Friday, October 4, 2013

Forgoteen Books: The Dark Heart of Time, A TARZAN Novel by Philip Jose Farmer

Not long ago I was going through a dark time when nothing I read seemed to satisfy. I read several bad books in a row - even giving up on one (a rarity for me). Seeking something sure-fire, I poked around on my shelves until I spotted Philip Jose Farmer’s The Dark Heart of Time, a book I’d been saving for just such an emergency.

Farmer and Tarzan. How could I go wrong? Let me count the ways.

The trouble starts on page 1. Tarzan has just grabbed a liana growing on the side of a big tree, when a spear cast by hunters severs the vine. This passage follows:

     Just as the severed part of the vine struck the ground, Tarzan reached a projecting part of the trunk, a massive tumor on the side of the forest giant. Kando the ant had been biting him while he was on the liana, and they continued their attack. One foot on the tumor, his hands gripping the rough parts of the bark, he got around the tree to its opposite side.
     Though he left behind the ants on the tree itself, he couldn’t yet brush off those still on his limbs and body. To use even one hand to get rid of the savagely biting Kando would mean to lose his precarious hold. As it was, his fingers were starting to slip from the crevices.
     But by him there was another liana growing on the tree. So Tarzan did release one hand. Even as he dropped, his free hand closed about the liana. Then, the other gripped the rough-surfaced vine. After that, he easily pulled his two-hundred pound body up the liana to a point above and to one side of a large branch.

Snore. If you’re still awake after reading that, you have far more stamina than me. Sheesh. Persons unknown are lobbing spears at our hero, and before we even get a look at them, we take a three paragraph detour into meaningless details. Sadly, this was only the first of many such passages that failed to nudge the story forward.

And - assuming you're still awake - you couldn’t fail to notice Kando the ant. That’s problem number 2. We all remember Tantor the elephant, Numa the lion and a handful of other jungle residents Burroughs put names to. Nothing wrong with that - in moderation. But here it becomes a nightmare.

Along with Kando, we meet Usha the wind, Manu the monkey, Wappi the antelope, Kudu the sun and Pand the thunder. And that’s just in Chapter 1. They just keep on a’coming: Goro the moon, Histah the snake, Thub the heart, Pamba the rat, Busso the beetle, Nuso the fly, Horta the boar, Ungo the jackal, Sheeta the panther (or leopard), Meeta the rain, Gimla the crocodile, Hul the stars, Duro the hippo, Malskree the golden cat, Pisah the fish, Kota the turtle, Ska the vulture, and Umpa the caterpillar. I guess I should be thankful we didn’t meet Pee-Poo the dung beetle.

Problem number 3 is the Tarzan’s motivation. At the beginning of the story, we learn Jane has been kidnapped by Nazis, and is being held somewhere to the north. The Tarzan I know would make a beeline for the north, and nothing short of amnesia or equally dire straits would slow him down. But Farmer gives us none of that. His Tarzan just dawdles around, mildly curious why these hunters are after him. And while he occasionally frets about Jane, he never once makes a serious attempt to move in the right direction. Instead, he heads south, with no clear motivation why.

Problem 4 is Tarzan’s supporting cast. Early on, he senses he’s being stalked by a mysterious creature - something he’s never encountered before. This critter is intriguing while it remains a mystery, but once revealed it quickly becomes tiresome, and we’re stuck with it for the rest of the book. As a second sidekick, he takes on an equally tiresome native. These three find themselves driven by circumstance toward the south. Along the way, we get more of their back story than we want, and learn that both his companions have mates who are being held by different enemies for different reasons. I never really cared about their problems, but the fact that Farmer raises them is sort of a promise they will be resolved. Instead, at the moment of climax, Tarzan and his two musketeers are separated, and we never see them again.

Problem 5 is maybe the most serious of all. If the loose ends of Tarzan’s two buddies was a broken promise, consider this: All through the book we hear talk of a mysterious civilization to the south. Everything connected with this civilization is so stupendous it must be spoken of in capital letters. To wit: The Voice of the Ghost Frog. Rafmana the Toucher of Time. The More than Dead. The Masked One. The River of the Color of Death. The Eye of the Glittering Tree. The City of God. The Shadow Land. The Great Mother of Snakes, The Great Dog-Man, The Uncaused Causer, The Unwilling Giver of the Unwanted, and The Feeder of the Dark Heart of Time.

Farmer was world-building here, something he was very good at. But he dished out enough stuff to fuel a trilogy, if not a mega-series, and ran out of space to make dramatic use of it. By the time Tarzan and his pals reach this mysterious territory, there are only about 30 pages left, and most of that is wasted with meaningless jabber. Not a single one of those Capital Letter Concepts are satisfactorily explained. Was Farmer laying the groundwork for a series that never materialized? For his sake, I'd like to hope so. But for my sake, I wouldn't want to read it.

And what about Jane? Near as you can tell from reading The Dark Heart of Time, that nasty Nazi’s still got her.

More (and hopefully better) Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Nik Morton said...

Oh, dear. For a number of years I've been meaning to obtain this book. I had noticed some less than favourable reviews already. Your review confirms that I won't bother now. Thanks for saving me some precious time!

Unknown said...

I've had this one for years, and it's still unread. I guess it'll remain that way.

Anonymous said...

I wonder who would portray Tarzan in a movie of this book? Weismuller(sp?) or that guy with Bo Derek in that version... El Kabong

Evan Lewis said...

Why not El Kabong himself?

Anonymous said...

Some of those names in Apeish are I think legit, at least I remember them from the Dell DuBois-Marsh Tarzan comics, which I confess I enjoyed more than the genuine ERB article. Manu, Horta & Sheeta I remember. My favorite was Tweeba the termite.
Art Scott

Rick Robinson said...

Well, damn. Just when you need a good Tarzan book, the one you spot turns out to be a mirage. I admit I've not been a fan of Farmer since he disappointed me with that Riverworld series, which I found intolerably slow and artfully precious. I wouldn't have tackled this one, but thanks for the warning.

George said...

Philip Jose Farmer, like Philip K. Dick, is a wildly uneven writer. Sorry to hear THE DARK HEART OF TIME is a clunker. TITAN BOOKS is reprinting much of PJF's books for a new generation of readers.

Evan Lewis said...

I enjoyed most of the other Farmers I read. Of those I didn't, the chief fault was a bit too much pointless derring-do. I really expected him to bring his A-game for Tarzan.

Oscar Case said...

Poor Jane! Still prisoner of the Nazis. Tarzan saw that problem and headed the other way. True love.

The Savage Chuck said...

I loved the book!

The only writer who 'Gets' Tarzan better than Philip Jose' Farmer is ERB himself.

MadMikeyD said...

I know this review is a few years old now, but for anyone just stumbling on it, like me, just a quick continuity note: Farmer set this book between 2 Burroughs Tarzan adventures - "Tarzan Untamed" and "Tarzan the Terrible." The Jane plot was the cliffhanger that bridged those two stories.