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February 28, 2009

B-SIDES: Sci-fi fans mourn death of a Hautean

TERRE HAUTE — To fully appreciate Philip José Farmer’s impact on popular culture, imagine rock ’n’ roll without Jimi Hendrix’s beloved song “Purple Haze.”

Hendrix borrowed that phrase from Farmer’s 1957 science-fiction novella “Night of Light.”

The world can thank a native Hautean for inspiring “Purple Haze.” That’s impressive.

Unfortunately, while most folks here know Hendrix’s legend and music, few recognize the name Philip José Farmer. Nonetheless, millions of sci-fi fans around the world revered Farmer, who was born Jan. 26, 1918, in North Terre Haute. He wrote more than 75 novels before his death Wednesday morning at his home in Peoria, Ill., at age 91.

Farmer won three Hugo Awards, the highest honors for science fiction and fantasy writers. His “Riverworld” series employed cameo appearances by reincarnated icons such as Mark Twain and explorer Sir Richard Burton. In “Lovers,” Farmer jolted the sci-fi world with a love affair between an Earthling man and an alien woman. That earned him his first Hugo in 1952.

His fantastic tales lured a vast, loyal following, especially to his popular “Riverworld” and “World of Tiers” series.

Michael Croteau can attest to the passion of Farmer’s fans. Croteau has served as Webmaster of the author’s official Internet site, pjfarmer.com, for the past 12 years.

“I don’t think anyone will ever adequately get into writing how big his influence is on the science-fiction world as we know it today,” Croteau told the Tribune-Star by e-mail Thursday evening.

Outside that sci-fi world, though, Farmer was just another guy living most of his life in Peoria. The Peoria Journal-Star recalled how fans would flow into town for the annual “Farmercon” celebration, while the rest of the city would just scratch its head about their fascination.

Terre Haute is, not surprisingly, even less Farmer-aware. Sci-fi isn’t the usual topic of conversation in coffeeshops.

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