Swift with a Ray Gun: Gulliver Travels to The World of Tiers

by Stephen F. McCann

     Evidence of the influence of Jonathan Swift on the works of Philip Jose Farmer appears quite plainly with Farmer’s periodic use of the pseudonym Jonathan Swift Sommers III.  From his novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go to his short story Riders of the Purple Wage, an award-winning homage to James Joyce and Zane Grey, Farmer proves himself a master at blending serious literature with pulp adventure.  The influence of Gulliver’s Travels in particular shines most visibly in Farmer’s series of novels named after the ziggurat-shaped planet that figures prominently The World of Tiers.

Filtering the Swiftian influence flowing through The World of Tiers results in a differentiation of three layers: style, themes, and characters (heroes and villains). Additionally, these layers of influence become even more apparent when comparing Part III of Gulliver’s Travels with The Gates of Creation, the second book in the first volume of the Tiers series.  Therefore, while a comprehensive comparison requires examination of each Swiftian and Farmerian adventure1, the best specific examples of how The World of Tiers feeds from the reservoir of Gulliver’s Travels emerge when holding The Gates of Creation against Gulliver’s Travels, Part III.

Stylistically, the peripatetic and picaresque structures of The World of Tiers and Gulliver’s Travels imitate a travelogue told with an iconoclastic and even irreverent attitude. In Part III, Gulliver travels across the Earth’s oceans to explore, ostensibly the world, but actually the spectrum of human potential from brutish lout to enlightened spirit.  In similar fashion, Farmer’s protagonist Jadawin2 scrambles from his tiered planet to a planet dominated by one ocean and a sprinkling of islands and to other even more bizarre planets existing in a “pocket” universe where he discovers brutish “Lords” and noble “animals.” Gulliver’s Travels “plays with a number of styles and types of literature, including spiritual autobiography, conversion narrative, travel tale, imaginary voyage, [and] scientific report” (Fox, Gulliver’s 14-15).  Similarly, Donald Wollheim observes

[the Tiers books] are action-adventure novels, with danger and challenge à la Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Walter Scott.  The [spiritual] idea is there and the mind-challenging concepts are implicit [. . .] The novels are a veritable fireworks of new concepts in biology and fantasy lands—the creations fall over each other and the possibilities continue to burst from Farmer’s mind in ever-growing array. (51)

     Neither does Swift shy from the earthy nature of the real world nor does he attempt to reference this earthiness evasively.  Gulliver encounters a man whose “Employment from his first coming into the Academy, was an Operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food.”  Farmer, well known “during the 50’s [as] the only major writer of Science Fiction to deal explicitly with sex” (Fiedler 243), describes an attack launched from aerial dung balls and casually employs the incestuous relationships of his main characters to advance the plot.

Thematically, Farmer clearly resonates with Swift and   Farmer’s World of Tiers series bulges with the same themes exhibited in Gulliver’s Travels.  Farmer briskly guides his characters through a jungle of existential dilemmas, conundrums and anxieties: mortality versus immortality, human frailty versus self-actualization3, and reason versus superstition. Moreover, these particular themes react and crystallize most purely when comparing Swift’s immortals, the Struldbruggs, to Farmer’s immortals, the Lords.

 In these two races, the commonly held belief that age brings wisdom takes a battering from both Swift and Farmer with Farmer addressing the issue more emphatically: “This theme [of immortality] runs through the [Tiers] books like a highly polished strand of copper wire” (Zelazny, World 2: 4).  Rather than using eternity for the perfection of themselves, the Struldbruggs and the Lords perpetually practice only the ugliest of human endeavors.  Indeed, descriptions of each race are nearly interchangeable.  In The Gates of Creation, Jadawin fiercely admonishes his siblings and cousins:

The word [love] means nothing to you [. . .] I doubt that any of you felt it very strongly [. . .] we [. . .] became true Lords.  Hateful, scheming, jealous, possessive.  Murderers, cruel alike to each other and to the miserable beings who populated our worlds. (1: 227)

Similarly, Gulliver finds the Struldbruggs “not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative; but uncapable of Friendship, and dead to all natural Affection” (198).

