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Philip José Farmer's The Dungeon
Richard Lupoff and Bruce Coville
ibooks, 704 pages

Philip José Farmer's The Dungeon
Richard A. Lupoff
Richard A. Lupoff was born in 1935. He has worked in print journalism, in information technology, as a radio show host and in book publishing. His novels include One Million Centuries (1967), Sandworld (1976), Space War Blues (1978), Circumpolar! (1984), Countersolar! (1986), Lovecraft's Book (1985), The Forever City (1988), as well as a number of mystery novels. A collection of his short fiction, Before... 12:01... and After, was published by Fedogan & Bremer in 1996. Other recent publications include Claremont Tales (Golden Gryphon, 2001) and Claremont Tales II (Golden Gryphon, 2002), and The Great American Paperback (Collectors Press, 2001).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Claremont Tales II
SF Site Review: Claremont Tales

Bruce Coville
Bruce Coville was born in 1950 in Syracuse, New York, and grew up in a rural area north of the city. Though he has been a teacher, a toymaker, and a gravedigger, he prefers writing. He is best known for his books for young readers, including the bestselling My Teacher is an Alien series, Goblins in the Castle, Aliens Ate My Homework, Sarah's Unicorn, and Armageddon Summer (co-authored with Jane Yolen). Coville's Young Adult book series I Was a Sixth Grade Alien was adapted for television in 2000 as a weekly series for the Fox Family Channel. He lives in Syracuse with his wife Kathy, four cats, and a Norwegian Elk Hound named Thor.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Armageddon Summer

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Peckham

Not to be confused with the barrage of popular and cult games you play with little plastic dice, The Dungeon series was originally published as a collection of individual novels by four authors under the creative auspices of Philip José Farmer between 1988 and 1990. Borrowing liberally from Farmer's Riverworld saga thematically (without the after-life apparatus) the story concerns one Major Clive Folliot, an officer in Her Majesty's military service in 1878, who embarks on a quest into the deadly Sudd floodplain of central Africa to find his absent twin brother, gone fourteen months and last known exploring the Sudd region. He stumbles instead into a multi-dimensional labyrinth that spans a planet and houses creatures and technologies from throughout the galaxy. His quest is gradually transformed from a recovery mission to an investigation into who created this "dungeon," and for what secret purposes.

The iBooks release collects the first two novels, Richard A. Lupoff's The Black Tower and Bruce Coville's The Dark Abyss, as well as the original sketches by World Fantasy Award-winning artist Robert Gould. The next two collections, both due out later this year, will collect the next four volumes to complete the reprinting.

Perhaps the most fascinating elements of the collections are the brief forewords by Mr. Farmer himself. Taken each as a piece, they provide a literate preface to the thematic characteristics of each of the novels. Combined, they function as a sort of loose confederation of Farmerian notions of the interdependencies between genre and its (supposed) literary pedigree. Farmer, as anyone who's read him knows, is among other things, passionately pulp. He is also masterfully well read, with a proclivity -- like Umberto Eco -- for blending cult characters and literary devices like Andy Warhol on steroids. Eco has a fascinating little essay entitled "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage" from the book Travels in Hyperreality which dissects the history of temporal cult interaction and analysis, notably the ways in which cult and canon necessarily (though not always obviously) converse, and which can be read as a companion to Farmer's musings. Extolling similar ideas, Farmer's set pieces provide compelling insight into the anarchic Farmerian modus operandi. Farmer is typically all over the spectrum, dragging us along on a whirlwind tour of his boyish pulp fantasies and radicalized Bakhtinian inquisitions into thematic polyphony, where the collision of literary tropes and genre audaciousness serves to liberate voices as opposed to merely cheapening them.

It's too bad the vision doesn't quite carry over into the tales themselves. I'll just get this out of the way and point out that this is royally humdrum stuff, hardly on the level with Farmer's prefatory expositions and panoramic broad strokes.

Richard A. Lupoff leads with The Black Tower, the stronger novel of the pair, perhaps because Lupoff's job is (or was) well-defined -- to introduce the main players, build the mystery, and tease the reader without drawing back too much of the curtain. Lupoff's publications range from early science fiction work (including the notable "With the Bentlin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama" in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions) to his recent foray into the mystery genre (One Murder at a Time: The Casebook of Lindsey & Plum and the Marvia Plum mysteries). But it's the Edgar Rice Burroughs (Lupoff is something of an academic expert on Burroughs) and at least partial tribute to Joseph Conrad that we're exposed to in The Black Tower. Lupoff's rendition is steeped in Victorian mythology, most notably the notion of the African "dark continent" as perhaps the most poignant historical relic of western romantic notions of the unknown (or in a post-colonial sense, the unconquered).

