Book Review: Strange Relations, Philip José Farmer (1960)

(Blanchard’s cover for the 1960 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Blanchard’s abstract vaginal cover for the 1960 first edition of Philip José Farmer’s Strange Relations (1960) hints, just obliquely enough to avoid being explicit, at the collection’s radical and groundbreaking contents.  Nothing else existed like this from the 50s!  Having exploded onto the scene with the “transgressive” (SF encyclopedia) novella “The Lovers” (1953) (later expanded to novel length), Strange Relations (1960) collects a further five short works from the mid-50s and later on similar themes — theology, sex, xenobiology, Freud, and social satire.

Each work revolves around a particular Freudian scenario, a Freudian fantasy.  One can imagine that authors such as Barry N. Malzberg were profoundly influenced by Farmer’s meditations on humanity’s  “strange peccadilloes.”

Long time readers of my blog might know of my dislike of Farmer’s Hugo-winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) and the subsequent sequels which manage to add layers and layers of boredom.  I’ve also reviewed the painfully tedious Traitor to the Living (1973)…  So, it was with some trepidation that picked up Strange Relations.  My dislike has diminished and metafictional pastiches such as Lord Tyger (1970) are on my to acquire radar.  The Green Odyssey (1957) and Behind the Walls of Terra (1970), long relegated to a back corner of the to read pile are suddenly more appealing…

Highly recommended for the novelette “Mother” (1953) and its sequel short story “Daughter” (1954).  The hard-shelled, hilltop living, female-only womb aliens who fertilize themselves via roving mobile “male” objects whom they capture and thrust into their womb-spaces, described in the these two stories are downright fantastic.  The only one of the five that does not live up to its premise is “Son” (1954)–maternal /”female” ocean going robots who adopt and manipulate shipwrecked men should result in a more intriguing story!

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Mother” (1953) (novelette) 4/5 (Good):  The second best story of the collection follows the emotional opera singer Eddie Fetts who has a mother complex and an unhealthy attachment to the nipple-shaped rubber top of his liquor thermos.  His mother, an accomplished pathologist, is a constant factor in his life, especially after Eddie’s wife left because they “couldn’t get together” (9).  Eddie and his mother crash land on an unusual planet where Farmer’s skill at describing unusual aliens manifests itself.  Eddie and his mother are captured, after being lured by a mating scent, and placed inside different immobile hilltop dwelling aliens.

He soon discovers that these aliens are all female, they impregnate themselves by capturing roving animal life like himself, and they feed their children inside the womb by producing a stew generated by captured animals and water syphoned via long tubes from the ground.  Eddie literally returns to the womb and discovers that he strangely likes it there and takes an active part nurturing the young.  Of course, the alien mother, Polyphema, gains great prestige having a talking male mobile.

“Daughter” (1954) (short story) 5/5 (Very Good):  The best of the collection and one of my favorite of the collection.  The sequel to “Mother”, “Daughter” is narrated by one of the female children of Polyphema, the alien that captured Eddie.  This child, Little Hardhead, was Eddie’s favorite and the one who learned all Eddie knew about the outside world.  When she is evicted from Polyphema’s womb, she puts Eddie’s teaching to the test and constructs a multi-layered womb-shell from all different materials when she finds a suitable hill to implant herself (and gains the ridicule of the other children more quickly establish themselves and produce young).

And then the big bad wolf creature, another fantastically bizarre alien conjured by Farmer, who eats all the crops planted by the womb-aliens, and slowly synthesizes chemicals to pry through the layers of the hard womb-shell approaches the last of Polyphema and Eddie’s children.  Will Eddie’s teaching payoff when the mobile attacks!  Little Hardhead is ready.

“Father” (1955) (novella) 4/5 (Good):  “Father” is one of numerous stories in sequence that follow Father (not the father of the title) Carmody, a Catholic priest of the future, in a series of adventures on planets that challenge Catholic theology.  In this case, Carmody and the crew of the Gull crash land on the planet of Abatos, where so many vessels have never been seen before.  Abatos is an unusual jungle-like world (queue Farmer’s obsessions with Tarzan) filled with only female plants and animals.  The reason for this is revealed — a god-like being is offended by even the slightest of sins, animal and planet sex included.  So, in his omnipotence he generates a Garden of Eden environment according to his fervent strictures regarding every possible sin.  A debate emerges amongst the crew, do they bring the God-like creature back to Earth an utilize it as an instrument of the Church, or, is the God-like creature so utterly delusional and self-obsessed that it should be left to its own devices?  One of the more intriguing theological ruminations of the 50s, up there with James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958).

“Son” (1954) (short story) 3.5/5 (Good):  The fantastic premise devolves into a rather descriptive story that lacks the vibrancy of the others in the collection.  Jones, after his luxury liner blows up by the enemy, is miraculously rescued by a sentient robot submersible.  The robot takes Jones into the amniotic depths of the ocean where he is drugged, hypnotized, and manipulated into assisting “her” repairs.  Soon Jones realizes that Keet is more than simply programming—a maternal instinct exists.  But Jones, turns “out to be an American  with the good old American name of Jones” (137) sees through her deception and forces himself from her womb-like interior.  A second birth, another attempt to make things right….  A forced, violent, birth.

