Riders of the Purple Wage by Farmer, Philip José, 1967

Riders of the Purple Wage by Farmer, Philip José

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For those of you who did not enjoy James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, this one may not be for you. Big parts of it are told in a stream of consciousness style that is straight out of the deeper recesses of the author's mind. However Farmer does switch over to a more traditional style in parts of the book that are not as obscure, but are nevertheless practically swaddled in puns, double entendre and crypto-linguistics. As usual with stories of this type the reader's job is not only to relate it to his or her own experiences, but also to penetrate the extremely dense, almost poetic prose and divine the author's meaning as well. In particular this story is about a future where most people are recipients of government assistance, mostly from an N.E.A. type bureaucracy that funds artistic expression. The story is a bit dated in that Farmer seeks to shock the reader with references to government sponsored abortion, birth control, drug usage, casual sex, homosexuality, and all the other risqué topics from the 1960's, but the effect really is muted by the passage of time. This one is nevertheless full of interesting imagery, so I'm going to give you a lot to consider here.

Farmer breaks his novella into several different smaller stories. Most are about Chibiabos Elgreco Winnegan, or "Chib" to his friends. Chib wakes up in the very first part of the story, called The Cock that Crowed Backwards, and I think has sex. Not casual and gentle morning sex either. This is the kind of sex that requires a nap afterward. Farmer was well known - infamous some would say - for exploring many different aspects of sexuality in his SF tales. Farmer got his start in the Golden Age era, and this differentiated him greatly from all of his contemporaries who treated bedroom activities in a somewhat Victorian manner, at least literally speaking. Though it did set him up as a shining light for the New Wave era of SF that in the U.S.A. at least sprung forth like Minerva from her father's head on the day that Ellison's Dangerous Visions - where this work was first published - hit the shelves. Anyway, if I am reading this right, this is where Chib wakes up with a morning erection:

Dunghill and cock's egg: up rises the cockatrice and gives first crow, two more to come, in the flushrush of blood of dawn of I-am-the-erection-and-the-strife.

Then gives as good as he gets:

Up around her kitten-ear-soft leg, around and around, and sliding across the dale of groin. Nuzzling the tender corkscrewed hairs and then, self-Tantalus, detouring up the convex of belly, saying hello to the bellybutton, pressing on it to right upstairs, around and around the narrow waist and shyly and quickling snatching a kiss from each nipple. Then back down to form an expedition for climbing the mons veneris and planting the flag thereon.

And then finishes:

The woman strolls on. Wait for me! Out of the flood roars, crashes into the knot roars back, ebb clashing with flood. Too much and only one way to go. He jerkspurts, the firmament of waters falling, no Noah's ark or arc; he novas, a shatter of millions of glowing wriggling meteors, flashes in the pan of existence. Thigh kingdom come. Groin and belly encased in musty armor, and he cold, wet and trembling.

But sex is not all the story is about. Chib is a talented young artist who is trying to get his first government grant to live on. He is being pushed by his mother, a waste of flesh who wants the comfort that the government dole will bring. Chib lives with his mother, but unbeknownst to her his grandfather also lives in the house that they share. In this world, which is a SF setting, the elder Winnegan was a business man twenty five years ago. The government at that time had already started guaranteeing basic necessities, such as housing, food, medical care and others, and had absorbed every single business as a way to meet its obligations. Winnegan bribed senators and judges and was alone allowed to keep his business, a massive construction company. But it was not to last, and people too high up to bribe eventually came after Winnegan. When it became obvious to him that he was going to lose his business, he somehow managed to steal $20 billion from the L.A. bank and fake his death (referred to as "Winnegan's Fake"). Ever since then a man named Accipter with the Internal Revenue Bureau had been chasing him. However, currency had fallen out of use because the government eventually came to provide everything that was needed, so having large stashes of it became nothing more than a status symbol. Even still, Accipter never gave up. Ultimately he discovered that Winnegan was living in Chib's house, and broke in and killed the old man. Chib sued Accipter for the death, and Accipter charged Chib and his mother as accomplices after the fact.

