The Other Log of Phileas Fogg by Philip Jose Farmer
Review by Deborah Bell
When I first started reading Farmer’s novel after scanning the blurb, I had expected to find a conventional science fiction re-writing of Verne’s classic tale ‘Eighty Days around the World’. However, what I was faced with was a heavily researched and cleverly worked companion guide to Verne’s novel in which a previously “unknown” log of Phileas Fogg exists that the author wishes to tell. In order to do this, he both consults and challenges Verne’s original text, questioning contradictions and gaps in the information and uses these to insert information that was “unknown” to Verne.
In this version Farmer tells the reader how Phileas Fogg is in fact an adopted-alien secret agent, setting out to save his “race” from annihilation. This action version of this well-known Victorian novel may seem quite fan-fiction esque and much like many other rewritings of the genre. However, what sets this novel and in fact the ‘Wold Newton’ series it is a part of, apart from the rest, is not its storyline, as much as the convincing style of the writing. Farmer purposefully writes to transform the classic characters found in the novel into real historical people and throughout, despite its obvious science fiction setting, I found myself questioning their fictionality. His attention to details such as important dates in the characters’ lives, character lineage, comparisons between this “unknown” version of the story and Verne’s version, and detailed description of real historical settings in the novel is such that the fictional elements become blurred into fact. Indeed, in places it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
The novel is also unique (at least in the 2012 edition I read) in that it contains after-words in the form of essays and articles by other writers which keep up the pretence created by the novel. These relate to the detailed lineage of Phileas Fogg, including family trees, Fogg’s relation to the author (apparently deceased in 2009, although I wasn’t sure if this was also part of the fiction!) and the discussion of other characters who appear in the novel who are in fact cross-overs from other books. Whilst I knew that the novel itself could not be true, none of these after-words dispelled the idea that the novel was somehow based on truth, such was the convincing nature of the writing. Due to this, it wasn’t until I did some research of my own that I fully appreciated the cleverness of his fictional writing, and, feeling slightly foolish, found out that the author had actually died in 2009 and was not part of the fiction. The novel I had was not in fact a newly released book as I had first thought, but merely a new edition, the original being released in 1973. The ‘Wold Newton’ series that the book belongs to however, I discovered does in fact have a partly factual base; a meteorite strike near Wold Newton cottage in 1795 in East Yorkshire inspired Farmer to imagine up the ‘Wold Newton Family’ – a group of people affected by the meteorite strike whose ancestors and relatives all become the famous heroes, villains, detectives and scientists we know from literature, Phileas Fogg being one of them.
However, whilst Farmer is certainly a very ingenious and convincing writer, this book is not for everyone. It is written in quite formal English, in keeping with the story’s Victorian origins and the narrative is far from conventional; halting continuously to examine details of the plot in comparison to Verne’s version and very rarely allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story for its own sake but constantly reminding them of the “editor’s” presence. Farmer also assumes that the majority of his readers are at least familiar with the “known” parts of the story and so spends very little time on them, either skipping over them quickly or contradicting Verne’s “account” to tell what actually happened. Therefore I feel that on the majority of people, Farmer’s clever insertions and alterations to Verne’s text will be lost as they will not be as familiar with the intimate details as the author. However, I myself have not read Verne’s novel but was still able to appreciate the work that Farmer put into his detailed and well-researched re-writing despite this, and I now find myself wanting to go and read the original to compare it. So overall, if this novel can make others do the same, and read old novels not before touched or discovered, then that is surely a good thing!
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