Thursday, September 17, 2009

Barnstorming Oz

I recently had a chance to catch up on some reading and picked up A Barnstormer in Oz by Phillip Jose Farmer. This is actually the first time that I'd read this book, though I have read some of Farmer's other work in the past.

Farmer, being a science fiction writer, takes a shot at justifying some of the events of Wizard science-fictionally. It has a lot to do with electrical phenomena, from the space-time rip that lands Frank Stover, Dorothy's son, in Oz to the Wicked Witches.

The core idea revolves around a peculiar type of ball lightning that Farmer calls "firefoxes." Farmer's hero, Frank Stover, deduces that they are actually a form of bodiless mind. These firefoxes are what animates the curious characters of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and allows the animals of Oz to talk. Once they take on a body, they lose any memory or previous personality, so no spoiling the big surprises early

They are also used by Witches to extend their own lifespans. Unfortunately, this replaces the chemical bonds that hold them together with much weaker electrical bonds that can be disrupted by, say, a massive impact or a bucket of water.

Farmer studiously avoids tackling any other major oddities from the stories. For one thing, he has the main character dismiss the Oz stories after the first. This may have been Farmer inserting his own voice to say that Baum was a "hack", or because the other books were still under copyright with only Wizard in the public domain. It could also simply be that he focused only on those things that supported his firefox scenario. He even dismissed the China Country as something that Baum probably made up and added to the "true" story of his mother's original adventure in Oz. (You knew that was coming, didn't you?)

The story itself revolves around Frank's journey into Oz via an electrical phenomena and how he winds up fighting a war against the new Wicked Witch of the North. He also tries to keep the US Army (who have been developing the ability to manufacture the atmospheric phenomena that allows transit) out of Oz and results in the magical assassination of the President by Glinda.

It struck me as rather odd that although Farmer explains that the people of Oz originally came from Earth, they've all shrunk down to about 3 feet tall. This didn't happen all at once, but each generation was slightly shorter than the one before it.

My preferred solution is to assume that Dorothy is between 10 and 13 years old at the time of her arrival in Oz and undergoing a pubescent growth spurt (Although her age is not given in the story, Dorothy is noted as being tall for it). This would allow the Munchkins to be merely short, rather than midgets. It would also explain why some Munchkins seem to be normal-sized, or at least make the fact that the height issue was not carried into later books less jarring.

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Nathan said...

Even though Barnstormer ignores all of the later books, doesn't Mombi appear as a character in it? I've never read it, myself.

Oz RPG said...

There is a Wicked Witch of the North, but it is not Mombi. I'd have to dig out the book, but she is supposed to be the former apprentice of the Good Witch of the North that Dorothy meets in Wizard.

Barking Alien said...

While I enjoyed Barnstorming and in some ways it was the inspiration for my own homebrew Oz campaign many, many years ago, I remember feeling the need to bring a sense of mystery and magic back into it.

Oz is a fairy tale, albiet one with mechanical men and various 'modern' (early 20th century) elements. It's fun to figure out the whys and hows but it should never make too much sense. lol

Oz RPG said...

Yeah, Barnstormer was really too rational for my taste. The thing is, as an Oz creator, part of what I do is coming up with my own interpretation of Oz and sticking to it. Barnstormer didn't mesh with that interpretation very well, but I'm aware that other people have more flexible standards.

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