Book Review: The Alley God, Philip José Farmer (1962)


(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1962 edition)

3.5/5 (Collated rating: Good)

The 1950s stories in Philip José Farmer’s collection Strange Relations (1960) rekindled my interest in in his earlier work.  Yes, I want odd stories about hard-shelled, hilltop living, female-only womb aliens who fertilize themselves via roving mobile “male” objects whom they capture and thrust into their womb-spaces. But, there is not an author whom I have more polarizing relationship with….  Outside of the 50s stories I’ve had no success with his work—readers of the site will know my views on Traitor to the Living (1972)To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971), and the latter novel’s endlessly bland and bloated sequels.  I recently read the novel version of Night of Light (1966), based on the 1957 story by the same name, and will thus dabble eventually in more of his 60s work.

However, the three 50s novellas in The Alley God (1962) exploring Farmer’s favorite themes of sex and societal mores, do not  necessarily demonstrate Farmer at his best but they definitely  are intriguing enough to track down more!

Recommended for fans of inventive 50s SF.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*as always, spoilers*)

“The Alley Man” (1959), novella, 3.5/5 (Good): Nominated for the 1960 Hugo award for Best Short Fiction.  I can imagine that this is a polarizing story….   Old Man Paley lives on the outskirts of an American city with his two mistresses Gummy and Deena, ekes out a living looking through trash, attempts to avoid being sent to the “puzzle house” (mental facility), abuses his mistresses, and consumes large amounts of beer.  Old Man believes he’s the last pure-blooded paleolithic man (hence Paley) and and fantasizes that there’s a way out for the last Neanderthal.  Deena condemns these fantasies of potential deliverance: “‘….all this stuff about the lost hat of Old King,” continued Deena, “and how it you ever find it you can break the spell that keeps you so-called Neanderthals on the dumpheaps and in the alleys, is farbage […]'” (15).

Soon a young graduate student named Dorothy arrives and attempts to befriend Paley for her research project.  And Paley reciprocates, but, Dorothy’s attempts at “research” are over the line and manipulative despite the fact that she might really care for him….

Nicholas Ruddick in The Fire In the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction from Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel (Weseleyan U. Press, 2009) suggests that Old Man Paley represents oppressed minorities who live on the outskirts of American urban society (4).  This conclusion disturbs as Paley’s commits violence against women and is easily deluded by thoughts planted into his head by the white woman outsider.  Equating these types of traits with minorities is very problematic….  Likewise, Dorothy does sort of admire Paley despite his abuse of Gummy and Paley.  Are we supposed to secretly respect Paley?  Or, is he the profoundly flawed antihero type?

Ultimately, this is an odd but intriguing story that shows Farmer’s take on a bland SF theme—a prehistoric (or perhaps it’s all a delusion) man in the present.

“The Captain’s Daughter” (variant title: “Strange Compulsion”) (1953), novella, 3.25/5 (Average):  Starts pure pulp, transforms into pure Philip José Farmer.  However, an odd epilogue pulls all the parts together in a neat package smacks of editorial “interference” i.e. “if you want to get it published you need to stick this on the end.”  This story is about a PSRTD: parasitic sexually and religiously transmitted disease.  Remember, we’re talking about the early 1950s…

Dr. Gaulers and his assistant Rhoda Tu are called to investigate a strange occurrence on the spaceship Erkling under the command of Captain Everlake: a member of the crew has disappeared!  Likewise, Captain Everlake’s daughter Debby is afflicted with odd symptoms: “I still feel like I am going to burst” (63) she proclaims, with a deeply unsettling aroma of fish…  Her relationship with her father perplexes the doctor.  Gaulers falls in love with Debby despite her ailments.  He is unable to find the root of the illness. Soon the narrative utterly shifts gears from the spaceship to the religions and mores of Moon cults…

The crew, perhaps on the paranoid side, reveals to Gaulers the existence of a Moon cult—with various rituals involving rings and virgins and “pageants which depicted the persecution and martyrdom of Victor Remoh” (91)—which Captain Everlake and his daughter are members. And through a watery medium in religious excitement and the more carnal contact of sex, a certain parasites finds a happy home.

Despite the unusual 50s topics, the story feels very much like a rambling pulp adventure.  The story lacks cohesion with some of the more interesting threads, for potential example psychiatric treatment, undeveloped.  The happy-go-lucky epilogue (editorial insistence?) undermines the unsettling nature of a PSRTD!

“The God Business” (1954), novella, 3.5/5 (Good) starts with a bang, “It was the first time that the U.S. Marines had ever been routed with water pistols” (11).  A new God appears in Illinois and transforms the Illinois River into an intoxicating and transformative “Brew.”  The landscape around the river is turned completely on its head, odd individuals engage in orgies, odd rituals and mythologies take seed, all who drink the Brew engage in Bacchic delights… Alice Lewis, a “beautiful” army major, and Mr. Temper (a balding veteran with a teeth plate whose one-time professor is now the “God”) are sent into the transformed zone to fine a way to revert the transformation….  “The God Business” is told with real energy and excitement, it is a rambunctious and bizarre journey.  And yes, Farmer engages with his common themes: religion and sex, religion and sex.


(David Hardy’s bland cover for the 1970 edition)


(Uncredited silly cover for the 1972 edition)


(Rik Lina’s cover for the 1973 Dutch edition)

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Alley God, Philip José Farmer (1962)

    • I found the stories in Strange Relations (1960) [linked in review] far superior…. So, that is probably what my ratings are reflecting, he is capable of better stories and those get 4s and above. As for “deserving” or “slightly low” — a why and a why? haha.