“My Sister’s Brother” (variant title: “Open to Me, My Sister”) (1960) (novella) 3.5/5 (Good): Nominated for the Short Fiction Hugo category in 1961.  Perhaps the most unusual story of the collection….  Lane, a member of the first explorers of Mars, is tasked with discovering where the rest of companions have disappeared.  He sets off across the Martian landscape and discovers unusual aliens who farm planets along long hollow tubes that stretch across the landscape.  Soon he gains entry to one of the tubes after he encounters a nubile female humanoid looking alien named Martia….

Unlike other SF stories of the era, Lane is unable to overcome his revulsion of the alien’s characteristics, and more specifically bizarre mating patterns.  He resorts to an act of brutal violence because, due to the hatred of her differences, “could not accept her love and still remain a man” (190).  This is a rather radical story for our manly man, who lusts after aliens but really wants them to be more human than alien (especially when they have sex), despite encountering a peaceful race can only react with violence when his sexual mores are challenged.

(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1973 edition)

(V. Calabrase’s cover for the 1974 edition)

(David Palladini’s cover for the 1978 edition)

(George Underwood’s cover for the 1982 edition)

(Mark Salwowski’s cover for the 1985 edition)

(Clyde Caldwell’s grotesque cover (BAEN books, who else?) for the 2006 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Strange Relations, Philip José Farmer (1960)”

  1. Thanks to your review, I’m heartened to give this collection a chance. In fact, I wish I’d checked your blog earlier this afternoon, as I would have seen if this was around at my own local Half Price Books: the Farmer section there looked suspiciously well filled out. But I haven’t known what to make–or read–of him since my own rather baffled reaction to the two dimensional flimsiness of the Riverworld series (of which I read the first two books).

    That said–and since no one mentioned it in the Farmer discussion in the previous post–I thought I’d speak up for his “Riders of the Purple Wage,” a joint winner of the 1968 Hugo in the novella category. It was collected in the first Dangerous Visions anthology, which is how I know it. The piece is spirited and bizarre, as well as surprisingly erudite–the denouement, for what it’s worth, hinges on a high-modernist spoonerism.
    I’m tempted to quote an especially linguistically playful passage, but won’t, if only because I don’t want to overstay my welcome here in the comment queue. Keep up the good work!

    1. Don’t get me started on the Riverworld series! Pain. How to create an uninteresting and unnecessarily restrictive world (mountains, river, four types of plants, etc).

      “Riders of the Purple Wage” is one of the his stories I want to get my hands on. I still don’t have a copy of Dangerous Visions. That said, I’ve read quite a few of the stories included in DV in other collections….

      Go ahead, quote the passage!

      1. Okay, here’s one of the bits whose linguistic lightheartedness struck me last night, in thumbing through the novella (though I’m not sure how well it stands out of context). The words are spoken by Doctor Jespersen Joyce Bathymens, “psycholinguist for the federal Bureau of Group Reconfiguration and Intercommunicability,” as he muses on the etymological origins of a group of leftist agitators:

        “A radish is not necessarily reddish,” he says into the recorder. “The Young radishes so named their group because a radish is a radicle, hence, radical. Also, there’s a play on roots and red-ass, a slang term for anger, and possibly on ruttish and rattish. And undoubtedly on rude-ickle, Beverly Hills dialectical term for a repulsive, unruly, and socially ungraceful person.”

        The imaginative verve of the story (which includes some pretty weird elements of inter-familial sexuality, to say nothing of the paintbrush wielding “penisnake”) is especially perplexing when considering Riverworld, whose world-building skills, I agree, are about as blocky as a Minecraft landscape.

        Dangerous Visions is nice to have a copy of, if even just for Ellison’s colorful, anecdotal, fan-boy introductions to each story. A fun way to glean odd glimpses of the writers’ lives/minds. Okay, off to work!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Farmer beyond The World of Tiers series…now I might have to hunt this one down. I think I’ll look for a 1974 copy, as V. Calabrese’s cover is a bit Sgt. Pepper-ish…

      1. I have to agree with you…in my opinion, not a great selling point! But then again, neither was the 2006 edition. That one seems more like a Harlequin Romance/Sci-fi mash-up.

  3. Thank you for the series of book covers – it’s fun seeing the progression of fashions in cover art. I first encountered PJF via his short stories, and was very disappointed by Riverworld, etc. Might be time to give those wonderful stories a read again.

    1. It certainly seems like his talent shines through in the stories. One of the downsides of winning a Hugo is that everyone and their mother reads the winning novel. I suspect some of his other novels, such as Lord Tyger (1970), are intriguing as well.

  4. “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” amazed me so long ago when I read it.Here was somebody actually writing about the afterlife!If it hadn’t been intended for a series and could have had it’s entire metabolic concepts wrapped up by the end of the novel,it might have become a worthy classic,but instead is just the first tier in a boring saga.But of course Farmer is like that.

    “Strange Relations” had a similar effect on me when I read it,but now regard it as sickly and long-winded in prose.His “Image of the Beast” on second reading didn’t impress me either,and can’t remember much about it or it’s sequal “Blown”.That 1973 cover by Panther was the one on the book I had,and is truly awful,but don’t see it’s like now.

    Other of his short stories such as “The Alley God” collection didn’t impress me.”The Lovers” novel wasn’t bad I suppose,but sorry I didn’t read the shorter piece that I suspect was better,but the best piece he probably wrote,was the short story “The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod”,a sort of pastiche of Bill Burroughs imaging what Tarzan,a black man of course in this case,if he had wrote it and not Edgar.

    I have to say though that I strongly think Farmer belongs to a lower echelon of sf writers,and can’t reach even the shoulders of the true greats.

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