Jules Verne meets Conan Doyle with aliens: Philip José Farmer’s The Other Log of Phileas Fogg

No blimp, and no alien rock formations appear in the novel. I blame the cover artist who hadn't even read the book.
No blimps, and no alien rock formations, appear in the novel. I blame the cover artist who hadn’t even read the book.

The title is the second-best thing about The Other Log of Phileas Fogg. How can you resist the suggestion that Phileas Fogg kept an alternative log of his trip Around the World in Eighty Days? What else could have happened that the world didn’t know? The first best thing about the novel is the answer: that Phileas Fogg and Captain Nemo (from Verne’s other cracking good read, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) are murderously opposed aliens battling it out on Earth for the supremacy of their respective races.

It’s not a very well-written novel, but having read no other Philip José Farmer than this, for all I know he’s not so much of a stylist, more an ideas and adventure merchant. The rather sloppy writing style doesn’t matter very much, because the exuberance of the concept will carry you through.

Another blimp that didn't exist. Honestly, what are they selling?
Another blimp that didn’t exist. Honestly, what are they selling?

I particularly like the way that gaps in Verne’s narrative are ingeniously backfilled with a mad story of Fogg’s early adoption by his step-father, his true origins as an Eridanean through blood transfusion and genes from Lord Greystoke and his tenth wife (what happened to Tarzan’s earlier wives?) and his commitment to the total destruction of the rival Capellean race. Around the World in Eighty Days is actually a search and destroy mission, Passepartout’s famous watch is a teleportation device, the rescued Aouda is also an Eridanean agent, and in the Pacific Fogg and Nemo have a titanic struggle aboard the Marie Celeste, abandoning it to be found abandoned, as they themselves had found it. Rather like a fantasy version of the Countryside Code, leaving nothing but footprints.

Oooh, a hint of Cthulu? Not really, but it's better than the blimp cover.
Oooh, a hint of Cthulhu? Not really, but it’s better than the blimp covers.

Farmer has probably weaved into his plot many more of the notables of late Victorian fiction than I have recognised. I spotted Moriarty, of course, but only dimly thought that the name Vandeleur sounded familiar, until I was told he was in R L Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. The plot is strongest at its end, suggesting that Farmer was ingeniously working towards it all along, when the clocks of London all chime at ten minutes to nine in the evening. This event is probably the genesis of this enjoyable counterfictional narrative, because nobody, as Farmer notes, seems to have thought it weird that clocks would chime at such an odd hour, not on the quarter or the hour. There are no notes to this effect in the revised OUP edition of Around the World, so not even William Butcher, Verne’s most recent editor, seems to have wondered what Verne was on about.

The German readers are far better served.
The German readers are far better served.

Farmer produces a fine plausible reason for this bonkers public event, and caps the novel at its close by reprinting a 1959 essay from the depths of hard-core Sherlock Holmes investigations, positing that Captain Nemo and Moriarty were one and the same man. Given this supposition, the reader is thus encouraged to go back and read the whole of Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, and look again for Holmes in these newly revealed adventures of Phileas Fogg. I don’t think I’m going to do that because I do not have worlds enough and time to do the job thoroughly. I rather wish Farmer had done more thinking-through for the details of his Eridanean and Capellean struggles, but we can’t have everything.

the reissue by Titan Books, designed to bring in the steampunkers
the cover image for the reissue by Titan Books, designed to bring in the steampunkers

A little light internet research indicates that Farmer reused these alien races from appearances in some of his other novels. The existence of the Wold Newton chronicles online even manages (oh joy!) to bring in Dominic Medina from the Buchan universe. I am in fact dipping my toes in the waters of an ancient and highly popular resort of the imagination for readers of adventure and sf who like their preferred characters to hang out together in combat. It’s the first outing for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Gender and body difference in Vonda N McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting

McIntyre's excellent first novel, a prequel to the Dreamsnake world

This was Vonda McIntyre’s first novel, published in 1975, about twenty years after the first thalidomide disaster in Germany, the UK and North America, in which around 10,000 children died or were born with malformations. The novel is about disability, and difference, and how society accepts and rejects different differences. It’s also an astoundingly undated speculation on a future society, which she developed further in her 1979 novel Dreamsnake. By using a medical incident from the recent past and replaying it in a future of decay on earth that can only be escaped by space flight, it’s clear that McIntyre is exploring ethics, medicine and society.

