Sunday, November 04, 2012


By Philip José Farmer

PJ Farmer was obsessed with the history of spec-fic, his stories cheerfully plunder pulp SF, Tarzan, Alice in Wonderland, Doc Savage, and of course Oz. And by Oz, I mean the novels written by L Frank Baum at the turn of the 20th century, not the (justly famous) movie.

A Barnstormer in Oz tells of Dorothy’s son, Hank, now a grown man making a living putting on airshows in the heartland. Then he flies through a green cloud and finds himself in Oz.

Only we’re not in Oz anymore. Farmer knows Baum’s works inside and out, so for those who have read beyond The Wizard of Oz may expect to find a lot of Easter eggs.  Farmer doesn’t stop there though, he creates a mythic past for Oz involving ancient races and migrations of alien life forms from alternate dimensions. He also finds a linguistic basis for Quadling (a language related to Munchkin) in Gothic (it’s a real language, not just a subculture for kids with dyed hair and too much makeup, and in the late Roman empire a Gothic priest, Wulfila, translated the New Testament into Gothic) that would make Tolkien proud.

Not that Barnstormer is some dry academic tome. Frankly it has more sex and violence than a lot of novels, and a lot more than you might expect in a tribute to a children’s classic. The pace moves at breakneck speed as Hank helps Glinda the Good with an invasion from Earth in the form of the US Army and all-out war with the Wicked Witch of the North.

Honestly, I enjoyed the book, yet I was a bit put off at the same time. Does one really need to know the details of birth-control in Oz? Or the exact nature of the magic that animates scarecrows? Barnstormer is a gritty tale, with the horrors of war conveyed in grim detail. The quaint folk you saw cavorting on the Yellow Brick Road, are revealed as strange, pagan, and fully capable of cruelty. While Farmer fans and those looking for radical re-casting of classic tales will enjoy this, if you can only bear to see Oz through the lenses of childhood nostalgia, you may want to go cautiously.
-Dave Hardy

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