The “Sunday Shorts” feature is dedicated to reviewing short stories and novellas, two forms I absolutely love.
TITLE: The City Beyond Play
AUTHOR: Phillip Jose Farmer and Danny Adams
112 pages, PS Publishing, ISBN 978905834242 (Hardcover)
DESCRIPTION: (from the cover flap): When Wilson Gore arrives in the Barony of Scadia, all he really knows is that the place is an enclave devoted to the recreation of the Middle Ages as they should have been – a refuge for hardcore individualists and historical costume enthusiasts, whom the crowded utopia of the twenty-second century is glad to see the back of. Soon dubbed “Will Son of Gore,” Gore finds himself at odds with arrogant knights, a Wicked Duke, mad forest outlaws, persnickety Byzantine bureaucrats, a witch, cybernetic dragons, enigmatic women of the court and wilds, and a social system in which anyone can rise to the top – or, just as likely, leave his bones mouldering by the roadside. All is not well in the land of Scadia, as Gore discovers after fixing his lustful gaze on the beautiful Lady Melisounde – competing for her hand, he ends up fighting the best and most treacherous warriors in the land, one of whom, the Knight of the Red Gauntlet, is far more, and far less, that he seems….
MY RATING: 5 stars out of 5
MY THOUGHTS: First let me say, this is one of those Philip Jose Farmer books I had no idea existed until I tripped across a signed and numbered jacketed hardcover at a library book sale. There are apparently only about 626 copies (if you count the various numbered, lettered and unsigned editions) out there, so it’s not a surprise this is not one of Farmer’s better-known late-life collaborations. It deserves a wider audience, in my opinion.
Farmer and Adams give us a lean 112 pages that capture the feel of epic, and episodic, medieval stories. There’s pageantry to the proceedings without all the verbose pomp-and-circumstance of, say, Mallory (not that verbosity in itself is a bad thing). The world-building is revealed in how each aspect affects Wilson Gore rather than in the stage-setting lush descriptions of period writers, giving us just enough sense of Scadia and the technological utopia that surrounds it without bogging the story down.
The authors concentrate less on explaining the tech and more on examining the social structures involved in a whole small country living “off the grid” as much as possible and blatantly ignoring the tech that makes it possible to do so. So many of the non-human challenges Wilson Gore encounters are tech-driven, enabling the citizens to have their fantasy (dragons, etc.) within their fantasy (the “absence” of technology, except where it makes life more comfortable than real medieval life would be, such as indoor plumbing). None of the citizens of Scadia seem able to fix the tech that makes their fantasies real, so what happens when that tech breaks down? The question gets answered but without great detail because the answer doesn’t really affect Wilson Gore’s life.
There’s also the social hierarchy of Scadia to consider. Philip Jose Farmer was fascinated with social constructs as much as he was with literary constructs, so it’s no surprise that a lot of this book’s action is built off of Wilson Gore’s initial lack of understanding of social upward mobility (sure, anyone can rise to the highest ranks – but how, and who gate-keeps?) and just what is considered “too far outside the pale,” so to speak. It’s obvious that to keep life interesting for the citizens of Scadia, there must be a Wicked Duke, a Witch, and a Green Baron (think Robin Hood) who represent evil to be vanquished – but how “evil” are they really allowed to be? And are the supposed “heroes” of the society any better?
Wilson Gore certainly isn’t. Like so many Farmerian main characters, he is flawed and conflicted. We know from the beginning of the book that he’s entered Scadia on the run from murder charges in the “real world.” Whether those charges are true or not, he’s now removed from everything he’s accustomed to, which makes him quick to anger and easily insulted. And, not unusual for a Farmerian MC, he’s quite lustful, which aspect drives as much of the action as his anger and distinct lack of knowledge of how Scadian society actually works. When he behaves himself, it’s to avoid getting booted from Scadia into the arms of the police, and when he misbehaves it’s because the societal rules of Scadia allow him to in a way the “real world” wouldn’t. His arc is a twist on the classic Campbellian hero’s journey: he does learn some lessons along the way, he is remorseful when warranted, but ultimately he’s less a Hero than he is an everyman just making it up as he goes along unless he finds redemption or death.
I haven’t even touched on the archetypal supporting characters: the boorish drunken Lord Wilson Gore comes to serve; the Lord’s beautiful wife and trusted sidekick; the aforementioned Wicked Duke, Witch and robber Baron; and of course the bard/jester who isn’t what he seems (and who just happens to hail from Peoria and be a student of anthropology … hmmmmm.). Farmer and Adams also give us some incidental characters of Byzantine and Moorish “background” (in quotes since everyone in Scadia is play-acting), a teasing wink over readers’ tendency, when they think “medieval” to think “England/Ireland/Scotland” rather than Europe as a whole (never mind whatever the rest of the world was up to during those years).
I praised Farmer and Adams’ lean storytelling, but I have to admit I’d love to see a sequel to this. I think there’s a lot more for Will, Son of Gore to experience in Scadia considering where the book leaves him, and there’s certainly plenty more of the world’s mechanics to be explored and explicated. Farmer is sadly no longer with us, but his great-nephew Adams is still writing, so one can hope.