The Gate of Time
by Philip Jose Farmer
I am often caught by surprise when I discover the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs in a piece of genre fiction. I don’t know why that should be. For the generations before Star Wars, his work was the cultural touchstone for the weirdos and nerds who liked pulpy adventure fiction, planetary romance, and modern heroes in the tradition of Greek mythology. Everything from Conan the Barbarian to Star Trek to Superman to yes, even Star Wars, owes Burroughs a debt. But still, for some reason, I am caught off guard by how often he comes up.
The last two pieces of genre fiction I read have possessed huge amounts of Burroughs within them. Thongor Against the Gods by Lin Carter, which I intended to write up for this column but then didn’t have a chance to, turned out to be a Barsoom pastiche. Knowing of Carter’s work on the Conan paperbacks published in the 70s, his enthusiasm for Robert E. Howard’s penpal H.P. Lovecraft, and that Thongor was supposed to be some kind of barbarian swordsman of Lemuria, I was expecting to get a thinly veiled version of Hyborea, but with a blond hero instead of a brunette, something along the lines of Kothar or the like. But Thongor is straight-up Burroughsian planetary romance, just set in prehistoric Earth rather than far off Mars or Venus. There’s flying ships, giants with weird colored skin, a one-true love – nothing that screams Conan of Cimmeria, but a lot taken from John Carter of Mars.
Philip Jose Farmer, on the other hand, is someone I know as a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. He wrote biographies for Doc Savage and Tarzan. He came up with what became the Wold Newton Universe, one of the first attempts at a shared, albeit fan-built universe, that tried to combine characters as widely diverse as the Scarlet Pimpernel, Solomon Kane, James Bond, and H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller into not only the same world, but the same family. And yet it took me a number of pages to realize that Farmer’s novel, The Gate of Time, was structured pretty much exactly like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.
The details of The Gate of Time are very different, but the overall arc is very much the same. There’s a warrior from Earth who is carried to another world, where he slowly acclimates himself, gets into a lot of scrapes involving local politics, inexplicably falls in love with a native princess, shows off his martial prowess, and so on. Now broadly these plot points could apply to a number of novels, and perhaps just knowing of Farmer’s affection for Burroughs made me draw the connection, but honestly they are hard to ignore.
Roger Two Hawks is an Iroquois and a pilot in the United States Air Force, fighting in World War II against the Germans when, during a bombing raid, his plane passes through an invisible portal and he ends up on an alternate Earth. This Earth is also at war, but it’s a very different war waged by very different forces. The titular “Gate of Time” is neither a real gate, nor does it allow travel through time. Two Hawks is taken to a world where geologic processes are very different, resulting in an Earth with a history that is vastly changed from the one he knows.
The big difference is that North America and South America don’t exist, save for an island chain where the peaks of the Rocky Mountains poke up out of the ocean. There are no horses or camels on this world, since they evolved in the Americas, and the ancestors of the peoples we call Native Americans had no land bridge to cross over from Siberia to Alaska. So instead in ancient times they went west instead of east. They supplanted the Indo-Europeans, so that the Europe of this alternate Earth is populated by people closely related to Two Hawks, genetically and culturally. He is able to understand their language, with a little study and difficulty, in part because of learning Iroquoian and other Native languages as a young man.
These pseudo-Indians are at war with pseudo-Germans, and there’s a pseudo-England and Polynesians in the Rockies and an Arabian empire ruling South Africa. Though it’s still the 1940s, technology is more like that of World War I. Without rubber from South America, cars use wooden and steel tires. There’s no aircraft, which gives Two Hawks value once the two sides in the war take him seriously that he’s from another world. Another combatant, a German pilot, went through the gate when Two Hawks did, but he ended up working for the other side, and he’s helping them build machine guns and airplanes.
The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with several reversals and side quests and the randomness of life and wartime affecting Two Hawk’s adventures. Despite the central premise, and Two Hawk’s valuable technical knowledge, he is still only one man amidst a war that spans much of the world and at no point is he given the need or desire to solve this world’s problems. He is just trying to survive, using whatever advantages he might have to do so. This is fairly refreshing stuff in a genre that, in the last few decades, has become more and more about the chosen one and saving the world.
The focus here is on the world-building, the way that history has turned out differently, and while not every possible outcome has been fully imagined, Farmer clearly did a lot of thinking about how this world might realistically present itself. And because it is Farmer, and this book was written at the height of the Vietnam War, there’s no glorifying violence. There’s plenty of it, but it’s quick and dirty and brutal. Farmer’s violence is visceral, but not in the manner of Robert E. Howard, but rather in stressing how horrible it is when a human body is taken apart, even if Two Hawks is doing it to stay alive. There’s sweat and blood and the stink of human bodies, the desperate longing for a cigarette in a world where tobacco does not exist. Two Hawks acclimates as quickly as he does in part because he grew up an alien, a Native kid in a European-American society, and also because his Masters Degree is in linguistics, which allows him to pick up the local languages with little difficulty.
There’s also a pair of last page twists that I hesitate to mention in case anyone wants to seek this out and give it a read. I won’t reveal what they are, but I will say that I wasn’t expecting them, and the surprise of them increased my enjoyment of the book.
The Gate of Time is a solid alternate universe adventure story, with a likable protagonist amid an imaginative setting. I like Farmer’s style and ideas already. I’ve read a few of his books before and I have a few more in my to-read pile, so I was inclined to like it, I think. But the connection to Burroughs and some of the stylistic things Farmer did all combined to make an entertaining read, even if the title was completely misleading.