Short Story Review: Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952)

3.5/5 (Good)

Preliminary note: This is a review of the original 1952 novella. You can read it online here. Philip José Farmer published a novelization in 1961. While the novel was frequently republished, the original novella was not anthologized until 2003 (bibliography). I am in half a mind to read the 1961 version and analyze the changes!

This is a review that I wish I didn’t have to provide a rating as my lukewarm response to the story might obfuscate my fascination with its thematic contents and larger historical context. Philip José Farmer’s novella “The Lovers” (1952) is, without doubt, historically important for the development of the SF genre as it introduced a transgressive mix of sex (mostly implied), unusual xenobiology, and colonial critique. It shocked and fascinated readers at the time. In a letter published in the September issue of Startling Stories, Farmer himself predicted the “Reverberations from THE LOVERS should be really bouncing” later in the year (136). And he was right!

To give a snapshot of the reaction I’ve focused on the mentions in the November 1952 issue of Startling Stories. Note: the fan letters are a curated by the magazine’s editor. Rory M. Faulkner describes “The Lovers” as “the top science-fiction story of the year.” The same letter takes a snipe at the editors (Gold and Boucher) who claim to “use only adult s-f” but didn’t publish Farmer’s vision. Another fan writes that “THE LOVERS was a truly startling story to discover in your pages, and augurs well” for the magazine’s future (Forrest J. Ackerman). Another dubs him the “Hemingway of science fiction” who tackled a “controversial subject of intercourse and reproduction between two totally different species of beings” and created a “technically superb story” (Sid Sullivan). Robert E. Briney calls it the “one of the three greatest science fiction novels published in magazines in the last ten years” in part due to its “mature treatment” of sex. Barbara Harris writes that the tale smashed the literary barrier of “miscegenation.” While the vast majority praised the story as a masterpiece, a handful suggested it was more middling fare (Joseph Dunlap Willcox, et al.). And there was the predictable backlash due to its sexual content–in the December 1952 issue, Ancel G. Taflinger described “The Lovers” as “pure sensationalism having no place in either Science-Fiction or Fantasy.”

Regardless, the novella garnered Philip José Farmer a 1953 Hugo Award for Most Promising New Author. All the more surprising since “The Lovers” did not have an easy route to publication–it was rejected by both John W Campbell Jr. of Astounding Science-Fiction and H. L. Gold of Galaxy–before Samuel Mines accepted it for the August 1952 issue of Startling Stories (SF Encyclopedia).

The Nature of Exploration

“The Lovers” positions future exploration of the cosmos as a competition between Earth’s remaining empires–replete with destructive religious ideologies–little different than the Age of Columbus. The exploiters from the Haijac Union of Earth label the vaguely insectoid aliens the encounter on Ozagen as “wogglebugs” (13) and, despite their seemingly 20th century technology and friendly nature, remain convinced of their violent intent. Of course the humans actually have genocidal plans and “before they began their decimation project to make room for the hordes that would follow, they must learn the wogs’ potentialities” (14). And planet’s mysterious ruins, apparently made by a “dead humanoid race” on the planet, form an ideological justification for their actions.

The Haijac Union, a puritanical theocracy called The Sturch (church-state), governs society with an iron fist. Books are censored. Makeup forbidden. And overseers called Guardian Angel Pro Tempore (gapts) observe and interrogate the most intimate family details and interactions. Worship in The Sturch revolves around the figure of the Forerunner Sigmen, who according to the Ozagenian Fobo, was a “a sexually frigid and woman-hating man with a messiah complex and paranoid and schizophrenic tendencies which burst through his icy shell from time to time in religious scientifical frenzies and fantasies” (48).

Hal Yarrow chaffs against the control of his gapt and attempts to get back at his supervisor by tabulating the number of cigarettes he smokes and driving a bit too fast. On their way to investigate the ruins, Hal crashes an Ozagenian car and in the aftermath sees something watching him from the forest: “It was that antelope looking at me. It got away after all. It ran around the bush and looked back. Antelope eyes (16). Late that day, the same figure approaches his campsite in the ruins. Sneaking through the security devices of his gapt, Hal sees what he believes is the perfect woman. But little does he know that her hyper responsiveness and adaptive personality suggests a far more alien biology.

Final Thoughts

Unlike Farmer’s later fiction, “My Sister’s Brother” (variant title: “Open to Me, My Sister”) (1960) is the best example, it takes a bit of effort to imagine the contents of “The Lovers” as shocking. But it was! The sex is implied rather than described. The tone is glib and pulp yet the subject matter–genocidal weapons, love between aliens, obsession, biological infiltration verging on body horror—is sinister in its implications. And while there is a far deeper and profoundly alien nature to Jeanette, she is, on the surface, a manifestation of heterosexual male fantasy (she reminded me a bit of aliens in Star Trek with minor anatomical difference).

