Book Review: Traitor to the Living, Philip José Farmer (1973)

(Hans Ulrich Osterwalder and Ute Osterwalder’s cover for the 1973 edition)

2.5/5 (Bad)

In disappointing fashion, Traitor to the Living (1973) follows a similar pattern to Philip José Farmer’s famous Hugo winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) — the fascinating premise is bogged down by blank characters and repetitive action.  Despite my fervent conviction that To Your Scattered Bodies Go is one of the worst Best Novel Hugo winners (and I’ve read a majority of them) and that the endlessly laborious sequels are a complete waste of ink, paper, and time, I gave Farmer a second chance — albeit with one of his lesser known works.  Because some of the pieces are in place in Traitor to the Living for a worthwhile novel, I hold out hope that he produced a readable work that I might be compelled to acquire (queue question: what is your favorite novel/short story/novella by Farmer?).

If you’re a Farmer completest, Traitor to the Living might be worth buying.  For other sci-fi fans — unless you’re interested in endless fantasizing about relationships with cousins, blank/boring characters running around with machine guns ruining a promising premise then this one is best avoided.  That said, there are a few intriguing observations about the interplay between religion and science (unfortunately, Farmer doesn’t move beyond simplistic/obvious statements).

Brief Plot Summary

Gordon Carfax (Herold Childe), a medieval history professor with a previous career as an private detective, decides to investigate the origins of a controversial invention called MEDIUM.  MEDIUM acts as a medium (literally) to access the spirit world, or rather, the realm where the dead reside.  Patricia Carfax (his cousin and object of great sexual desire) comes to him with claims that her father was the inventor and that Western (the proclaimed inventor) is actually an impostor who murdered her father.  Gordon Carfax believes that the “spirits” of the dead are in reality aliens with nebulous motives.  MEDIUM can also access the energy from the spirit world creating an endless power source (etc), i.e. potentially the savior of a polluted. repressive, and damaged future.  Western, on the other hand, is after the cash and political power and doesn’t hesitate to murder and exhort his way to the top.

Farmer spends some time postulating on the religious ramifications of a technology that appears to remove the possibility of heaven and hell.  Of course the Church goes through mental gymnastics to explain the spirits all away.  A few of Farmer’s descriptions of the parallel spirit world are fascinating. For example, the sembs (spirits) are organized in colonies in orbits. Eventually Western discovers that he can promise the dead new bodies and here Farmer ignores all the potential social ramifications but instead engages in an endless action-laded hundred pages — mansions blow up, planes crash into buildings, people get shot, cousins have sex, people are killed.  Unfortunately, I cared little for any of the characters and was unmoved by the pallid attempts to conjure dread.

Final Thoughts

Traitor to the Living is clunky, unconvincing, and dull.  The characters are unrealized and boring (how can a medieval professor be boring?!?).  The premise, the contact with a parallel world where the spirits of the dead go, is simple but holds great potential.  How does the mental state of the dead transfer over into such a timeless world?  How do the sembs interact in their colonies?  Why are they in colonies?  Farmer doesn’t move beyond a cursory investigation of the ramifications of such a discovery and is more interesting in cramming as much action into the novel as possible.  Instead a focused/realized technology around which a convincing premise can develop, MEDIUM instead becomes a sci-fi wonder machine vomiting streams of timeworn clichés — it does everything (channels an endless power sources, grants immortality, facilitates body transfers, etc).  Farmer’s pen breathes no new life into the old corpse.

As with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the novel devolves into endless (but action packed) tedium.


(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1975 edition)

(Victoria Poyser’s cover for the 1993 edition)

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Traitor to the Living, Philip José Farmer (1973)

  1. Philip Jose Farmer is the only author I know of who can make a mind-bogglingly cool concept tedious and lame.

    Also, Farmer’s the only author I can think of who jam-packs his novels with so much adventure, with action so intense, that his books replicate the same thrill-a-minute suspense and rapid-fire development of mowing a lawn.

    • Your description is perfectly apt — grass limbs flying off, ants decapitated, dog poop accidentally subsumed into the flying blades and spewed in all directions, the less than savory but violent and disturbing adventures of lawn care….

  2. “how can a medieval professor be boring” – HA!
    On the Panther cover, it looks like the guy is angry over his weedwacker. Speaking of wack, better kissin’ cousins than kissin’ siblings!

    • Have you read any of Farmer’s works?

      I won’t be boring — I’m not boring — haha

      I enjoy the first cover — the next two, not so much. Farmer is credited for introducing sex to sci-fi… All different types of sex…. combinations…. etc. But, hmm, I suspect one of his novels deals with incest as well.

      • Haven’t read any Farmer yet and I’m not exactly motivated to tackle one either, if that time comes. Silverberg once “played” with incest… juvenile incest… but I won’t get into that. Will you be delving into any Piers Anthony from the late 60s or 70s? His collection, Alien Plot (1992), was irksome if not terrible.

      • I’ve not read any of Anthony’s works yet. I have one of his novels on my shelf from that period — Orn (1971). I probably won’t read Alien Plot considering most of the stories are from much later.

  3. Are any of Farmer’s novels worth reading? I’ve seen them at the bookstore, but I’ve always gotten distracted by other books. Based on this, I’m beginning to think that might have been for the better.

  4. Philip J.Farmer was a daring,speculative author,but there’s too many flaws and not enough special touches in his creative makeup,that would have allowed to be a top tier sf writer.I think he comes about only just above top middle rank.

    TTTL is rather grim.Don’t remember nothing about it.

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