The main plot is about Mischa, a teenage sneak thief struggling to make ends meet for herself, her addicted artist brother Chris, and her greedy uncle who is quietly selling off their younger siblings as beggars to keep himself in paid companions and nice carpets. The whole family is impaired in one way or another, but only those children who don’t look human are cast out into the underground caves. The others have to work. A subsidiary plot is how their degenerate and decaying earth city, Center, is going to survive, given that its economy is being strangled by the decadence of the Families who run its necessary services.

the edition I still have, barely holding together
the edition I still have, barely holding together

Mischa’s forays into Center’s stratified layers of houses and shops and palaces, looking for targets, show the phenomenal imaginative effort that McIntyre put into creating this massively complex society. It’s complicated by the arrival of Subone and Subtwo, two two-metre tall pseudosibs with computations for brains, who plan to effect a takeover of Center, but their private subplot of fracturing bond conditioning disrupts everything. Jan Hikaru, a mathematician travelling with the pseudosibs, has come to Earth with the body of his elderly navigator friend to bury her on her home planet that she didn’t live to see again. He links all the plots together when he discovers Mischa’s mathematical abilities, and Subone lasers Chris, driving Jan and Mischa underground ahead of the pseudosibs’ pursuit, where they find the secrets of Center’s survival.

Yes, it does sound complex. But The Exile Waiting is so rich, the complexity is barely noticeable when you begin to read, because you are immediately beguiled by the detail. From the first page of the novel – Jan Hikaru’s diary – the reader understands that spaceport bazaars are commonplace, that Jan’s father wants him to be ethnically Japanese rather than the blond genes he so obviously also carries, that Jan is running away from purposeless study to find something worthwhile, that the old navigator’s eyes have been destroyed by too much space radiation, that space navigators have care homes and she has a wide acquaintanceship, and that Earth is held to be abandoned and dead.

I really like this US cover

The second page, which describes Mischa returning home after an exploratory trip underground, tells us that Earth has many old nuclear-age structures still underground, that robot mice still dig tunnels to lay communications webs underground according to an old and forgotten but still running program, that the underground outcasts are used to frighten Center children, but that the cave panthers are more dangerous. Other marvellous discoveries include organic lightcells that you feed with powdered protein to keep glowing, that the mining Family have soft white flabby hands because all their work is done by machines, that baby sister Gemmi can call Mischa and Chris telepathically, relentlessly, which is their uncle’s hold on them, and Chris’s addiction has blown his and Mischa’s last chance of getting away on the seasonal space ships. Their technology is disconcertingly old and new, reflecting poverty and privilege. Crystal knives aren’t picked up by metal detectors, but punishment by sensory deprivation puts offenders into skintight suits suspended in gel. There is passive, indifferent cruelty and rough, unaccustomed affection in a society that is slowly only able to focus on survival, rather than living. It is joyless, and emotionally dead.

lots of important detail underneath those vicious crystal knives

Gender divisions, and disability, which are two very fashionable topics now in the study of fiction, are used to drive this novel’s ethics with breath-taking assurance. What really impresses is me is how McIntyre’s prose is pure enough to remain undated (a very rare talent) and also remain precise and clear in what she is saying: that just as society should develop to not care about gender, it should not make exiles and outcasts out of bodily difference. The multiple focalisations, by which the story is told from the perspectives of Mischa the local, and Jan and Subtwo the visiting aliens, gives the reader a kaleidoscopic impression of Center as a place of hopelessness and cynicism from all sides. We become increasingly desperate for Mischa, and the other characters who attract readerly empathy, to escape, and to leave the filth, misery, and crumbling wrongness of this society behind. We do get there, but the adventure is far too complicated to explain here. Go buy a copy.

Vonda N McIntyre, The Exile Waiting (1975), now available again at the Book View Café, ISBN 978-1-61138-048-4, $4.99