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The Maker of Universes by Philip José Farmer3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhile not exactly classics themselves, Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers novels are highly engaging portal fantasies in a classic mold, drawing inspiration from everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs to centuries’ worth of religious allegories. Farmer imbues this tale with enough flair and conceptual originality — you don’t see too many novels in which the hero is galloping alongside American Indians and then jousting a medieval knight mere pages later — to prevent its becoming too dated too soon, and even its cheesiest scenes have a certain irresistible je ne sais quoi. Monsters and alternate worlds and an eagle woman and I think there may have even been a bear — oh my! This is the kind of “all bets are off” adventure storytelling from a time when the genre was changing but its pulpy origins were still fondly in everyone’s minds.

Robert Wolff is a 66-year-old World War II vet who has never been able to recall his childhood. Dissatisfied with the mundanity of his later life, and married to a woman with whom he hasn’t gotten along in years (this is what you call “defining your audience”), Wolff seems resigned to a mundane fate as he and his wife find themselves house-hunting in Arizona.

In a basement closet of one house, Wolff thinks he hears the improbable sound of a trumpet call. His surprise is only compounded when, upon opening the Narnia closet, he finds himself gazing not at musty old coats but into another world entirely. Wolff sees the mysterious figure with the horn, and this man, who seems not only to know Wolff but to be expecting him, throws Wolff the horn before the pathway between worlds closes.

Wolff — not surprisingly — decides then and there he wants to buy that house. But his wife remains stubborn and intractable, and so Wolff makes the fateful decision to return that night. He breaks in to the basement, blows the horn, and leaves this Earth forever.

The premise of the man from Earth transported to some idyllic other world is one of SFF’s most venerable male wish fulfillment tropes, from Burroughs all the way to his imitators (Bulmer’s Dray Prescot), from C. S. Lewis and Baum’s Oz to Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant. And more. When the protagonist is an adult, generally the theme is one of renewal and second chances. The hero gets the opportunity to make up for failings and disillusionment in his “real” life by starting afresh in his new world, and most often with a newly invigorated, Boris Vallejo physique to go along with the deal. And let’s not forget the devoted dream girl companion he never had on Earth, either. Depending on your point of view regarding disillusioned males, this kind of thing is either pathetic, bittersweet, or a cathartic midlife coping mechanism, and Farmer follows all of the tropes faithfully.

The world on which Wolff finds himself is a product of Farmer’s inspired imagination. It is literally a World of Tiers, one level stacked above another like a wedding cake, and so on and so forth, until you get to the top, the level that houses the “Lord” who rules over the entire shebang, but who may or may not be its creator. Wolff meets various colorful locals, omost of whom speak an ancient form of Greek, a language he happens to know. There is the colorful Kickaha, a truly memorable rascal who turns out to be the one whom Wolff saw at the story’s beginning. Nicknamed the Trickster, there is of course more to him than meets the eye. Wolff also meets the exotic beauty Chryseis, whom he’ll be rescuing from constant peril in no time, and the deformed half-woman, half-eagle Podarge, who tells him of the cruelty and tyranny of the Lord upon the highest level. Wolff and Kickaha find themselves on one of SF’s most picaresque and improbable quests, ascending from one level to the next, in a daring bid to overthrow the Lord and restore peace and harmony to the World of Tiers.

What we end up with is an interesting satire, if you will, of the traditional religious allegory. The climb from level to level is a symbolic representation of moving towards enlightenment, similar to the path trodden by the world-weary believer of Pilgrim’s Progress. But of course, Wolff wishes to reach the Lord only to overthrow him (or Him). I got a kick out of the guilelessness of it all.

The story itself, however, while it contains no shortage of eye-opening and entertaining scenes, isn’t exactly a bevy of surprises in its plot resolutions. By the time I got towards the end I had a pretty good idea of how everything was going to wrap up, and generally my expectations were met. A big reveal about Wolff himself is visible a mile off. Yet taken in the right frame of mind, it’s easy enough to enjoy this story, particularly in the way Farmer flexes his imagination so forcefully while designing and populating the World of Tiers with numerous cultures from throughout human history. (If anything, one thought that kept rushing through my head while reading The Maker of Universes was how an artist the caliber of Jean “Moebius” Giraud could have turned this tale into a graphic novel of life-changing magnificence.) No, the book doesn’t maintain full steam all the way through, and it ends too abruptly. But it’s still an immensely appealing old-school yarn.

Followed by The Gates of Creation.