I wanted to skim most of The Unreasoning Mask because of the garbled paragraphs, where information was
placed in no specific order. Lines of thought were started in one paragraph, stopped for no reason, and picked up in another part of the chapter. The story was also told in an order that seemed to hinder, not help it, with many important scenes told afterwards in summary instead of what could have been heart-stopping scene. It made the story difficult to understand, and almost impossible to become involved with. For instance, if it had been my story, it would have started with the protagonist stealing the god-egg thing, not him sitting in a bar wondering what had happened. The story order got even odder as it went on.
And yet, he’s written 75 books. Farmer’s Riverworld series is well-loved and recommended, but I didn’t choose it because it is part of a series. (I will try to catch the SciFi Channel version, and I think I would like to try at least to read To Their Scattered Bodies Go.) The author also has some renown for creating the “The Wold Newton family,” which were “two fictional biographies of fiction characters (Tarzan and Doc Savage), that a radioactive meteorite fell in Wold Newton, England, in the late 18th century, resulting in genetic mutations affecting the occupants of a passing coach. The progeny of these occupants were famous characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey” (thanks Wikipedia). However, contrary to what his fans think, Farmer did not create cross-over fiction. He only created a well-loved example of it. My guess is that the Wold Newton stories probably follow in the track of The Unreasoning Mask – wonderful ideas, weird execution. If Riverworld isn’t too wonky, I might try those stories, too.
His ideas are interesting, if pathetically executed. It is highly likely this book was derivative of Campbell’s The Masks of Gods. Even more interesting is Farmer’s vocabulary. His word choices suggest a deep understanding of meaning, experience, and culture – gavaged geese, cachinnating owls – and strangely, although he doesn’t seem able to cobble together a smooth sentence most of the time, his use of these words did not seem pedantic to me. His best sentences are well-written and portend even deeper concepts. My favorites: “In some ways, there is not much difference between eating the flesh of the god and eating crow,” and “Pawns are not mere. Nothing that is necessary is mere.” This is the only story I know of outside of Effinger’s Budayeen Nights that feature a Muslim protagonist.
Lastly, the ending of this story has my total admiration and respect. He ended this book exactly the way it should have – with a bang, not a whimper. In his ending, the character learns what is important for himself, not exactly what the rest of the story needs for an ending. It works beautifully. This is the way I want to end books, with the story still rolling, but the story I wanted to tell having been told.
Lessons for writers: negative examples – art and craft are absolutely necessary to good story telling, especially (here) judicious use of scene and summary. Positive example – in addition to theme and craft, being able to load telling or sage observations on culture and humanity are really wonderful, and
make your ending sing with energy and meaning, but not completely wrapping up the story.
Also, an aside lesson, stick to well known “Best of” list entries, kid. I bought this book because it was available at BOOKMAN in Anaheim. I probably should have read To Their Scattered Bodies Go.
No problem in this instance, fortunately. The lessons are probably the same.