Titan Books, p/b £7.99 each
Reviewed by Mike Chinn
Two books from Farmer’s Wold Newton series of loosely interwoven novels. Wold Newton is a remote spot in Yorkshire where, in December 1795 there was a major meteor strike. A meteor that would have a pivotal effect on the heroes and villains of Earth from that point on. In Farmer’s complex universe, characters as diverse as Sir Percy Blakeney, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Moriarty – among many others – share an interlinked ancestry that can be traced back to the Wold Newton event and the strange radiation released on impact. In fact, just about any fictional character – not just ones culled from the pages of pulp adventure – are connected either through marriage or direct family links. Even now it’s an audacious concept; back in the 1970s – when the very idea of traditional science fiction was being challenged – it must have been intoxicating.
What’s more, Farmer also held the conceit that he wasn’t writing fiction – but transcribing notes, diaries and interviews from the very people whose adventures he published. As an idea, that’s pretty old hat today; back then, not so much.
The Other Log of Phileas Fogg seeks to address oddities in Verne’s original romance (such as why all the clocks in London struck as he stepped off the train at ten to nine) and uncover the real reason Fogg – up until then an almost obsessive individual who would never dream of deserting home or club – risked all in a madcap race around the world. Just what was Inspector Fix’s part in it all; and what on earth does Captain Nemo have to do with it? Or the deserted Mary Celeste? Obviously it’s to do with a stolen teleportation device and a war between two extra-terrestrial civilizations that’s been fought since before the evolution of humanity. Farmer relates the adventure in a passive voice that I imagine is meant to reflect Verne’s original, but it has an oddly distancing effect; especially when he starts giving us slices of backstory and info dumps that bring the action to a grinding halt. Sometimes for pages at a time. But it’s a sly and knowing – and affectionate – tribute to a familiar book, using slips in the original narrative as a springboard for what today would be known as a mash-up.
Time’s Last Gift – even though set within the same universe – is a complete switch. A group of time-travellers journey back over twelve thousand years to study early man in the Magdalenian Culture. The group’s leader is John Gribardsun: a tall, athletic man who relishes the primitive times – revelling in it; far too much, for some group members. Gribardsun is another descendent of the Wold Newton event – one, like many, blessed with an incredible lifespan. Gribardsun isn’t even his real name (hardly a surprise: it’s a clumsy one by anybody’s standards), and it’s not hard to guess his real identity. Farmer drops enough heavy hints throughout the book, and the character’s attitude towards other men (and women) and animals is anachronistic even by the standards of the 1970s. It can make for uncomfortable reading, and I hope Farmer wasn’t attempting to express his own philosophies through his hero. Needless to say Gribardsun’s a complete woman-magnet: a married team member is happy to make her husband look a fool as she swoons over the handsome, mysterious but distant man (touch of d’Arcy, perhaps – Pemberley plays a role in the Wold Newton mythology). But there’s very little in the way of plot – just a series of set-pieces as the author sets out his own theories of how the prehistoric world looked. To my mind it’s the weaker of the two books.
The covers are pretty – but unrepresentative of the contents. The Other Log sports a steampunk dirigible that has nothing to do with the book, whilst Time has a flying saucer and pteranodons – neither of which appear in the story (the time machine is clearly described as torpedo-shaped).
Farmer’s re-imagining of a universe where fictional characters are not only put into context with the real world, but co-exist with each other still carries echoes today. Kim Newton’s Anno Dracula sequence, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the trend for literary mash-ups… would any other them exist if it hadn’t been for the Wold Newton event?