Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Selection of the Month: "The Gate of Time" by Philip Jose Farmer

two-hawks-from-earth.JPG Book Selection of the Month (September 2009): The Gate of Time (which was later expanded into Two Hawks from Earth) by Philip Jose Farmer (who passed away earlier this year)

The plan for this whole year’s Book Selections, you may recall, was sci-fi and fantasy, one final blowout before putting that (and comics) behind me to focus on (arguably) more serious matters.  Since the mandate expanded a bit and I kept reading other things, this month’s Book Selection is technically the only case so far in which my selection for the month is literally a single novel and that novel qualifies as sci-fi — but then again, perhaps The Gate of Time should be called alternate history.

And speaking of alternate history: a note about 9/11, on this eighth anniversary, before we begin.

I think I may have been present at the moment when the victor in our Debate at Lolita Bar last week, Sander Hicks, became open to 9/11 conspiracy theories.  We had lunch some time after September 11, 2001, and a genuinely pained-sounding Hicks — trying to fit that horrible day into a right-left framework — said he almost felt as if there had to be some alternate universe out there somewhere in which Gore became president instead of Bush and the attacks were prevented and none of the subsequent events ever happened.  Some might argue he imagined his own alternate universe after that point, one with a very different sequence of events than the one most of us accept as the story of 9/11.

I was tempted to do something along those lines myself, as a joke, as the Ron Paul campaign became increasingly strange.

Like a lot of people, I’d been initially enthusiastic about his campaign simply because he’s a libertarian (not because of his coy openness to support from 9/11 Truthers), but I gave up on him abruptly in early 2008 as he fared poorly in the New Hampshire primary and revelations about his ties to racist newsletters suggested he might be as odd as critics claimed.  But some of his fans, with admirable albeit slightly delusional determination, wouldn’t give up on him and were still trying to think of bizarre scenarios whereby he might win, right up until the inevitable end.

My joke would have been to keep blogging as if he had in fact won the primaries, then blog as if he’d won the general election, then blog about how his presidency was going, only occasionally hinting at my concern that I might be inhabiting an alternate reality.  But people think I’m strange enough already, so I didn’t.


The 1966 novel The Gate of Time by Philip Jose Farmer (more famous for the Riverworld series) also features parallel universes.  After two WWII flyers suddenly find themselves on another Earth, the smarter of the two main characters, Roger Two Hawks, chastises his comrade for not reading comic books, which would help him understand parallel universes.  Two Hawks goes on to dub the world they’re visiting “Earth 2″ and their home (our world) “Earth 1.”

The novel was published a mere six years after the same terminology was introduced to DC Comics stories with the famous “Flash of Two Worlds” tale.  In DC Comics (a subsidiary of multimedia DC Entertainment as of this week), Earth-Two has been depicted not only as a nostalgia-drenched world on which old, 1940s versions of Superman and his colleagues dwell but also as an Earth with an independent Quebec and an earlier end to Apartheid.  Watchmen scribe Alan Moore more recently created his own nostalgic alternate Earth, Terra Obscura, populated by a long list of authentic old comics characters with amusingly old-timey character names.

Novels of alternate history — increasingly written by serious history buffs raising interesting questions about how things might have gone differently — typically take some very well-known event from recent centuries and examine how things might have played out afterwards if that pivotal event had a different outcome: England wins the Revolutionary War, the South wins the Civil War, the Nazis win World War II (over and over again, it seems — though not in Inglorious Basterds).  Yesterday, I even alluded to a fantasy in which Continental European “libertarians” and U.S./British “libertarians” are on the same side — but maybe that’ll yet have a happy ending.

What makes Farmer’s foray into the genre interesting and bold, though, is that the point of deviation is thousands of years earlier: Humans never crossed the land bridge from Asia to the Americas.  As Two Hawks wanders an alternate European land mass torn by a war very different from the one he knew, we gradually realize just how sweeping Farmer’s knowledge of ancient history, language families, and popular migrations must be.  Rather than dealing with comparatively small-scale historical differences such as Napoleon triumphing at Waterloo, The Gate of Time gives us a world in which people resembling Asians and Native Americans were pushed farther westward into Europe long ago by their greater population density and competition compared to our world — and a world missing certain key New World ingredients such as rubber and tobacco.

Will Two Hawks conquer this brutal world with grim, manly practicality and a bit of superior technical knowledge?  Will he make peace with it?  Will he find his way back home?  So many outcomes are possible.

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