The Quest for the DNA Cowboys, Farren’s third novel, is the first part of a ‘science fantasy’ trilogy published by Mayflower; it was followed by Synaptic Manhunt in the same year, 1976, and The Neural Atrocity the year after. The novels’ plots, characters and settings are all interconnected as if he had written a long novel that was then split into three.
The opening salvo in the trilogy is a picaresque tale of two future-tense cowboys, Billy Oblivion (love that name) and Reave, who carry replica Navy Colts and porta-pac stabilisers to help them navigate a world literally falling apart. Bored, they quit the town of Pleasant Gap and step over the edge into the ‘nothings’. Spatial mapping and co-ordinates are nowhere to be found and the pair, by ill or good luck, drift from one dimension to another. On their travels they encounter characters such as Minstrel Boy (Bobby Dylan, for sure), Rainman (he makes weather), Jetstream Willie (a trucker), and Burt the Medicine (an albino with breasts). These figures help or hinder them on their journey to somewhere or other. Places in the nothings (or outside it) resemble a truckstop, where Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ plays on a loop, a Western ghost town, a prison, a war front, a desert landscape, an oasis, a port, and finally a lake and swamp that takes them to a city being eaten alive by its rulers .
All places and characters are thinly sketched and the plot, like Billy and Reave, appears lost in the nothings. As Minstrel Boy explains (or rather doesn’t): ‘I’m just telling the story. I don’t have to account for inconsistencies’. That also seems to be Farren’s line; the science fantasy genre allowing him to shift to something new whenever he tires of, or exhausts, any given situation. The characters drift. Beyond averting boredom, they are unmotivated, without goals or set destination. The novel’s title suggests they are on a quest for something or other, but it’s not described: ‘Where are you fellas planning to go from here?’ asks Burt the Medicine, ‘No idea, we’ll just travel on until we come to something.’ says Billy.
They eventually stumble upon a ruined city overshadowed by a vast tower in which live the ruling elite, who are utterly depraved. A. A. Catto, a woman with the body of a 13-year-old, indulges in incestuous sado-masochist trysts with her brother and makes Reave her captive play thing. We learn that desire unbound is a wretched state of being, but we don’t learn just what a DNA cowboy is.
The novel ends in a state of uncertainty, with the two pals separated from one another and the reader still asking who are the three phantom ladies depicted on the jacket? The trio appear fairly randomly throughout, always in italics and given the pronoun ‘She/They’ (how prescient). Early on, one ‘She/They’ appears to have been shot by a western gunfighter and is then subsequently carried by the other two spirits. How will all of this play out in episode two . . .?