enjoyable tale and probably the most simplistic of those in the collection, perhaps because of being the earliest.

Attempting to brainwash the human race into submission to the ruling class, a scientist delves into the mind of his own inborn child in ‘How Deep The Grooves’. As with several of his stories, Philip José Farmer exaggerates the characteristics of the ‘evil’ scientist and dictator, satirising them in a way that makes them less believable, but fulfils the purpose of the story. The conclusion to this tale is sudden and dramatic and becomes more chilling as the implications sink in.

‘Father’s In The Basement’ is a touching story of a young girl and her terminally ill father’s attempt to leave something behind by completing his last great novel. This character is not the first writer to turn up in the collection, nor the last, and none of them are portrayed in a glamorous light. The girl’s determination to let nothing interrupt her father is marvellously depicted and the denouement is profound.

The final three stories in the collection take us back to Philip José Farmer’s most famous creation: the Riverworld. In ‘Crossing The Dark River’, ‘Up The Bright River’ and ‘Coda’ we join an eclectic group of characters, most of them real-life ancestors of the author, on a journey upriver. As with many of his stories, the characters have diverse religious and moral beliefs, adding to the conflict and complexity of the stories as they try to make sense of their life along the river. It was nice to return to such a well-known setting after many years.

Many of the other stories evidently require a particular sense of humour to appreciate and, for some of them, I found the humour just too acerbic and the references a little before my time so that the satire fell flat. Long-time fans though will doubtless be happy with the variety of stories from all phases of Farmer’s career and the glimpses into the lives of several of his recurring characters.

Gareth D. Jones

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