The following is excerpted from Edger Chapman, The Magic Labyrinth of Philip Jose Farmer, (San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1984) 64-65. Farmer's most important parody and fictional author story is Venus On The Half-Shell (1975), published by Dell books under the byline "Kilgore Trout." Trout is Vonnegut's itinerant, impoverished science fiction author, a prophet despised and without honor in his own country. A strong admirer of Vonnegut, Farmer has also confessed to a deep identification with Trout (who was actually suggested by Theodore Sturgeon). The identification was strengthened by many things: Farmer's own years as a struggling science fiction author in the early and middle stages of his career; Farmer's experience as a misunderstood social critic; and Farmer's identification with pornography as an Essex House author, a fate that plagued Trout. Finally, not long after Farmer had returned to Peoria, he was accused in 1970 of having written a letter signed "Trout" in the Peoria Journal Star criticizing President Nixon's Vietnam policy-another ironic identification of Farmer and Trout. (The letter is believed to have actually been penned by a college student.) At any rate, Farmer, when afflicted with a temporary writer's block, conceived the idea of writing one of Trout's nonexistent novels and publishing it under Trout's name. He obtained Vonnegut's permission and went to work. When Venus on the Half-Shell was published by Dell, with Farmer wearing a false beard and a Confederate hat as a disguise on the back cover, the book was a ninety-day wonder, until Farmer's authorship, which Farmer made little effort to conceal, became known. Although the novel brought Farmer some unaccustomed notoriety (and made Vonnegut regret giving his permission to the project), the revelation of Farmer's authorship created a tendency to dismiss the work as simply an amusing parody and literary hoax. An additional irony in this episode has been Vonnegut's claim in a recent interview with Charles Platt (recorded in a book published in 1980) that Farmer failed to avow his authorship of Venus for a long period, presumably in the hope that sales would be increased by association with Vonnegut's reputation. This allegation, however, is not borne out by fact: Farmer told numerous friends, colleagues, and fans of his authorship; in fact, he informed the present writer of it when Venus was appearing as a serial in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Vonnegut's reaction is perhaps not surprising, since Trout is his invention. But when Vonnegut professes to feel anxiety that Farmer's book may somehow have harmed his literary reputation, it is hard to take him seriously. Such concern might have been better devoted to the effect of Vonnegut's self-indulgent seventies novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick. Divorced from topicality and controversy, Venus On The Half-Shell can be read as a lively satirical anatomy, an absurdist novel that manages to parody Vonnegut while ridiculing human pretentiousness and our persistent search for metaphysical answers in an irrational universe. . . As a satire, Venus On The Half-Shell has many excellent moments, but it contrasts sharply with Vonnegut's work. Whereas Vonnegut is Juvenalian or Swiftian in his tone, his work suggesting genuine misanthropy, Farmer is a genial Horatian satirist here. There seems to be more readiness to accept the limitations of human life in Farmer, more hopefulness about the human capacity to enjoy life, even if dreams and ideals are for the most part doomed to not to be realized completely.Read more ›
Venus on the Half Shell IS my favorite book, with Jung's autobiography and T.S. Eliot's Complete Works running close second and third. I have read it more times than I can count. It cheers me up when I am blue...it answers questions when I am confused (at least it slaps me a good one while shouting, "TAKE YOURSELF A LITTLE MORE SERIOUSLY, WHY DON'T YOU!") It makes me laugh. It laughs at me. There is simply no other book in the same category as Venus. Originally I found it on the "book shelf" at the Kroger in Petoskey, Michigan just after its publication in '70-something. Where else would one find a Kilgore Trout novel? I knew immediatley that I had happened upon a black pearl of literature! I couldn't wait to get home to start reading it and actually went next door to the Big Boy and had some warm salad a cold hamburger while I entered into the universe of Simon Wagstaff. The only problem with the edition available here is that it is a new hardback. This is anitpodal to the concept itself. This book MUST be read in paperback, which is available with a little perseverence at your nearest used book shop. Kilgore Trout was NEVER published in hardback, and neither did he ever win a second edition! In order to properly appreciate this book, you really need to know Kilgore Trout as a character. Then read this book. Then read Philip Jose Farmer. If you have put the cart before the horse and already have encountered Philip Jose, it won't ruin the experience...he also wrote some pretty far out Tarzan stories..... Read and enjoy! And, Mr. Farmer, if you check this particular message board, THANK YOU!!!! It is gratifying to know that you are out there!
This is the book that will tickle everyone who has ever wondered about fate, chance, the meaning of life, and when will I get laid again. That's pretty much everybody. With any luck, this book will encourage you to see the stupidity, irony, and just plain "black-lung humor" in your own life. Maybe it'll even inspire you to write a song or two. Don't even think of dying until you have read this book!
I loved this book. Even though I havent read it since high school I still think about it. But, where have all the soft back copies gone to? I'm also a huge fan of Vonnegut, and until recently I thought he had written the book. However, Vonnegut's satire and humor is usually a little bit more subtle and dark.
Farmer mimicks Vonnegut's style well. This is an entertaining and humourous science-fiction story. It's a light read, easily finished in one sitting (say, a long car ride). The social satire is not so subtle, way too transparent and a bit dated. The alien civilizations visited by the hero aren't very thought-provoking and probably won't satisfy well-read science-fiction fans. Nonetheless, the story works in a crescendo towards a very funny and absorbing ending. The trashiness of the story is intentional, an attempt to write like Trout, it is titillating and amusing, sometimes overdone. It leaves a lingering feeling, a nostalgic sensation like all good books when its finished.
This is a book that I read in the early 1980's for recreational reading while I was a college undergrad I really enjoyed it and wanted to read it again a number of months later. But, I let someone borrow my copy and never got it back. This is happened to me like many others who have also responded in this forum. I never could remember who I let borrow that book. I also was not able to get another copy where I originally purchased the book. Perhaps Vonnegut was secretly trying to get all of the copies of Venus on the Half-Shell one by one because of his displeasure with Farmer's work? The mystery continues, but at least now I can get another copy.