Running concurrently with that plot also was Chib's efforts to become an accomplished artist. Chib's grandfather saw a lot of potential in the boy, but realized something that Chib did not, and that is that talent alone was not enough to get by in this world.

There he goes, my beautiful grandson, bearing gifts to the Greeks. So far, that Hercules has failed to clean up his psychic Augean stable. Yet, he may succeed, that stumblebum Apollo, that Edipus Wrecked. He's luckier than most of his contemporaries. He's had a permanent father, even if a secret one, a zany old man hiding from so-called justice. He has gotten love, discipline, and a superb education in this starred chamber. He's also fortunate in having a profession.

But Mama spends far too much and is also addicted to gambling, a vice which deprives her of her full guaranteed income. I'm supposed to be dead, so I don't get the purple wage. Chib has to make up for all this by selling or trading his paintings. Luscus has helped him by publicizing him, but at any moment Luscus may turn against him. The money from the paintings is still not enough. After all, money is not the basic of our economy' it’s a scarce auxiliary. Chib needs the grant but won't get it unless he lets Luscus make love to him.

And after all of those rich plots, Farmer also gives the reader a pretty interesting and changed world. The U.S.A. that Chib lives in is certainly a dystopic one, and as usual, it has failed utopic ambitions. Within the society the purple wage is available to all, but it must be earned. Only 10% or so of the citizens are capable of producing something artistic that warrants that particular dole, with leaves only sustenance level for the other 90%, unless they can figure some other way to earn a dole. As it happen three different options have developed. The inartistic may become civil servants, they may become addicts to fido (TV/communication/handheld computer devices), or they may leave. Most choose to become addled addicts, of course, and there are probably billions of them in the U.S. alone. For the government this is a win, because with the fido they can achieve control, and quiet. But for the talented 10%, things can get interesting. Many of them join gangs in their youths, and Chib was no exception. The government was so interested in Chib's talent that they kept an eye on him in his youth and tracked his movements, I suppose to make sure he was safe. Chib was a member of a gang called the Young Radishes:

A radish is not necessarily reddish," he says into the recorder. "The Young Radishes so named their group because a radish is a racicle, hence, radical. Also, there's a play on roots and on red-ass, a slang term for anger, and possibly on ruttish and rattish. And undoubtedly on ride-ickle, Beverly Hills dialectical term for a repulsive, unruly and socially ungraceful person.

Yet the Young Radishes are not what I would call Left Wing; they represent the current resentment against Life-In-General and advocate no radical policy of reconstruction. They howl against Things As The Are, like monkeys in a tree, but never give constructive criticism. They want to destroy without any though of what to do after the destruction.

Though this was the primary characteristic of the gang, this was not one of Chib's defining character traits. Chib was more Bohemian and not so much beatnik or radical in his outlook, and was also too young really to think that way anyhow. And for that reason I tend to think more of this story as a coming of age tale. Chib's only real serious interest in riding the purple wage is to appease his mother, and not because he needs it. He probably will be more than capable of supporting himself with his art alone, and contemplates going to Egypt to satisfy his curiosity and expand his influences, and his grandfather supports him in this. From a note handed to Chib at his grandfathers second, and final funeral:

Final advice from the Wise Old Man In The Cave. Tear loose. Leave L.A. Leave the country. Go to Egypt. Let your mother ride the purple wage on her own. She can do it if she practices thrift and self-denial. If she can't, that's not your fault.

You are fortunate enough to have been born with talent, if not genius, and to be strong enough to want to rip out the umbilical cord. So do it. Go to Egypt. Steep yourself in the ancient culture. Stand before the Sphinx. Ask her (actually, its a he) the Question.

* * * * * *

You've been painting with your penis, which I'm afraid was more stiffened with bile than with passion for life. Learn to paint with your heart. Only thus will you become great and true.

There is of course much, much more in this novella to think about. Ellison has praised this one as his favorite pieces in the entire Dangerous Visions series time and time again. Farmer has accomplished something phenomenal here; something to be respected and admired. I cannot say in any way that he failed to accomplish what he set out to do. This thing is technically and literally superb, and deserves much more attention that it gets today.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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