     Immortality serves as a carrier tone for Farmer, which he then layers with overtones of other themes.  Like Swift, his characters demonstrate the best and worst of what humans may attain. In Farmer’s universe, as with Swift, reason and compassion duel through eternity with madness and intolerance.

     In character development, Farmer again takes inspiration from Swift by using the best qualities of Gulliver to create his hero Jadawin.  Gulliver at his best lives life as a scientist tempered with a strong, yet mutable, system of ethics and morals.  Despite his troubles, he remains persistent, curious, flexible, and gregarious.  While Jadawin remains subject to the same weaknesses and foibles of all humans, he has spent his many thousands of years of life working towards an improved intellect, character, and soul.

     Gulliver, ever the scientist, takes copious notes of the wonders he sees and attempts to understand them.  After taken aboard the floating island of Laputa, he works to understand the science that allows the levitation and guidance of this object.  He describes a “Load-stone of a prodigious Size, in Shape resembling a Weaver’s Shuttle” and even provides a carefully notated diagram of how the island moves (161-163).  Jadawin similarly remains unsatisfied until he understands the principles and procedures that allow the floating island upon which he rides in Gates of Creation to travel over the oceans.

     Like Gulliver, Jadawin attempts to assimilate himself (if only outwardly) to the cultures he encounters.  Upon entering the city Lagado, Gulliver “walked [. . .] without concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them” (167).  Unlike his relatives, Jadawin quickly and enthusiastically learns the language of his aerial hosts.  And after becoming proficient with their customs and skills, Jadawin “went bare-chested, as befitted a man who wore a painted iiphtarz on his chest” (1: 208).

      The influence of Swift on Farmer’s World of Tiers series does not result in a one to one correspondence.  For instance, the floating island in Farmer’s work carries a primitive tribe of fierce but noble people while Swift’s island carries a race of pseudo-intellectuals blithely ignorant of the real world.  Therefore, while the same props, themes and characters populate each work, Farmer deeply incorporates and deeply changes Swift’s ideas for his own purposes.  The World of Tiers thus becomes an estuary where Gulliver’s Travels rushes and roils into Farmer’s ocean of ideas to create a dynamic environment composed of each.


1 A quick count from all seven books in The World of Tiers series revealed Farmer using the adjective “Brobdingnagian” twelve times.

2 Note the use in The World of Tiers of names from the pantheon of gods invented in William Blake’s poetry.  See Blake, Complete Writings. Oxford: Oxford, 1979.

3 Indeed, the structure of Farmer’s tiered planet resembles Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with fulfillment of purely physiological needs occurring on the bottom level and higher, self-actualizing drives possible in the Lord’s residence at the top level.  See, Engler, Barbara. Personality Theories. Boston: Houghton, 1995. 340-363.

Works Cited

Farmer, Philip José. “Riders of the Purple Wage.” Dangerous Visions. Ed. Harlan Ellison. New York: Signet, 1975. 30-98.

---. To Your Scattered Bodies Go. New York: Putnam, 1971.

---. The World of Tiers. 2 vols. Garden City: Doubleday, 1981.

Fiedler, Leslie. Notes. The Book of Philip José Farmer. By Philip José Farmer. New York: Berkley, 1982. 242-248.

Fox, Christopher. Ed. Gulliver’s Travels. By Jonathan Swift. Boston: Bedford, 1995.

Greenberg, Martin. Intro. The Classic Philip José Farmer: 1952-1964. By Philip José Farmer. New York: Crown, 1984. ix-xii.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Ed. Christopher Fox. Boston: Bedford, 1995.

Wollheim, Donald A. The Universe Makers. New York: Harper, 1971.