Farmer was born in North Terre Haute, Indiana . According to colleague Frederik Pohl, his middle name was in honor of an aunt, Josie. Farmer grew up in Peoria, Illinois, where he attended Peoria High School. His father was a civil engineer and a supervisor for the local power company. A voracious reader as a boy, Farmer said he resolved to become a writer in the fourth grade. He became an agnostic at the age of 14. At age 23, in 1941, he married and eventually fathered a son and a daughter. After washing out of flight training in World War II, he went to work in a local steel mill. He continued his education, however, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Bradley University in 1950.
Farmer had his first literary success in 1952 with a novella called The Lovers, about a sexual relationship between a human and an extraterrestrial. It won him the Hugo Award as "most promising new writer", the first of three. Thus encouraged, he quit his job to become a full-time writer, entered a publisher’s contest, and promptly won the $4,000 first prize for a novel that contained the germ of his later Riverworld series. The book was not published and Farmer did not get the money. Literary success did not translate into financial security, and in 1956 he left Peoria to launch a career as a technical writer. He spent the next 14 years working in that capacity for various defense contractors, from Syracuse, New York to Los Angeles, California, while writing science fiction in his spare time.
He won a second Hugo after the publication of his 1967 novella Riders of the Purple Wage, a pastiche of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as well as a satire on a futuristic, cradle-to-grave welfare state. Reinvigorated, Farmer became a full-time writer again in 1969. Upon moving back to Peoria in 1970, he entered his most prolific period, publishing 25 books in 10 years. His novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go (a reworked, previously unpublished version of the prize-winning first novel of 20 years before) won him his third Hugo in 1971. A 1975 novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, created a stir in the larger literary community and media. It purported to be written in the first person by one “Kilgore Trout”, a fictional character appearing as an underappreciated science fiction writer in several of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. The escapade did not please Vonnegut when some reviewers not only concluded that it had been written by Vonnegut himself, but that it was a worthy addition to his works. Farmer did have permission from Vonnegut to write the book, though Vonnegut later said he regretted giving permission.
Farmer had both critical champions and detractors. Leslie Fiedler proclaimed him "the greatest science fiction writer ever and lauded his approach to storytelling as a “gargantuan lust to swallow down the whole cosmos, past, present and to come, and to spew it out again”. Isaac Asimov praised Farmer as an "excellent science fiction writer; in fact, a far more skillful writer than I am...." But Christopher Lehmann-Haupt described him in The New York Times in 1972 as “a humdrum toiler in the fields of science fiction”.
Farmer died on February 25, 2009. At the time of his death, he and his wife Bette had two children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Contributions to Doc Savage Mythos
Farmer is known for reworking existing characters from fiction and history, into his own unique composite universe. This became known as the Wold Newton Universe. Therein a meteor crashed infusing everyone nearby with its radiation. This caused a number of mutations which enhanced them and/or their descendants mentally and physically. One such descendant was Doc Savage who possesses genius level intellect and superhuman physical capabilities.
He has also created his own version of Doc Savage, known as Doc Caliban. He is distinguished from the Savage in the fact that he is the serial killer son of Jack the Ripper. Doc Caliban is featured in A Feast Unknown (1969), Lord of the Trees (1970) and The Mad Goblin (1970).