      • Re: slightly low, going over my notes, and my vivid memory of the story, I think it rated 4 stars in my book.

        Re: deserving, your review makes it sound as if you liked it better than 3.5 is all.

        I never forgave Farmer for “Open to me, my sister.” I understand the stiff mores of 1960, but it revulsed me.

        • Ah, yeah, that story is profoundly disturbing… But, I concluded: ” This is a rather radical story for our manly man, who lusts after aliens but really wants them to be more human than alien (especially when they have sex), despite encountering a peaceful race can only react with violence when his sexual mores are challenged.”

          Sounds almost like Stanislaw Lem’s comments about mankind wanting to encounter variations of ourselves in our cosmic explorations, rather than true difference.

          Ultimately, I found the story very powerful and harrowing in its implications… Talk about a brutal critique of “modern” man’s encounter with the Other.

  1. He was undoughtedly a reckless maverick and modern mythologizer.He wasn’t frightened to go where most SF authors feared to tread.That was what attracted me to him.He undoubtedly pointed the way for the the later new wave to experiment in what had been forbidden territory.This is why,despite his fearlessness and ability to shock turning ephemeral for me,he should be respected for that.

    In “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”,it seemed he was more than daring enough to tackle a dangerous,esorteric theme,but instead came up with a faux explaination for it all that merely satisfied SF expectations.I was also impressed with “The Alley God” when I first read it,simply because of it’s daring and innovative approach to the themes of sex and religion,but i don’t think the treatment of them was deep enough to merit lasting brilliance,as I now find it rather forgettable.

    As I said though,he inspired a new generation of authors to explore areas and write better SF,in what if he had never succeeded in doing himself,and for that he should be remembered.

    • I agree with your assessment of The Alley God — for some reason the stories seem less memorable than those in Strange Relations — hence my seemingly tepid ratings. He’s worth exploring, and I’ll do more soon enough. As I pointed out in the review, I read the novel version of Night of Light (1966), based on the 1957 story, and enjoyed it was well.

      • I haven’t read the short story “Night of Light” was based upon.My memory of it is rather vague now,but think it was more explorative of it’s religious and sexual subject matter than the books I mentioned above.I’ll wait until you do a review of it therefore,before I fully comment.

        • I’m not sure I’ll write a review — I read it more than a month ago and didn’t take notes… alas! (it might appear one of my short review posts).

          It had a very odd anti-hero turned priest…

          • That’s quite alright,I won’t say no more about it until or if you do.I haven’t got it in my collection now,or I’d probably have reread it.

            I do remember him though,John Carmody,who also appears in “Strange Relations”.As I remember,he becomes frightened when the planet’s pagan practices he becomes involved in,become terrifyingly real,and he beseeches God to help him.

  2. A little late to the party here, but I wonder, based on your 50s > later feeling, what you thought of his story in Dangerous Visions, “Riders of the Purple Wage” — which I’ve always considered among the New Waviest of the American New Wave?

    The Essex House novels (Image of the Beast and Blown) are … *really* profoundly disturbing.

    davidpermutter didn’t respond, but I’d guess the “reworkings and amendations” would include the “Wold Newton” material like A Feast Unknown, which mashes up Doc Savage, Tarzan and Jack the Ripper.

    I have a soft spot for Farmer’s crime novels (e.g. Nothing Burns in Hell), which don’t really break any new ground but are well-executed.

  3. Farmer was one of those ultra cool writers to me back then, the early stuff was way out, comparable in some ways to Cordwainer Smith, who was the Paul Cezanne of SF, in that he was so cool you just had to mention him… so yeah, Alley God was and is one of my all time faves – somehow though as time went on he seemed to me to go off the boil a bit – Riverworld just wound on and on, getting nowhere to me on the two occasions I read it – there are some long books which similarly just lose my interest, not many though – Nostromo and The Brothers Karamazov, Clarke’s Rama thing, (the later novels in the series most of all) – but yes Alley God, really tough, well paced, full of character and smell – just wow

  4. Hmm, I’m assuming New Wave is a broad church –
    I would put Scanners Live In Vain (C.Smith) at 1,
    maybe Alley God at 2.
    – Number 3 The Terminal Beach J.G.B.
    – 4 could be Aldiss, Year By Year The Evil Gains?
    – 5 could be You – Coma Marilyn Monroe, another Ballard
    – How about another C. Smith ‘Sto Odin’ at 6? (that’s a wild one).
    There must be loads more I just can’t recall right now, but these 6 are a good start.
    The whole of ‘The Martian Chronicles’ would be my all time fave, pretty creepy stuff when you really get into it, though not what most people would call New Wave
    But you know, different folks…

    • Any women authors (there are quite a few who were involved in the movement!)? I’d have Sonya Dorman’s Splice of Life and Pamela Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe in any list I’d come up with….

      • Yes, Kate Willhelm, Pamela Zoline, excelent stuff! My reading has tended to move along with more or less current SF fashions, in recent years I’ve read most of C J Cherrryh’s SF and loved it – (right now I’m re-reading Banks’ Culture novels – so I’m not really a dedicated ‘New Wave’ fan, though I certainly was blown away with it at the time). I must admit to having neglected Russ – though I expect I’ll be reading some soon now that you’ve put the idea in my head (Have Fun With Your New Head : T. M. Disch might be another one for my list – along with Zoline’s Heat Death, thanks for reminding me!)

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