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BEHIND THE WALLS OF TERRA
1970

Book cover art by Boris Vallejo (left); Bart Forbes (right).
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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From the sublime to the ridiculous in one fell swoop. The fourth entry in the World of Tiers series picks up right where the rip-roaring A Private Cosmos left off. But the results are significantly less than superlative this time. As with so many multibook series, Farmer is letting the whole thing get away from him. It's got no less action and derring-do than its predecessors, but the freshness date is receding into the distance. The series is becoming redundant and stale.

Behind the Walls of Terra certainly has entertainment value, but it's of a much cheesier variety, even by the already borderline-cheese standards of this series. The story has Kickaha and Anana traveling back to Earth in order to find the one Black Beller that escaped the carnage of the previous novel, and also to find Wolff and Chryseis, who are fleeing said Beller. Though what transpires can be fun to read, it most often plays like one of the old Star Trek episodes (which were running contemporaneously with this saga's first few books) where the Enterprise crew time-travels back to the 20th century. And I don't mean the kinda good one that Harlan Ellison wrote.

First, you have to endure the first forty pages, which are literally claw-your-eyes-out bad. Farmer — already aging by the end of the sixties — decides to engage in a little bit of derisive social commentary, and it's every bit as embarrassing as it usually is when someone entirely out of touch with youth culture tries to write about it. Kickaha and Anana, upon arriving on Earth, are first menaced by a clownish motorcycle gang called — I shit you not — "Lucifer's Louts". After dispatching these miscreants, they hitch a ride into Los Angeles on the tour bus of a hippie rock group ("The Gnome King and His Bad Eggs") who say things like "Groovy, me boy! Too much!" We get to read priceless exchanges like the following:

"What's the matter with you?" Moo-Moo said, her voice losing its softness. "You don't dig me?"

[Kickaha] patted her thigh and said, "You're a beautiful woman, Moo-Moo, but I love Ann. However, tell you what! If the Gnome King succeeds in turning Ann into one of his Bad Eggs, you and I will make music together. And it won't be the cacophany the radio is vomiting."

She jerked with surprise and then said, "What do you mean? That's the Rolling Stones!"

Okay, so maybe the book could have some camp classic value to a modern audience. Would that it were true. There's not enough of this unintentional silliness for the book to qualify. And considering that the preceding volumes in the series are pretty sturdy old-fashioned adventures that also date, but in a charming way, the only real conclusion you can make is that, with this one, Farmer has just run it off the rails in a spectacular fashion.

Kickaha discovers that the Earth itself belongs to a pocket universe created by one of the advanced, alien Lords who are constantly at each others' throats for dominance. And the secret Lord of the Earth, Red Orc, is locked in a battle with a ruthless enemy called Urthona. Not altogether convincingly, Farmer has these two near-deities conducting their affairs like Hollywood movie gangsters, sending out vicious (but typically inept) henchmen to do their bidding. Kickaha first seeks out Red Orc in order to find Wolff and Chryseis. All he wants is to kill the last remaining Beller and then be allowed to return to the World of Tiers with his friends, without getting drawn in to the battle between Orc and Urthona. But the two Lords have other ideas.

In order, I suppose, to enhance the story's pacing, Farmer does not break the novel down into chapters. But this has the opposite effect. Walls more often than not feels like an endlessly tedious novella. There are some scenes where the earlier novels' sense of suspense and excitement manages to re-establish itself. But for the most part, Farmer has gone back to the same well too many times. Even the section of Walls that most evokes the series' strengths, with Kickaha being routed by Urthona through a series of gates that lead him to bizarre and hazardous worlds, is simply rehashing The Gates of Creation. I just found little about this book that was sufficiently fresh to draw me in. I've said it before: it's the rare series that can sustain its momentum and its appeal beyond three volumes. The World of Tiers, while hardly unsalvagable, is proving itself a very common specimen.

Followed by The Lavalite World.