I found Hal Yarrow an intriguing figure. He is a product of his culture and its hard to tell how much of his change of heart isn’t due to the slow psychological manipulation conducted by the Ozagenians. He abandons his sterile wife and runs after the first entity that reciprocates his desire for affection. Farmer’s presentation of Jeanette’s character as a science fictional pulp object of desire–she responds to his every desire, has ever perky breasts, etc.–takes on a subversive quality when that desire becomes her alienness. “The Lovers” is a must read for those interested in Farmer’s fascination with manipulating the trappings of pulp for satirical effect. And for those interested in how science fiction tackled issues of sex and colonization.

If you are new to his fiction, I recommend the stories in Strange Relations (1960) or The Alley God (1962) first which include many of the same transgressive themes but mixed to greater effect. I’ve found Farmer’s subversive brand of 50s and early 60s science fiction presaged elements that gained increasing prominence in the New Wave movement in the late 60s.

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25 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952)

  1. I guess you’ve taken one for the team, or for the cause of historical research. Farmer’s story is significant in the development of American magazine SF– or it’s supposed to be — but I couldn’t see anything of note beyond that when I read it as a kid.

    What with all the completely cardboard 1940s-50s apparatus of stellar empires and absolutely implausible biology, in fact, I recall it as a really flat, amateurish read. IIRC, the novel THE LOVERS isn’t any better, just longer, and isn’t historically significant. So I hereby grant you my permission not to bother grinding through it.

    As you say, Farmer around the turn of the 1960s, as in the STRANGE RELATIONS and THE ALLEY GOD collections, as well as some of the Father Carmody stories (at least one of which is in STRANGE RELATIONS, I think), got better.

    From the same era as ‘The Lovers,’ Theodore Sturgeon’s stories about sexuality are actually rather more interesting and convincing –e.g. ‘The Sex Opposite’ from 1952 and ‘The World Well Lost’ from 1953 — than Farmer’s story.

    • Thanks for the Virgil Finlay b&w illos, by the way, which are much better than the story they illustrated. God, that guy was good.

      • No problem. I’ve always been a fan of Finlay’s art. was a bit confused by the placement of the illustrations in the story. The one with the large insect alien thing was placed a good 25 pages earlier than when it appears in the narrative! The others were matched up correctly.

    • I discussed this story a bit with Rich Horton on twitter and we both agree that the content in “The Lovers” feels like a rough draft for the stories in Strange Relations. However, in “The Lovers” he’s far more anchored to the more overt exterior elements of pulp adventure in the story and lengthy lectures about biology (maybe a holdover from his attempt to get Campbell to publish it). If I’m remembering the stories in Strange Relations correctly, they were more concise, powerful, and polished. I was debating what rating to give the story. The historical importance bumped the rating up from average.

      The absolute most interesting element of the tale was the idea that a pulp reader expects a particular sort of heroine who fulfils all the male desires and then, well, she’s an alien. And not just an alien that looks like a human, an alien designed to mimic a human. And I can sort of imagine readers going along and saying “that’s still okay as she mostly looks human.” But then Farmer turns Jeanette as pulp wish fulfillment completely on its head — with a good dose of (pre-Alien so we’re not conditioned to expect it — hah) body horror.

  2. I read it via your link, and didn’t think it was any better than the novel, just that it was shorter and less tedious. As was said above, unlike this piece, the novel isn’t historically significant.

  3. It seems he was admitting that he was not that good a writer in a technical way, but praising him for his maverick strength and honesty in tackling what was probably the most taboo of subjects. They seems to be why he thought he thought he’d become a better writer than Ray Bradbury, but I can say quite simply that he was wrong.

    Yes, I thought he admired SF authors who took risks and tackled controversial topics. That was why he wrote such a vehement article praising Philip K. Dick in “New Worlds” in 1966.

  4. Pingback: Friday Five: It’s All In The Timing Edition. – Peat Long's Blog

    • I assume you’re referencing Rushdie’s stabbing? Yeah… not good.

      I’m intrigued by Rushdie’s first novel Grimus (1975) that was published by a SF press and was in line to win a SF award (selected by Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss, and Clarke) before the publisher (Gollancz) decided it shouldn’t be marketed as science fiction…

  5. Man, I miss the old Startling Stories title logo. The new one (the one they used from like mid-1952 to the end) is fine, but the old one is so deliciously pulpy. It just SCREAMS adventure, thrills, terror, romance, all in one package.

    • Hello Brian, thanks for stopping by. The title logo is definitely a fun example of typographical play. The massive BOLD forms the jolt of “starling” and the italics a smaller voiced “stories.” What are your thoughts on Farmer’s “The Lover”?

      • Have not yet read the novella, though it is eligible for review on my blog (eventually). I did read the novel version a few years back and thought it was uneven, but ultimately fascinating. Farmer definitely playing with ideas that would be further developed and matured with his later work, and actually I suspect James Tiptree Jr. was inspired in part by early Farmer.

  6. Very late in responding here! But I was intrigued by Strange Relations when I read it – albeit quite a few years ago now (maybe ca. 2006-07?). It would indeed be interesting to compare “The Lovers” (which I don’t believe I’ve read) with that later book. This is the version I own:

    Nice review!

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