As some may have noted, Philip Jose Farmer, one of Bradley’s more famous alumni, passed away Feb. 25.
A legendary science fiction author, Phil Farmer came to Peoria in 1922, and lived much of his life here, graduating from Bradley in 1950, and coming back for occasional campus visits.
As a major force in science fiction (or “sf” as insiders call the genre), Phil published numerous novels and collections which were both popular here and abroad.
His liberal outlook and his interest in new ideas gave Farmer a reputation for challenging taboos in the genre, and he was sometimes described as the author who introduced sex into the genre.
Although he wasn’t seen on campus in recent years, Farmer enjoyed a long relationship with Bradley, starting in his student days.
Graduating in 1950, Phil took many courses in literature. Olive White, a Harvard Ph.D. who was also a published novelist, encouraged Farmer’s ambitions to become a writer.
But Phil may have surprised this devout professor by his decision to publish in science fiction magazines and to become a controversial social critic.
At any rate, Farmer’s early fiction attacked racism, social repression, and sexual puritanism, as the 1952 award-winning story, “The Lovers” – expanded into a novel in 1961 – demonstrates. An Orwellian tale, it criticizes the repressive mood of early Cold War days.
During the early years of his career, Farmer earned a living by working as a technical writer for the aerospace industry. It wasn’t until he left technical writing and returned to Peoria in 1969 as a full-time fiction writer that his career really took off.
The next two decades saw the appearance of much of his celebrated work, including “Venus on the Half Shell.” This novel became a 90-day wonder, and it remains a clever satire.
Though some of Farmer’s novels must be considered potboilers, even these show that Phil was always an informed liberal who satirized fundamentalist Christianity and rigid rightwing dogmas, while showing sympathy for marginalized people such as Native Americans.
Since Farmer’s fiction treats orthodox Christianity somewhat roughly, his readers often assumed that he had no religion.
But “The Unreasoning Mask” (1981), a novel of the quest for meaning, shows Farmer’s sympathetic interest in Sufism, an Arabic mystical tradition older than Islam.
My own personal favorite among Farmer’s novels is “Jesus on Mars,” in which Jesus returns as a cool and messianic black man in a colony on Mars.
I will close by saying that I enjoyed a generally happy relationship with Phil. I met him not long after he gave an Olive White Lecture at Bradley in the early 1970s, and he often accepted invitations to visit my science fiction classes in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
He was an entertaining man with a fine sense of humor, and interacted well with students. They in turn loved Phil.
In the ’90s, Phil was honored by Bradley by being inducted into the Centurion Society. In accepting the honor, Phil made a fine address to an admiring audience in the Hartmann Center.
In short, Phil was a good representative of Bradley, and those who knew him or value his best books regret his loss.
Edgar L. Chapman
Professor of English Emeritus