Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Barnstormer in Oz

Every time a new look at Oz that dares to re-envision it pops up, Oz fans either accept it or protest it.

Face it, we love Oz, and some of us can get really protective.

It started with The Oz Encounter, which lightly tread the beloved ground of Oz. Later came Was, giving us the "true story" of "Dorothy Gael." And of course, there was Gregory Maguire's Wicked Years series, and virtually no end of "dark re-imagining" comics based on Oz.

But really, the first, really controversial book inspired by Oz is right here: A Barnstormer in Oz by big time science fiction writer Philip José Farmer.

To be honest, I wasn't taken by Barnstormer. While it was a story I enjoyed enough to keep coming back to, at the end of it, I wasn't thinking, "My, what a great story!"

Hank Stover has flown his barnstormer plane into a green cloud and emerged in a strange land, full of pygmies and a beautiful auburn-haired maiden. He eventually learns the language and discovers he's in the land his mother Dorothy visited when she was a little girl: what she called Oz. Specifically, he's in the Quadling Country, and he has met Glinda the Good.

The story that Farmer lays out is that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a true story. The sequels were made due to public demand. There were some details changed, elaborated, or sanitized by Baum, but it did happen.

Hank almost immediately decides to stay in Oz, but there are two problems: one is that the Good Witch of the North has been replaced by a Wicked Witch named Erakna. She has the Golden Cap and is invading the other parts of Oz.

The other is that the US Army is largely responsible for Hank going to Oz: they have managed to break the dimensional barrier (the green clouds are the portals) and send him supplies to report on Oz and later send troops across into Oz. But Glinda cannot risk people from Earth coming to Oz. The wealth in Oz would inspire greed and possibly an interdimensional war. Also, any disease from Earth could be fatal to the people of Oz, and vice versa could also be the case.

Joined by many friends in Oz (including the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman) and his barnstormer Jenny (who comes to life), Hank takes it upon himself to help Glinda take care of both threats.

Farmer's Oz is very different from Baum's. He reminds us that Baum got many details wrong many, many times. Basically, he explains how the magic in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz works by explaining it as science fiction. He also explains that Oz has rules to prevent overpopulation: each couple is only allowed two children, and then the men must drink a potion that will keep them sterile. Basically, you are only allowed have enough children to replace you.

The problem is, a lot of plot pieces are set up just to address these differences. They aren't really essential to the plot, so why do we need so much of it? It's especially sad that in the Author's Notes that Farmer cut a really interesting scene I would have enjoyed due to length.

While Barnstomer is not really bad and provides an intriguing alternate version of Oz, the over-exposition can just get to be a bit much. It's worth a read for the mature Oz fan, but the younger should stay away. And if you're not interested, don't bother.


Sam A M said...

I remember once reading how they said Glinda was blind in this book, or was I mistaken? And it also had a very Different cover (maybe for the opposite cover or more of an attraction to older audiences:

Jared said...

No mention of Glinda being blind. (She is, however, over 300 and in one of the final chapters, she reveals she has dentures.)

That different cover was because it was originally released as a limited hardcover edition, not generally available. That's why my paperback says "First Mass Market Publication."

rocketdave said...

PJ Farmer is an author I couldn't get enough of for a brief time- until I caught onto the fact that while he had a wealth of interesting ideas, he was somewhat deficient as a storyteller. I'm still fairly interesting in reading "Barnstormer" one of these days, however.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I didn't like Barnstormer. I read it shortly after it came out. I was still firmly of the opinion that Oz books had to be consistent with the famous forty. But then there were so many of the FF that I hadn't even read at that point.

Having a much clearer idea now of how anarchic the FF are, I'm less of stickler. I am curious to revisit Barnstormer. But I figure if I do I won't need to hang onto it for a third go.