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Introduction to

Philip Jose Farmer's

THE GREEN ODYSSEY

 

NOTES FROM THE SHIPWRECKED

 Some personal thoughts

on the reprinting of

The Green Odyssey

 

By Roger Crombie

  

Re-reading Philip José Farmer’s The Green Odyssey after an interval of, oh, 30 years, I was struck most of all by its readability, the dividend of its expert pacing. If that sounds less than flattering, think again. So much science fiction, though technically correct (or at least adequate) requires great effort from the reader.

It is this weakness that has made science fiction such an easy parody for comedians. “Earthman! We give you three blargs to reply!” is meaningless, or at the very least demands that the reader remember how many Earth minutes a blarg might be and then do the math. Anything required of a reader that distracts from the process of reading is a disservice. The accumulation of sufficient of these sidetracks can turn what might have been a technically brilliant story into an unfinishable read.

The Green Odyssey is what was once referred to as “a cracking yarn”. Like the land ships rolling across the great plains, it fairly rattles along. Set on another world, The Green Odyssey is undeniably science fiction, but the reader need not be slowed by that notion. It is also undeniably irreverent, something of a Farmerian trademark. In today’s terms, there is little that might alarm any but the most sensitive reader, but setting the book in its historical context reveals the full weight of what Farmer achieved more than four decades ago.

Interspecies sex, marital infidelity, sexual slavery, the worship of false idols — today, these are the staples of mainstream movies, websites, and even polite conversation (OK, impolite conversation). In 1957, when The Green Odyssey was published, such was not the case. Farmer has always been respected as a groundbreaker, and his success (and that of others) in that area can be measured by just how mundane such concerns seem to the modern reader.

Along with his readability, what has always attracted me to Farmer’s work has been his almost casual use of grand ideas. As Green rolls his way across the giant veldt, we learn of the island-sized lawn mowers that keep the plains clean and repair the ground broken by others than Farmer himself. Intergalactic travellers who leave behind them giant gardening equipment: not entirely an original idea, maybe, but a great one, that stretches the reader’s imagination.

Farmer more or less leaves it at that. Where lesser writers might have digressed into reams of history relating to the builders of this Brobdingnagian equipment, Farmer throws the idea out and then, like Green, moves on. Use your imagination, runs the sub-text, another concept the reader of modern science fiction might find anomalous.

It is a wry notion. There once again is what has attracted readers to Farmer down the years, and part of what makes him so readable. He expresses his wild concepts with his omnipresent puckish sense of humour. A good read, some grand ideas, a wry smile — you can’t ask for a lot more in a novel that holds your attention and makes you think as you keep turning the pages.

As well as a reader of Farmer’s work, I am a collector of his books. By that, I mean a completist. By that, I mean that I seek to own a mint copy of every edition and printing of every piece of Farmer’s work in every language in which it has been printed, together with a copy of every single related article of ephemera shy of the author’s laundry lists. I mention this not to boast (such behaviour is hardly considered praiseworthy by those possessed of a full complement of their marbles), but to explain my familiarity with the background of the publication history of The Green Odyssey.

Ballantine Books first published the story, Farmer’s first novel-length work to see the light of commercial publication, simultaneously in hardback and paper in 1957. Copious numbers of the paperback were published and have been hoarded or ignored in sufficient quantity to be available in excellent condition for a few dollars or more from any number of sources.

The hardback is a different beast, however. Farmer himself has only one copy on his shelf, although he recalls having had more at one time. He would have done better to have held onto the others. I do not have a copy. Although I have few hobbies other than collecting Farmer’s work to soak up my disposable income, I simply cannot afford one.

The hardback edition was published in a fairly limited quantity, many of which were shipped to US military libraries overseas. Books that enter libraries are treated in a way that essentially destroys their value to collectors. They are stamped, stamped and stamped again. Their dust jackets are sometimes glued to the books themselves. They are then borrowed (with any luck) and treated with varying degrees of respect by readers. Many borrowed copies are never returned.

The result, in the case of the hardback first edition of The Green Odyssey, is a severe scarcity of copies in anything approaching collectible quality. Indeed, the edition is hard enough to find in any condition. Not long ago, a book dealer was advertising a library copy, without its dust jacket, but with all the imaginable defects, for $400.

Mike Croteau, who runs www.pjfarmer.com and is one of the great friends of Farmer collectors around the world, tells me that Firsts magazine listed the price of a good hardback copy of The Green Odyssey in its October 1991 edition at $1,000 to $1,500. “Farmer’s first novel is a genuine rarity,” the article said, and that was 13 years ago, before the advent of the Internet, eBay and all the other conveniences that have made collecting a so much more fruitful occupation.

In a 2001 follow-up issue, Firsts again mentions the cost of owning a first edition of The Green Odyssey. The new price range quoted was $1,500 to $2,500. In 2002, I enquired about a copy in “fair” condition on the very day it came onto the market, priced at $3,000. It had already sold, at that price. At this writing, a copy in “very good” condition (not as new, but the best example I have seen in 20 years) is priced at $4,500. I shan’t say where I saw it, in case I weaken sufficiently to buy it. Sorry.

Finally, last year’s horribly flawed production of a television tale based loosely on the early elements of what might be considered Farmer’s greatest accomplishment, Riverworld, has apparently created considerable interest in all things Farmer and raised all his higher-end book prices. (That said, not a single Farmer volume was available in any of a dozen retail bookstores I visited in New York and Washington, DC just last month. For shame!) Perhaps the publication of this nimble volume will further inflate my cost on the day I finally add that missing first edition of The Green Odyssey, the only first that eludes my grasp.

All this tells us little about the work itself — Farmer sees not one red cent from any of this absurd price appreciation — but it does say something about the grip that his work exerts on followers such as myself. As odd as it might seem, there are other Farmer completists out there, at least one of whose intentions exceed mine: he hopes to collect two copies of the entire oeuvre.

If you have never read The Green Odyssey, I would suggest that you are in for a treat. If you are familiar with it, give it another spin. Either way, keep your eyes open for cannibals “making no bones” about their predilections and people loving their Mammon-style deity “with compound interest”. I can’t promise that you will laugh or cry, but I’d wager you will, at the very least, break into a broad grin.

My congratulations, by the way, to Fender Tucker and his colleagues on the production of this present volume. As a book lover, I find its heft and presentation most attractive. In one of those circular coincidences of synchronicity, Farmer has for some time been a collector of the works of Harry Stephen Keeler published by Ramble House.

And if you should happen to have a mint copy of the original hardback edition of The Green Odyssey for which you have no immediate plans, let me know. I might not be able to afford it, but just knowing it is out there would warm the cockles of my heart and keep me in employment, in the hope that one day I might be able to add a copy to my shelves, alongside this estimable edition.

 

Roger Crombie

Ferry Reach, Bermuda

crombie@northrock.bm

May 2004

 

 

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