Thursday, 27 September 2012

A Barnstormer in Oz

1982 Berkeley trade p/b cover
I mentioned Philip José Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz briefly before, alongside Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (see Keith Laumer ... and Oz, Sept. 2007).

Both are revisionist views of L Frank Baum's Oz mythos. I read Wicked a few years ago, and despite the rave reviews, I found it very ponderous. Its central thrust is that the Wicked Witch of the West (called Elphaba by Maguire, after "LFB") is a more complex character, driven into the role of wickedness by resistance to the Wizard's tyrannical policies concerning the rights of sentient animals in the world of Oz. Even though I like the Oz books and films, I didn't find much connection with them, because the majority of the events in Wicked are a prequel to the arrival of the well-known Oz characters. The whole handling seemed to me a very dull polemical exploration of the portrayal of good and evil, and the problems of Animals (sentient animals) vs ordinary animals, all countersunk by a study guide at the end posing various questions on the moral issues raised. Wicked just drips with its own sense of Significance.

A Barnstormer in Oz, which I finally read today, is completely different in tone. It's essentially a hard SF take on fantasy, whose central premise is that Oz is far more complicated than the Baum portrayal (within the book's mythos, it's written by Baum after interviews with Dorothy, but spun for the children's market).

Dorothy's son, the stunt pilot Hank Stover, flies through a mysterious green cloud and lands in Munchkinland. He's initially detained - for reasons of disease quarantine - and immediately finds the place to be a complex and sophisticated culture. The Munchkins are not infantilised dwarfs, but pygmy descendants of Ostrogoths who passed through a dimension portal to the Oz analogue of Earth, Ertha; they speak a slightly Latinised Germanic language, which he has to learn. The country is run as a benevolent dictatorship by the centuries-old Queen Glinda the Good, with some democracy at a regional level, and is a bizarre mix of cultural features: for example, there are strict rules for population control via a herbal spermicide, but the same spermicide allows wide pre-marital sexual freedom (Hank, though he yearns for Glinda, rapidly forms a relationship with the blonde guard Captain Lamblo). Despite the mediaeval formality, Munchkin culture has extremely syncretic Christian / Norse / pagan religious practices, some of which Hank finds abhorrent, such as its primitive tribal funerals with painted naked mourners and ritual bloodletting. The issues of sentient animals are addressed in far more concrete details than in Wicked, such as the taboos on killing sentient animals, and the accommodations that let sentient carnivores indulge their instincts under certain circumstances.

Hank, as a pilot with wartime experience and an armed Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplane, rapidly finds himself involved a key player in two conflicts that are brewing, both involving territorial ambitions. One involves an invasion of Erakna the Uneatable, a new Wicked Witch with armies of sentient hawks and flying monkeys. The other is an attempt at invasion by the USA, which in a project instigated by Warren G Harding has discovered how to open the portal to Ertha, and sends in an expedition force ostensibly seek diplomatic contact to "protect" Oz (an offer that Hank knows will rapidly repeat America's exploitative history when the US visitors realise Oz's wealth of precious stones and metals). Despite his loyalties as an American, Hank takes the side of Oz. This is helped along by his plans to marry Lamblo, and the friendly but cynical manipulation by Glinda, who spots him as a powerful wildcard who is free to use guns and explosives that would be taboo for Oz inhabitants.

During the military campaigns, which involve an undercover attempt with a couple of folksy rogues to assassinate Erakna, Hank encounters more mysteries about Oz. The chief one is his attempt to understand the nature of 'firefoxes', a form of ball lightning that possesses animals and inanimate objects with sentient intelligence (hence the lion, scarecrow and tin man) - in a thunderstorm, the same happens to Hank's biplane Jenny. He concludes that firefoxes and anomalous creatures such as the flying monkeys are the creations of the "Long-Gones" (reminiscent of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones), the original inhabitants of the Oz dimension.

The US invasion is forestalled first by Glinda's devastating attack on the ill-equipped military expedition - as this is 1924, an era before large-capacity passenger air transport, the US sends a small suicide mission arriving through the portal in a multifarious collection of co-opted commercial aircraft. Although further missions seem inevitable, the US is ultimately warned off by a terrifying demonstration of Glinda's ability of precise magical teleportation from Ertha to Earth. The book ends with a magical battle to the death between Erakna and Glinda, who Hank ultimately concludes would be better named "Glinda the Ambiguous".

The Wikipedia article mentions critical disagreement:
Inevitably, critics have disagreed on the value of Farmer's contribution to the literature of Oz. Jack Zipes called the novel "splendid," while Katharine Rogers considered it "revision to the point of debasement."
- A Barnstormer in Oz, retrieved 27 Sep 2012
I go with the "splendid". It was an enjoyable and intelligent afternoon's reading, with interesting footnotes on Farmer's ideas about the evolution of the Munchkin and Quadling languages mentioned in the book, as well as an analysis of the flora and fauna of Oz in terms of other Earth regions and cultures scooped up in the dimensional warp.

See the Official Philip José Farmer Web Page for other reviews, some of which mention other Oz adaptations. The Royal Timeline of Oz also has an extensive collection relating to the literary history of Oz and its various spinoffs, both faithful and revisionist: see, for instance, The Dark Side of Oz and Beyond the Deadly Desert.

- Ray

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