Thursday, January 11, 2018

Venus On The Half-Shell

Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout
February, 1975  Dell Books

I think this is maybe the third time I’ve read Venus On The Half-Shell, which as is now commonly known was really written by Philip Jose Farmer, posing as fictional author Kilgore Trout. The story of this has been told too many times to recount again, but in short in the early ‘70s Farmer found himself empathizing with Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout, a “sad sack” writer of science fiction who appeared in a few of Vonnegut’s novels. Farmer requested permission to do a novel as Trout, and after a bit of dithering with Vonnegut, permission was granted.

In 1988 Venus On The Half-Shell was reprinted by Bantam Spectra, this time under Farmer’s own name. In an intro he explains that he chose this story as the one to write because it was the only Trout novel (at that time) that wasn’t given a plot synopsis by Vonnegut; in the other novels that referred to Kilgore Trout, the plots of his books were expounded upon at length. Given that the only thing Vonnegut stated about Venus On The Half-Shell was a “racy scene” (Trout’s books and stories being published by sleaze outfits), Farmer felt that he’d be able to flex more creative muscle by writing this one.

In 1973 Farmer published a facetious monograph about Trout, “The Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout;” it was collected in the anthology The Book Of Philip Jose Farmer (DAW, 1973). Following the manner of Farmer’s pseudo-histories of Tarzan and the like, the piece discusses Trout as if he were a real author with a real body of work to his name. In it Farmer sums up Trout and his work:

Vonnegut calls Trout a science fiction writer, but he was one only in a special sense. He knew little of science and was indifferent to technical details. Vonnegut claims that most science fiction writers lack a knowledge of science. Perhaps this is so, but Vonnegut, who has a knowledge of science, ignores it in his fiction. Like Trout, he deals in time warps, extrasensory perception, space-flight, robots, and extraterrestrials. The truth is that Trout, like Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and many others, writes parables. These are set in frames which have become called, for no good reason, science fiction. A better generic term would be “future fairy tales.”

[Trout is] miserable, he wrestles with concepts and themes that only a genius could pin to the mat (and very few are geniuses), he feels that he is ignored and despised, he knows that the society in which he is forced to live could be a much better one, and, no matter how gregarious he seems to be, he is a loner, a monad. He may be rich and famous (and some science fiction authors are), but he is essentially that person described in the previous sentence. Millions may admire him, but he knows that the universe is totally unconscious of him and that he is a spark fading out in the blackness of eternity and infinity. But he has an untrammeled imagination, and while his spark is still glowing, he can defeat time and space. His stories are his weapons, and poor as they may be, they are better than none. 

Trout's favorite formula is to describe a hideous society, much like our own, and then, toward the end of the book, outline ways in which the society may be improved.

Farmer faithfully follows this in his own Trout pastiche; however, in the ’88 intro, Farmer states that he didn’t exactly follow the simple, “see Spot run” writing style Vonnegut deployed for his own Trout pastiches. While Farmer’s style in Venus On The Half-Shell is somewhat simple, it doles out a lot of puns and in-jokes, and indeed has a very ‘70s vibe to it. Ironically though, Farmer’s intention is that the book was really published in the ‘60s, but this Dell edition is a revision – to add an extra level to the in-joke irony, the “Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout” piece ends with the announcement that Venus On The Half-Shell will soon be “republished.”

I love the super-‘70s cover on this original Dell paperback (courtesy “Gadino”), but it is a bit misleading; protagonist Simon Wagstaff, aka “The Space Wanderer” (as Vonnegut solely referred to him in his own Venus On The Half-Shell pastiche), does not go around in star-emblazoned shorts, nor at any point does he wear a fishbowl-esque space helmet. Indeed the novel is so juvenile in regards to the science realm that at no point is Simon stated as wearing any sort of oxygen equipment, despite the fact he spends a few millennia traveling around the cosmos. Simon’s constant clothing is instead: black levis, a baggy gray sweatshirt (with the letters “SW” stitched on it at some point), and imitation leather sandals. He does however wear an eyepatch over his left eye, but the event causing this doesn’t happen until late in the novel. This look was faithfully captured on the ’88 reprint, courtesy cover artist Enric – ie, the guy who did the covers for the 1971 reprints of The Secret Of Sinharat and People Of The Talisman:

Re-reading the book this time, the one thing that most struck me is how similar the style here is to that of Len Levinson. Indeed, if Len had ever written a sci-fi novel, it probably would’ve been like this – not concerned with “science,” but more of a humorous, satirical probe into philosophy – a “parable,” as Farmer himself described Trout’s work in that 1973 monograph. But the question that compels Simon to scour the universe is itself simple: Why are we born only to suffer and die? At least, this is just one of the questions Simon constantly asks – what I mean to say is, this isn’t a deep philosophical work. It’s more about Simon visiting a few planets, encountering the repugnant creatures that live there, and noting their sexual proclivities, sometimes joining them in the shenanigans.

Farmer is likely most remembered for introducing hardcore sex to sci-fi. However it should be noted that there’s no actual sex in Venus On The Half-Shell. There’s a lot of focus on it (we’re always informed of each new alien’s sexual apparati, for example), but no actual sordidness. But I don’t think the sex-focus is Farmer being Farmer; rather, I think it’s Farmer providing an extra layer of in-jokery. For, like a regular Ennis Willie, Trout’s work was solely published by disreputable sleaze purveyors, most of whom changed the original title of Trout’s work to something lurid and put photos of nude women on the covers. The “sex” stuff in Farmer’s Venus On The Half-Shell is likely a reference to this, “Trout” smutting up his book to suit the sleazy whims of his publishers.

The novel opens in the year 3069; our hero Simon Wagstaff is getting busy on the head of the Sphinx in Egypt. The goofy tone of the novel is displayed posthaste as a sudden flooding wipes out civilzation (not to mention Simon’s girlfriend) in the span of a few pages. Simon manages to stay afloat on a plastic mummy display case. Along the way he picks up a pair of what will become constant companions: a dog, which he names Anubis, and an owl, which he names Athena. They are the last survivors of the planet Earth; eventually Simon will learn that the planet was wiped out by the Hoonhoors, an alien race that ventures around the cosmos and “cleans” planets that have become too dirty. At this point the reader of today will see that Venus On The Half-Shell was clearly an inspiration for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Simon and his companions come upon a spaceship floating on the water. It’s named the Hwang Ho and is of Chinese make. Simon moves into the empty ship and studies Chinese so he can handle the controls. After an encounter with an old space traveler (who has returned to Earth merely to find out who won a particular ballgame in 2457), Simon takes off into space. His goal is to get to “the Truth” behind reality and life. Instead he’s promptly chased by a Hoonhoor ship, and accidentally slips into a black hole, which takes him into another galaxy. The bizarre tenor of the book is further evidenced by the “69x drive” which powers the Hwang Ho’s engines; the 69x drive channels into the fourth dimension and sucks the life out of the stars there. Thus, passengers on ships traveling at 69x speeds hear a constant, terrible screaming – the victim stars wailing in pain.

The first planet up on the menu is Shaltoon, which is populated by humanoid felines. Here Simon’s “atomic-powered electric banjo” playing is a cause for celebration and he is feted by the native critics; a recurring joke throughout the novel is how Simon’s genius was neglected by Earth’s critics, yet more in-jokery via Farmer. But Shaltoon swarms with the “thick, ropy odor of cat-heat,” as the natives are permanently horny. This is because the Shaltoonians store their ancestors inside their cells, and due to a “rotation” each ancestor gets at least one day every hundred or so years to live again in a body. So all they want to do is screw when it’s their turn. All this is explained via lots of setup and exposition and background material.

