Monday, March 29, 2010

Book Review: 'Dark is the Sun' by Philip Jose Farmer

4 / 5 Stars

‘Dark is the Sun’ (Ballantine SF, 1980, 405 pp) is the paperback version of the novel that first appeared in 1979; it  features a fine cover illustration by Darrell K. Sweet (depicting, left to right,  Sloosh, Aejip, Deyv, Vana, and Jum).
It’s 15 billion years into the future, and Earth is peopled by primitive tribes who wander amidst long-forgotten machines and structures; a variety of quasi-human species descended from past genetic engineering projects; and plenty of dangerous animal and insect life. The planet has been physically moved, by technologically gifted elder civilizations since decayed, into an orbit far from the remains of the Sun, which is now nothing more than a Dwarf Star.
The galaxy, and perhaps the universe as well, are contracting and a ‘heat death’ is imminent in the next few centuries - if not sooner.
Deyv, a young man of the Turtle Tribe, is unaware of the colossal events taking place in remote space; instead, he is worried about leaving his tribal homelands on a mandatory Vision Quest to seek a mate. This means trekking into jungles filed with all manner of monsters and hostile tribes. To make things worse, once his quest is underway, Deyv loses his Soul Egg- a potent talisman- to a thief. If he cannot recover his Soul Egg, Deyv will be condemned to life as an outcast.
Deyv finds himself teaming up with a mutant centaur named Sloosh, and an attractive cannibal (!) girl named Vana. Together with Deyv’s unique pets Aejip and Jum, the party sets off to find the Soul Egg thief. But they soon discover that the thief has an agenda of his own, and there are revelations about the Earth, and its fate, that will require their utmost attention…if Man is to survive the coming collapse of his Universe.
By 1979, when he published this novel, Philip Jose Farmer had been producing at least one, (more often several) SF and fantasy adventure novels per year for more than two decades. This experience is put to good use with ‘Dark Is the Sun’. It’s meant to be pure escapist entertainment, an adventure in the ‘Barsoom’ genre founded by E. R. Burroughs, but with a more sophisticated and engaging prose style.
Farmer knows what he is doing: his writing is very readable and the characters, both human and unhuman, are interesting and offbeat. Many of the creatures and landscapes of the far-future Earth are drawn with imagination and an eye for the bizarre. The perils that beset our adventurers are many and keep the narrative rolling along at a good clip.
Somewhat inevitably the pace starts to drag a bit in the book’s middle third, and the novel could have been 50 pages shorter in length. But I got the sense that Farmer was having a lot of fun with his characters and was reluctant to cut the thread short.
‘Old School’ SF authors like Farmer, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, and the underrated Edmund Cooper could do this sort of thing so effortlessly that it’s easy to assume that it required unremarkable effort and training on their part. But in fact, more and more as I read contemporary SF and fantasy novels, many featuring lengthy narratives dealing with complex world building and large casts of characters, it’s clear that conceiving and writing a Readable Novel is considerably harder than many aspiring novelists think it is. These guys knew how to do it, and they made it look easy.
 ‘Dark is the Sun’ is a fun read, and I recommend it to every SF fan.

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