Titan Books, p/b Â£7.99 each
Reviewed by Mike Chinn
Two books from Farmerâ€™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 Farmerâ€™s complex universe, characters as diverse as Sir Percy Blakeney, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Moriarty â€“ among many others â€“ 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 â€“ not just ones culled from the pages of pulp adventure â€“ are connected either through marriage or direct family links. Even now itâ€™s an audacious concept; back in the 1970s â€“ when the very idea of traditional science fiction was being challenged â€“ it must have been intoxicating.
Whatâ€™s more, Farmer also held the conceit that he wasnâ€™t writing fiction â€“ but transcribing notes, diaries and interviews from the very people whose adventures he published. As an idea, thatâ€™s pretty old hat today; back then, not so much.
The Other Log of Phileas Fogg seeks to address oddities in Verneâ€™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 â€“ up until then an almost obsessive individual who would never dream of deserting home or club â€“ risked all in a madcap race around the world. Just what was Inspector Fixâ€™s part in it all; and what on earth does Captain Nemo have to do with it? Or the deserted Mary Celeste? Obviously itâ€™s to do with a stolen teleportation device and a war between two extra-terrestrial civilizations thatâ€™s been fought since before the evolution of humanity. Farmer relates the adventure in a passive voice that I imagine is meant to reflect Verneâ€™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 itâ€™s a sly and knowing â€“ and affectionate â€“ tribute to a familiar book, using slips in the original narrative as a springboard for what today would be known as a mash-up.
Timeâ€™s Last Gift â€“ even though set within the same universe â€“ is a complete switch. A group of time-travellers journey back over twelve thousand years to study early man in the Magdalenian Culture. The groupâ€™s leader is John Gribardsun: a tall, athletic man who relishes the primitive times â€“ revelling in it; far too much, for some group members. Gribardsun is another descendent of the Wold Newton event â€“ one, like many, blessed with an incredible lifespan. Gribardsun isnâ€™t even his real name (hardly a surprise: itâ€™s a clumsy one by anybodyâ€™s standards), and itâ€™s not hard to guess his real identity. Farmer drops enough heavy hints throughout the book, and the characterâ€™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 wasnâ€™t attempting to express his own philosophies through his hero. Needless to say Gribardsunâ€™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 dâ€™Arcy, perhaps â€“ Pemberley plays a role in the Wold Newton mythology). But thereâ€™s very little in the way of plot â€“ just a series of set-pieces as the author sets out his own theories of how the prehistoric world looked. To my mind itâ€™s the weaker of the two books.
The covers are pretty â€“ 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 â€“ neither of which appear in the story (the time machine is clearly described as torpedo-shaped).
Farmerâ€™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 Newtonâ€™s Anno Dracula sequence, Alan Mooreâ€™s Watchmen, the trend for literary mash-ups…Â would any other them exist if it hadnâ€™t been for the Wold Newton event?