Venus On The Half-Shell is one of those satires in which the “comedy” is mostly relayed this way – lots and lots of narrative setup, followed by a quick punchline. As if this weren’t enough, Farmer also handles this via novels within the novel itself. In what is intended as another tribute/reference to Vonnegut, Farmer has Simon Wagstaff often thinking of the novels of his favorite writer, Jonathan Swift Somers III, just as Vonnegut’s character Eliot Rosewater often thought of the novels of his favorite writer, Kilgore Trout. So, we have lots of in-depth plot rundowns (too in-depth, one might say) of various Somers novels and stories, from those concerning his intelligent dog protagonist Ralph von Wau Wau (and Farmer by the way published two Wau Wau stories – as by Jonathan Swift Somers III – in 1975 and 1976), to some about his parapalegic space explorer John Clayter. (Author Spider Robinson so liked Ralph von Wau Wau that the dog has appeared in several of his own novels.)

Simon gets his own taste of that “cat-heat;” invited to a personal meeting with Queen Margaret of Shaltoon, Simon enjoys some (off-page) sex with the lady, and more importantly is served an elixer by her that grants immortality. He shares the drink with Anubis and Athena after some mulling over if it’s right to make animals immortal. But he turns down the queen’s offer to rule beside her and heads off again, eventually landing on another planet: Giffard. This one is a bizarre world with “zeppelin” males that fly and “pyramid” females that graze on the grass. After the sexual functions are duly noted, Simon basically starts a revolution here by encouraging the females to demand their partners allow them some flying time.

More importantly so far as the novel goes, here Simon also meets what will become his other constant companion, though to tell the truth on this reading I discovered she’s less narratively important than I remembered her being: Chworktap, a blonde beauty with a “nice figure” that Simon first glimpses coming nude out of the water – just like the famous Titian painting of the title, though without, “Trout” notes, the clam shell or angels or whatnot. However, the clouds look similar to the painting(!). More time passes as Chworktap moves into the Hwang Ho with Simon and they learn how to speak each other’s language.

Only after they have the expected sex – which again occurs off-page – does Simon learn that Chworktap is…an android! She leaves with Simon when he must escape Gifford, when Simon pisses off the natives with his suggestion on how they manage the male-female discord he caused – a suggestion which ends up with Simon being labelled “Simon the Sodomite” by the angry natives. Next up is the planet Lalorlong, which curiously Chworktap suggests, as the natives there might have the answers Simon seeks, as they have nothing to do but ponder. I say “curiously” because all this is overlooked once they get there and the Lalorlongs turn out to be sentient tires that think of nothing but endlessly circling around the planet. This sequence is middling and plays more on a bunch of “tire” jokes, but caps off with more mulling as Simon puts an injured native out of his misery and wonders later if he should have done so.

Next up is the planet Dokal, which takes up a good portion of the text. Also here Chworktap drops out of the book for a long period, not even going onto the planet with Simon; they have a brief fight, after which Chworktap wants to study the computer that runs the Hwang Ho, as she’s certain it is capable of free thought. However Trout/Farmer completely drops this subplot, never revealing if the ship does or not; either it’s a pure miss on Farmer’s part, or more likely it’s yet another in-joke – playing up Trout’s notoriously sloppy/bad writing.

Dokal is populated by humans with tails, and Simon has a tail attached to his body via surgery, urged to do so by the natives. He goofs off here for a while, once again scoring some off-page sex, and eventually heads off into a no man’s land which is home to the planet’s wisest native. After weeks of hiking Simon finds a castle in which he’s ordered by the gross, obese “wise man” to fatten up – the ultimate intention, of course, to eat Simon. This part sees the only action scene in the novel, as Simon manages to defend himself, but loses his left eye in the process. However this is almost an afterthought and there’s no real pain for Simon; the loss of the eye is more of a minor setback. The novel suffers because Simon and the other characters never ascend beyond cipher status.

