The World of Tiers
Phillip Jose Farmer
When presented with the opportunity to read vintage, hardbound fantasy with gloriously impractical Boris Vallejo covers, I can think of few reasons to say no. Just such a chance awaited me at a recent library book sale, as all of the recent, popular books had long disappeared by the time I got there. All that remained were obscure titles published long ago by forgotten presses, likely unread since the Gerald Ford administration. I took one look at the impossibly muscled and very naked, but battle axe wielding warrior and maiden on the front of The World of Tiers and knew that we were destined to meet at that sale. As an added bonus, the author is none other than Phillip Jose Farmer, of whom I had heard much but not yet read. This, dear reader, is what Moldy Fantasy is all about.
The first cycle of The World of Tiers comprises five books, which were later gathered into the two volume compendium that I read. Between the cover art, the publication date, and the first chapter, Tiers gives every indication of being pulpy low fantasy. I fully expected Robert Wolff, our erstwhile hero, to be tramping around a clone of Barsoom or Gor. There is a surfeit of mighty thews, but Farmer also commits world building. We end up with something a bit more sophisticated and, dare I say, scientific than one initially expects. This is appropriate, seeing as how he wrote a foreword, but Tiers feels like low fantasy filtered through Roger Zelazny. The five books split neatly into two narrative arcs. Books one and two are collected into Volume One and feature Wolff, the Earthman who stumbles into the Tiers. The remaining three make up Volume Two and follow Wolff’s guide from the first book, Kickaha. Mr. K comes close to stealing the show in that book, something that Farmer was no doubt aware of. He rewards the nominal sidekick with a bigger part to play in the later books; this is probably a good call. Kickaha is impetuous and bold, Wolff, while admirable, is a bit square.
As for Farmer’s world building, what starts as typical low fantasy quickly spirals into something much weirder. Farmer’s “Lords,” powerful, godlike, humanoid beings, create their own pocket universes. Wolff tumbles into the Lord Jadawin’s universe, which is arranged in tiers. Books One and Three take place in this universe, Four is on Earth, and numbers Two and Five are in other Lord’s universes. Jadawin’s is the most fun because each tier is a completely different environment. There are Native American levels, High Middle Age levels, classical urban levels, and of course the Lord’s fortress. This allows for varied storytelling and a veritable cast of thousands. The other universes are less ambitious, but still mind blowing. Earth is, well, early 1970s Earth. It is perhaps no surprise that the fourth book was the least interesting. With all the talk of pocket universes, impossibly advanced technology, and occasional beam weapons, Tiers is clearly science fiction. Still, a lot of the action takes place in fantasy-like environments with swords and bows, plus there are those naked axe wielders on the covers, so we’ll just keep this in the Moldy Fantasy category for now. It is quite like McCafferey or Zelazny though, in the way that the story wanders in and out of genre.
There is a danger inherent in these Moldy Fantasy posts of the commentary foundering on the rocks of contextual ignorance. A gaggle of writers were active at the time – Bradbury, Ellison, Lieber, Vance to name a few – that I haven’t read sufficiently to highlight the dialogue occurring between them. I am just familiar enough to see that Farmer is part of the conversation without being able to follow all sides, so there are no doubt all sorts of little asides and influences that are going over my head. There’s really no way to fix this, except to read more moldy fantasy, so we’ll have to leave Farmer relatively unexamined for now.
Taken by themselves however, the Tiers novels hold up. There is a bit of residual sexism, despite what appear to be Farmer’s honest efforts to avoid it, and certain moments of plot convenience that are probably more a function of word count than narrative skill. Some parts of the series work better for me (Jadawin’s realm in its entirety) than others (Earth, long stretches in less interesting universes), but I imagine that individual mileage will vary. The books are far more creative and entertaining than I expected, so credit to the author for taking me by surprise. Farmer is from a different era, which may leave fans of contemporary fantasy cold; pace and style have changed drastically. Still, The World of Tiers is worth seeking out. Come for the naked axe warriors, stay for the crazy pocket universes.
Rating: Sven Goran-Eriksson. Like Kickaha, the dour Swede’s travels have covered the globe and taken him to far and obscure corners, to mixed results.