A Book Ian Likes: The Song Of Phaid The Gambler by Mick Farren

Phaid is a gambler, currently down on his luck. He usually sidles into town, finds a game worth playing, then sidles out with either a pocket full of winnings or with just the shirt on his back. Trouble is, though, things don’t always pan out that well for Phaid…

Mick Farren (1943 – 2013) was a journalist and a musician as well as a novelist. He’s most famous for his music (with early punk band The Deviants or as a solo artist) but he was also a fairly prolific writer as well with about two dozen novels and almost as many non-fiction books under his belt.

The Song Of Phaid The Gambler is one of his better novels. It’s the picaresque story of Phaid, a man who wanders an Earth of the distant future, getting involved in affairs way beyond his experience or his desire to be involved in them.

Let’s take a look at the setting first.

The idea of a far-future/ post-apocalyptic Earth isn’t new, but Farren manages to put a few interesting wrinkles on to it.  First up, it’s clear that at some point in the distant past Earth was somehow “broken”: the world inhabited by Phaid and his associates is divided into bands of heat and cold. There’s talk of the legendary “Lords” who abandoned the world and sought their fortune elsewhere in the universe. The technology is also at a highly advanced level but the means to repair or maintain it – because it’s clear that there are very few people who are capable of creating new things – is kept a very closely-guarded secret. The result is a society that keeps strict divisions between its levels and subgroups.

There’s also a fairly high level of artificial intelligence in this society, although all the robots/ machines that we meet are of a great age and keep themselves very much to themselves. Phaid falls in with one for a brief time on his travels and is left knowing more about what makes them tick but is none the wiser about them or their culture.

And humanity has divided itself along speciesist lines as well: there are the subhuman Boohoom, an apelike race that are looked down on by most other races; and the aloof, mysterious and widely-feared Elaihim who don’t take kindly to being reminded that they might have some humanity in their ancestry.

As for the story… well, I used the word “picaresque” a bit back there. That wasn’t just me letting you know that I’ve read Petronius (although I have…): it was the only word that I could think of to describe the plot of the first volume of this novel…

(… oh yes, the first volume. For a long time I only read this novel in the form of a series. I knew that it had been a single volume edition but I came to it in the form of two books… but we’ll get to that in a moment…)

… because Phaid wanders around this future earth having adventures and experiencing the highs and lows of his vagabond life for a goodly portion of the first half of the story. It isn’t until he sets his sights on the wealthy city of Chrystianaville and the riches that can be had there that the plot suddenly springs into action and things get moving. But what’s happening is that Farren has immersed the reader fully into his world and you discover things along with Phaid until you slowly realise that the plot has been creeping up on you without you realising… It’s the kind of slow, leisurely story-telling that I love: a tale that builds up, developing its world and characters, and then begins to unfold at breakneck speed into the climax.

Because that’s what happens in the second volume: Phaid reluctantly becomes involved in intrigues and then a revolution and then a desperate race to survive.

It’s a great yarn and one that I’d urge you to seek out for yourself. But we need to discuss the structure a little more.

So the version I read and reread for almost thirty years was in two volumes, published by Ace Science Fiction Books in 1986 (I found them in a remainder store in Hobart in 1991). The copyright pages of those books told me that it had originally been published in a slightly different form as one volume. I figured that there had been a few pages or events slightly altered/ edited (“revised text” is the phrase used) to make them fit into two volumes, each telling a neat half of the story, more easily. And while the second volume is significantly shorter than the first, it isn’t ridiculously so, which made me think that the story couldn’t have been terribly different from its original form.

When I discovered the original version (published by New English Library in 1981) at a second-hand book sale in 2020 I was excited to be able to finally make a comparison between the two texts. What I found is of more interest to those who are interested in the technical side of writing and story-crafting, but it does make for some interesting speculation.

Let’s begin at the middle, or in media res, if you want to be posh.

The point of separation between the two novels in the Ace edition takes place in the middle of a chapter, which seems odd. After all, most chapters of adventure novels end in ways that make the reader want to read further on. However, it does make a good dramatic moment in which Phaid parts company with one of his comrades to make his own way out of the beleaguered city of Chrystianaville without dropping him into further peril. If you were a casual reader, you might take it as a good ending point for a regular novel: it offered a tantalising cliffhanger that didn’t leave you on the edge of your seat but did make you want more of the story. If I can be allowed a ridiculous comparison, it was more like the ending of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of The Ring which ends with the Fellowship going their separate ways, rather than The Two Towers which ends with Sam realising that Frodo is a prisoner needing to be rescued.

The events surrounding the ending of the first volume and the beginning of the second volume have been re-ordered and rewritten slightly as well, although only to make them more palatable as the ending and beginning of two novels: the events surrounding the conclusion take place in roughly the same order.

Most of the other changes take place in the first volume. For example, there’s an entire chapter missing from the Ace edition that was present in the NEL edition. It’s fairly early on and it details Phaid taking a job as a dealer in a casino. It’s entertaining but it isn’t necessary to the plot and it does portray our protagonist as fairly amoral quite early on in the piece, which might have put a few people off if they were reading a shorter novel and expecting a little less character work and a bit more adventure. There’s also some other scenes that display aspects of our protagonists personality that are cut. But these are mostly setpieces and character moments that would, possibly, make the difference in length between the two novels more pronounced and cause some readers to feel that they were getting ripped off by a conclusion that wasn’t worth the build-up.

A lot of the other changes that are made are mostly to do with sanitising a few thigs that Phaid gets up to: there’s a little less drug-taking and sex in the Ace editions and the violence is a tiny bit less confronting as well: I suspect that these mostly taken out because Ace were targeting a slightly younger demographic than NEL were.

Importantly, though, these cuts and emendations don’t hurt the story or the writing: they’re the equivalent of a “director’s cut” of a movie compared to a theatrical release. They can make for interesting discussion points about why things were changed or can alter the focus of some of the novel’s themes but you get, essentially, about 90% of the same story when you look at them side-by-side.

I love it: it’s a well-written novel that moves along at a pace that I like and keeps you entertained. I mentioned above that Phaid undergoes no real growth or development in this story and I suspect that this is due to the storytelling mode undertaken by Farren: we start at one point in Phaid’s life and we end at another. The way the novel concludes suggests that this sort of thing happens to Phaid all the time, and that he just moves through life having adventures that excite him or piss him off in equal measure. Rather like the rest of us, although in less dramatic ways.

That said, it’s a story structure that can also infuriate readers because of how long it takes for the plot to kick in. But if you’re prepared to sit back and let a world wash of you in all its grime and glory, The Song Of Phaid The Gambler isn’t a bad place to go to.

You can find out more about Mick Farren here: https://us.macmillan.com/author/mickfarren/

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