Things do tend to move along at a brisk pace, which is a good thing, since any rest stops for bathetic exposition or internal monologue in a tale like this would take the acceptably mundane and turn it into unacceptably sentimental. Our hero departs "civilized" England for Africa, is exposed to a diabolic cabal of sorts, suffers through a shipwreck, makes his way to the "heart" of Africa, and in a nicely constructed, somewhat eerie sequence, is transported to the Dungeon through what is presumably a dimensional portal. The rest of the book is a journey through progressively more fantastic environs, during which time Clive forms up with a collection of unlikely companions, such as a telepathic, sexually frustrated spider named Shriek (after her ability to emit a pulverizing sonic blast when she screams), and the enigmatic force-field touting User Annie who turns out to be Clive's granddaughter brought to the dungeon from his future, and who Clive is also uncomfortably attracted to. Together this group elects to combine Clive's pursuit of his brother, Neville Folliot, with their quests to unmask the dungeon's progenitors, and ultimately return to their homes.

The Black Tower contends with many typical (and perhaps a few atypical in combination) themes, including racism, sexism, speciesism (among other isms), pulp homage, sense of wonder, the fantastic voyage, incest, utopian/dystopian societies, the gothic, satire and anti-satire, science positivism, science horror, inter-species sexuality, post-modern semiology, temporal paradoxes, and so on. Lupoff manages to plow his way through each with a modicum of grace, bearing stylistic tribute to Burroughs at times, Wells at others, but never quite punching through the skin to give us something more than a boisterous action-packed romp. It's fun, sure enough, but the ideas don't have any real shine to them.

Part of what makes the first novel more enjoyable than the second is the anticipation that payoffs are coming, in whatever form. Unfortunately, Bruce Coville doesn't have the luxury of playing as coy with the reader, and the slow revelations when they come are delivered haltingly and without the same dramatic poise Lupoff manages in similar, albeit rarer moments. The Dark Abyss only succeeds in moving the plot a little bit forward, while dishing up heaps of near-death experiences and zero-sum routines that eventually left me struggling to finish the book, perhaps mostly in anticipation of reading Charles de Lint's (that's right, the Charles de Lint) work on the third and fifth volumes.

Coville is that sort of workhorse writer who makes chapter themes and payoffs march reliably along, but the seams between Lupoff's and Coville's styles show -- always a danger when writing multi-volume, multi-authored stories. Coville seems to be less comfortable with the characters, leading to odd and uncomfortable transitions from the first book's characterizations in both dialect and activity. Characters exhibit robotic reactions meant to highlight their particular behavioral traits, sort of like index colors that pop out to remind you precisely where you are.

Making their way to the next "levels" of the dungeon, the party encounters a kaleidoscope of bizarre cultures, some based on splinter factions from earth history including one in particular calling itself the Church of the Holy Cannibal (guess what they do). Another notable sequence involves the characters discovering a trapdoor in a cave which turns out to be a "portal" in the sky of the next level; the crew must climb several thousand feet down a spider's silk cord to the next level below. These are fun for a few pages, but some turn into painfully extensive dramas that threaten to give the scene over to hyperbole.

Along the way, we're treated to some basic emotional development centering on Clive's leadership abilities and relationships to the rest of the band. Clive Folliot is the quintessential walking insecurity complex due to a life led in the shadow of his pompous, bombastic brother. Coville gets a lot of mileage out of attempting to show Folliot's development (much more here than in the first book), but the transitional events happen almost too quickly, toward the end, and without enough logical evidence to make the resulting attitude changes believable.

There's a fair bit to like about the series so far, in spite of what are some serious critical failings in narrative construction, continuity, and vision. Robert Gould's illustrations, located at the end of each novel, are great fun and add tremendously to the gothic atmosphere. I read the first book recovering from a bad cold, and have those sort of hazy, fond memories one usually associates with reading a popcorn-munching cotton-candy-sweet comic book series for hours on end.

And perhaps that's exactly what Mr. Farmer and Co. intended.

Copyright © 2003 Matthew Peckham

Matthew Peckham is the pen name of Matthew Peckham. He holds a Master's Degree in English Creative Writing and is currently employed by a railroad.

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