Robert Wolff has had a series of hard knocks in his life. He can’t remember anything before the age of twenty, and in fact was fostered and taken care of by a family whose last name he now borrows. He has a wife and is looking to buy a new house, but being on the verge of a nervous breakdown and at his retirement age to boot, not even the end years of his life seem to be set to be peaceful or happy. So, when he discovers a strange inter-dimensional portal in the basement of said house and an invitation to use the aural horn-like key to open it, Wolff doesn’t hesitate. On the other side, he finds a wondrous artificial universe built like the layers of cake, with creatures out of mythology, magical portals, dread forces working against him, and the true secret of who and what he *really* is.
Welcome to the World of Tiers.
Philip José Farmer is perhaps best known in science fiction and fantasy for his Riverworld novels, of which I will speak another time. My favorite Farmer works are the series of novels that take place in the World of Tiers series.
The Classic quartet of the World of Tiers novels are:
The Maker of Universes (1965)
The Gates of Creation (1966)
A Private Cosmos (1968)
Behind the Walls of Terra (1970)
The basic conceit of the World of Tiers novels is that there is a squabbling extended family of powerful beings with the capacity, will, and desire to make artificial universes. While these universes are not typically the size of what we might consider a cosmos, the universe of the titular World of Tiers, for example is four flat planes hundreds and thousands of square kilometers in size each., plus a moon and a sun. The inhabitants of these universes are typically stolen from other universes, such as Earth, or manufactured (or remanufactured) in biolabs. This results in a mish-mash of cultures and ideas that is endlessly inventive when combined with the strange environments in the World of Tiers and the other universes we see in the novels.
The action-adventure of these universes is further enhanced by Farmer’s use of the idea of Gates between worlds and between various points within that world is his major innovation. There have been gates and portals in fiction before Farmer of course (particularly C.S. Lewis), but Farmer explores all sort of ideas that writers since have borrowed, adapted and developed. Portals as weapons. Portals as Traps. Portals as easy method of garbage disposal. The horn that Wolff uses in the The Maker of Universes is only the beginning of the kinds of keys and portal openers we see in the series.
In addition to the classic quartet of novels, Farmer wrote two additional Tiers novels later ( The Lavalite World (1977) and More Than Fire (1993).) He also wrote the unusual Red Orc’s Rage (1991) which is a metatextual combination of the World of Tiers universe with the study of a young man undergoing psychotherapy. This novel leaves open the question of whether his sessions and psychotherapy sessions which seem to place him as one of the Lords of the Worlds of Tiers universes are real, imagined, or someplace in between. Also, it must be said that it was obvious to me that as the series (and even the first novel) progresses, Farmer’s sympathies and real interest are less with the protagonist Wolff, and instead with Paul Janus Finnegan, aka Kickaha the Trickster. An ordinary mortal and not a creator of universes, he adventures through them with gusto, verve, and style. By the time of the later novels, he is as much a protagonist as any of the Thoan Lords.
Roger Zelazny has acknowledged the strong influence of the World of Tiers novels on his own Amber novels (and that is why I originally sought them out and read them). The story of Carl Corey/Corwin does have parallels with Robert Wolff/Lord Jadawin. In addition, the idea of a feuding family of makers of artificial universes can seen most clearly executed in the Myst series of games and novels. And anyone who has ever wielded a Portal gun knows the power of creating Gates, and their dangers, too. To say nothing of Sigil, the City of Doors, the Hyperion universe of Dan Simmons and many other novels and works that use Portals and Gates.
Oh, and to anticipate your question–is Earth an artificial universe, too?
That would be telling.