The planet Goolgeas is the next stop, and this one takes up nearly as much text as Dokal did. It is however the most irritating section of the novel, as the planet is a satire of litigation run rampant. First Simon gets drunk a lot, as all the human-like natives do is drink all the time, and he lets his pets drink too. But then he’s arrested for letting animals get drunk – Chworktap is arrested as well, after beating up a few cops in an escape attempt. They’re all thrown in prison for trial…and wait decades until it’s their turn, due to how swamped the courts are. Eventually everyone on the planet is in prison for some technicality, and our heroes are finally let go because so much time has passed that a “normal lifespan” has been reached. All told, they spend 130 years in prison.

By this point Chworktap and Simon’s love has run its course, having spent a century living in cramped quarters together. Simon drops her off back at her home planet, and this is a scene I always remember because “Trout” makes it clear that “eternal love” is impossible because people will eventually get sick of each other. We’re close to the end, so “Trout” skips over three thousand years; Simon is now a legend in the cosmos, the “Space Wanderer,” who still seeks the answer to his question. The reader feels a bit cheated, as it turns out the entire book is really just the opening quarter (or less) of Simon Wagstaff’s story.

And once again he’s in prison, arrested on the planet Shonk for covering his genitals but not his face, contrary to native custom. Five years later Simon’s sprung by a Hoonhoor ship; the occupants apologize for their ancestors having destroyed Earth, and to make up for it they send Simon off to the planet of the Clerun-Gowph. A recurring subplot in the book is Simon’s search for these elusive, impossibly ancient beings; in most planets in the galaxies, one will find a massive “candy heart-shaped” structure, planted there billions of years ago by the Clerun-Gowph. Simon’s certain if they are that ancient then they will know all there is to know about life.

The year is now 8,120,006,000 AC (“After Creation”), and the Clerun-Gowphs are massive cockroaches. Their leader is named Bingo and he was one of the first to plant those structures; he actually worked with the Supreme Being, whom he refers to as “It.” Those expecting a probing answer to Simon’s burning question have come to the wrong book; after much goofy back and forth, Bingo’s response to why “It” created life, despite all the suffering that would ensue, is a mere “Why not?”

And here the book ends, Simon trapped forever on this world of cockroaches, as the 69x drives have sucked the life out of the last 4th dimension stars. An unusual thing about Venus On The Half-Shell is that it’s kind of irritating as you read it…you start to want more from the characterization and a little less of the goofy vibe…and yet when you’re finished the book, you sort of miss it! At least that was my experience. I mean it’s not a great book by any means, but there is something indefinable about it that’s enjoyable. Maybe it’s that shaggy ‘70s vibe.

Farmer planned to do more novels as Trout, but this was scrapped by Vonnegut himself, who to tell the truth sounds like a bit of an ass. (Anyone read about how he snubbed MST3K’s Kevin “Tom Servo” Murphy?) It appears that Vonnegut misunderstood a comment some sci-fi scholar stated on a PBS program, about how Farmer was going to write his Kilgore Trout novel whether Vonnegut gave permission or not (which wasn’t the case), and he got ticked off. He was also supposedly angered by all the fan mail he got asking if he’d written the book – some claiming it was his best book ever. Further, Vonnegut prevented a planned animated film of Venus On The Half-Shell which would’ve had music by the Grateful Dead.

But by 1988 it appears Vonnegut had forgotten all about the book; in the Bantam Spectra reprint, Farmer gets a little dig in on Vonnegut, stating that, by the late ‘80s, college-age science fiction fans didn’t even know who Vonnegut was anymore, let alone Kilgore Trout. As mentioned Farmer wrote two stories about smart canine Ralph von Wau Wau, as “Johnathan Swift Somers III;” these were collected in the 2006 Subterreanean Press anthology Pearls From Peoria. I intend to read them someday, mostly because they would thus be a sort of continuation of Venus On The Half-Shell, at least so far as the fictional characters within the book itself go.


Baron_Waste said...

Greetings. I am enjoying this blog immensely, and accessing Internet Archive as I go!
- but in passing, I wanted to mention that Chworktap is of course “Patchwork”, as in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. P J Farmer would go on to write A Barnstormer in Oz (1982) and obviously already had some inkling of the project.

- B W

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the note! And glad you are enjoying the blog!