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, encountering on their way 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 . . .?
The second volume in the trilogy, Synaptic Manhunt, has another terrific title that is also pretty meaningless. There is a hunt of sorts, but what it has to do with the fusion of chromosomes is as clear to me as the singling out of Billy and Reeves’ double helix in the first volume’s title. Right at the start a new and significant character is introduced, Jeb Stuart Ho, a name that conjoins a Confederate Major General with the revolutionary leader of Vietnam’s Communists, Ho Chi Minh. In actuality he is closer to David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu (1972-75). An assassin and member of the Brotherhood he is given the task of finding and killing A. A. Catto. To help him in his endeavour the Minstrel Boy, who has unique wayfinding powers to guide him through the nothings, is unwilling recruited. Before long he is reunited with Billy and Reeve, who are still caught up in the child-woman’s sadistic orbit.
The book has more action and conflict than its predecessor, but is still wholly reliant on the principle of deus ex machina to solve problems and to keep things mobile. Farren is at his best when the world he is depicting is close to the world he knows, the barroom and hotel lobby scenes work particularly well, getting lost in the ripped dimensions of the nothings less so. The characters remain poorly motivated, little more than ciphers who I don’t much care for and have only a bare interest in. I kept wishing that the world he populates was a bit more like Ladbrook Grove and a lot less like the horizon line in the illustration on the front of Hawkwind’s Warror on the Edge of Time.
Farren’s three graces, if that’s what She/They are, were absent from the middle volume, but make a return in the final part, again given a nice but meaningless title: The Neural Atrocity. The key characters are pulled into a tighter orbit around the now fully insane and megalomaniacal A. A. Catto. She is hell bent on the conquest of the earth (or what’s left of it) and to that end is using the ‘stuff machine’ to create a zombie army to do her bidding. When she’s not building a mighty military force she entertains herself by ordering life copies of Elvis Presley and Oscar Wilde, but what should have been a dinner party for the ages turns out to be a dull affair. Oscar lusts after the Memphis Flash and throws out a few half-hearted bon mots and Elvis responds with mumbles and homilies. Elvis is a good looking man, it must be said, and Catto has him dine between her thighs. Elsewhere things drift toward an apocalyptic ending with Dylan/Minstrel Boy still unable to offer any answers.
I expected Farren’s early fiction to be more carnivalesque than it turned out to be, or at least more attuned to the freak underground’s preoccupation with putting all and sundry up against the wall, but alas it was all a little too polite, reserved and, frankly, dull. His fantasy world is based on Westerns – the nothings are like those vast empty spaces that exist between frontier towns and outposts; a dead terrain where savages wait to attack wagon trains and cowboys drift aimlessly. Distraction is found in a game of chance, a bottle and a whore’s embrace. Life is cheap and death is how debts are paid. Farren catches all of that well enough, but in the end nothing really matters. I don’t believe in his characters like I do in James Coburn’s Pat Garrett, Robert Mitchum’s Jim Garry, Walter Brennan’s Judge Roy Bean, or Jeff Bridges’ Wild Bill Hickock. Those actors make the fictive worlds they occupy real for me, Farren’s characters not at all.
Mick Farren is a product of St. Martin’s School of Art, Phun City, IT, Nasty Tales and an Old Bailey obscenity trial. He now writes full-time and has two previous novels published.
Author’s bio in all three volumes