Thursday, August 02, 2018

"Riders of the Purple Wage" (1967)

Harlan Ellison makes no bones about it. He says Philip Jose Farmer's story is not just the longest in the Dangerous Visions collection, but the best. You might think Ellison would be more politic about the judgment, but that's Ellison and in many ways his view of the story had wide agreement. Classified as a novella, Farmer's story went on to share the inaugural Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1968 (with Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr Search," not in this collection). For me, Farmer's story might be the most excruciating—80 pages of meaningless action accompanied by groaning literary puns and suspect conservative orthodoxies (as I read them). The title is an obvious play on Zane Grey—too early for the Grateful Dead spinoff band. In the mid-21st-century setting of this tale, the "purple wage" is a guaranteed living income, which everyone in is entitled to as a matter of being born. Government is totalitarian, but appears to be generally benign. Art and creative work are now prized above all else, though it does not appear much different from the celebrity culture we are attempting to live with at the moment. But points for prescience are in order. Among other things, Farmer foresaw what we now call reality TV, with all its potential for desensitized alienation. "Since the solid-state camera is still working," his omniscient narrator observes in the middle of a typically confusing scene, "it is sending to billions of viewers some very intriguing, if dizzying, pictures. Blood obscures one side of this picture, but not so much that the viewers are wholly cheated"—cheated, that is, from witnessing a vicious beating using the self-same blunt object camera that is broadcasting. Farmer could see the coming social reverberations but not how microscopic camera technology would become. I ignored the references to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake as being of no particular good to anyone, and mostly read "Riders of the Purple Wage" as a crypto conservative argument against guaranteed living income, i.e., because most humans can't handle the freedom and are intended to be put to better use by elites. "A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class," as Mr. Potter scolds George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life about similar enlightened social policies. But that's not actually what Farmer was after, as he explains in his afterword. In fact, it is the other way entirely. Farmer's afterword offers an eight-point precis of what the story is about—implicit support for a Triple Revolution document that was presented to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and called for "large-scale public works, low-cost housing, public transit, electrical power development, income redistribution, union representation for the unemployed, and government restraint on technology deployment" (per Wikipedia). I really wish that had been more clear to me, because I can't bear the thought of going back to read the story again.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison


  1. I'm reading DV now, and was trying to power through this story, but I'm right around the half way point and just can't stand it. I'm glad to see at least one other person who felt the same way. It reads like a guy who got a good mid-century liberal arts education and wants to make sure everyone knows it.