(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1975 edition)
Mick Farren (1943-2013)—science fiction author, counterculture musician, underground newspaper journalist—spins a wild drug-tinged adventure, replete with innumerable musical references, across a devastated, decadent, and depopulated future United Kingdom. The Texts of Festival (1973), dolled up with half-baked attempts at philosophy (counterculture becomes mainstream and loses its radical and society-transforming meaning), careens forth with extensive sequences of action-packed exploitative sleaze. A sword-and-fantasy plot unfolds Mad Max style—it’s so easy to forget it’s England not a desert wasteland. The last bastion of civilization, whatever that means, must put aside its decadent ways and fight off barbarian invaders….
If weird 70s British visions of surreal and crumbling landscapes appeal, first check out M. John Harrison’s superior The Committed Men (1971).
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
A linked series of deaths across a corroded and swampy landscape brings the reader to the slum city of Festival: a bizarre admixture of the American West, Rock-and-Roll, sleazy dive bars, and feudal England. Bullets are currency (15). Lords snort crystal and watch painted women dance. Failed communes, now ruled by corpulent stereotypes of medieval merchants, are drenched in beer and drugs and prostitution. Lyrical fragments of Bob Dylan, the “Prophet Dhillon” (80), and Mick Jagger “the legendary Djeggar, the witch king before the disaster” (79), memorized from old tapes long since frayed and broken, form the gospel justifying the status quo. They are scrutinized for prophetic lines. And bastardized to keep the powerful in power.
A cast of characters—from prostitutes to old heroes—must mobilize against the forces within Festival that refuse to confront the danger lurking over the blasted hills. Iggy, a nihilistic crystal snorting tyrant, joins up with a powerful barbarian tribe and descend on the defenseless Festival. Possessed by a decadent mist that refuses to dissipate, Festival’s inhabitants wait for a “revelation that would save civilization, without even a clear concept of what civilization might mean” (38). Joe Starkweather, now an instrument of Festival’s Lords but a one-time hero who broke the tribes and brought peace, must rev into action and repeat his heroics. Will the communes rise up against the power of the merchants and lords and fight off the danger? Or will one failed society that pretends it’s enlightened be replaced by another that revels in its own decadence?
The Texts of Festival is a fast read (2 hours?). The plot is simple. The characters are bland ciphers. The men action-oriented instruments of violence. All female characters are victims (survivors of rape, prostitutes, sex slaves) and objects of lust. Joe Starkweather might bemoan the death of civilization (39) and how “women were reduced to objects again” (94), but Farren revels in cringe-worthy sequences of violence against women and indulges in objectifying descriptions of women.
Also infuriating, some of Farren’s most interesting sequences, for example Lord Valentine’s rituals at Festival’s Stage with mummers “wearing huge grotesque masks” (79) each representing one of 60s/70s musicians whose lyrics are now the gospel, are abandoned mid-scene. Action sequences and orgies drown out the inventive elements of the novel.
I would have quit the book if it weren’t for the references and reworking of counterculture songs and figures. Just as songs serve as vehicles of protest and revolution, Farren speculates that those same songs, detached from their historical contexts, can be used justify authoritarian regimes. Starkweather, the one upright individual in the novel, observes how “the music [the survivors] had brought the the ruins as a means of enjoyment had gradually been adopted as the divine basis of society” (42). There’s a PhD dissertation waiting to be written about 60s/70s SF and song–Suzy McKee Charnas’ masterful Walk to the End of the World (1974) comes to mind.
The references in The Texts of Festival are a fun gloss. But there isn’t much behind the lyrical fragments. If you’re into grime and sleazy 70s pulp, this one might be for you.
(Uncredited cover for the 1975 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1st edition)
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