Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Book Review: Barnstomer in Oz (1982) by Philip Jose Farmer

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a World War I veteran accidentally found himself in the land of Oz just as Oz was entering a major war itself? I doubt you ever have, but if you had this book (set in 1923) answers that question with much bloody gusto. In addition to the quite unexpected violence, there’s decidedly adult sexual situations as well, establishing this Oz book as “for grown-ups only.”

The main character, war veteran and pilot, Hank Stover is the son of Dorothy. He knows of Oz through his mother’s stories and the books of L. Frank Baum. But we quickly learn that Baum took liberties with the story he was told by young Dorothy and that all the books following the Wizard of Oz were entirely fabricated from Baum’s imagination. Through Hank, Farmer takes the pose that he is giving us the ‘real’ Oz, including speculations on how Oz and our Earth were once linked.

There’s the suggestion that much like the land bridge that once connected Asia to Alaska, allowing people to walk across to the yet to be called ‘new world’, humans and animals from our world crossed over to Oz and were forever changed.

Hank is also shown to be philosophical about how inanimate forms could take on life. Where did the ‘life’ come from? How does it sustain itself in the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodsman?

What was the thing that made the Scarecrow a living continuum? He believed that there was something that made up the Scarecrow and which inhabited his clothes, boots, and head-sack. Was it some kind of energy configuration? A tightly contained invisible complex of electromagnetism? Or some other kind of energy? A combination of e.m. energy and some unknown energy? (85)

Overall, I found this book to be a swift, adventure filled read. The familiar characters were re-made in fresh and surprising ways, particularly Glinda, and the new characters were oddly fascinating. I especially enjoyed the conflict between isolationistic Glinda and the colonistic U.S. government. In particular, I found her mystical attack and assassination of President Harding to be weirdly imaginative and captivating.

My only complaint is that the last quarter of the book felt awfully rushed. In the “Author’s Notes,” Farmer mentions cuts he had to make due to length considerations. I wasn’t surprised to learn of this. It felt as if scenes were missing or deleted, and the pace gave the impression of huge time gaps in the narrative. If Farmer’s original intentions had been included, I’m sure this book would’ve benefited. Maybe I just didn’t want it to end so soon.

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