The Riverworld Series
Comprising in Two Volumes
by Philip José Farmer
(Tor Books, April 2010 and June 2010)
To SF and fantasy fans of the modern age, it's probably hard to believe that within living memory it was impossible to put anything sexual in an SF or fantasy story, or even in a book. But prior to publication of Philip José Farmer's “The Lovers” in 1952, the magazine and book publishers were ruled by the likes of John W. Campbell Jr.’s eagle-eyed assistant, Kay Tarrant*, who would not allow anything of even a vaguely sexual (“smut!”) connotation to enter the hallowed pages of Astounding. Other editors, like the agoraphobic H.L. Gold, may have been of a more liberal bent, but the publishing world was ruled by a semi-Victorian sensibility, and would have none of that, thank you very much.
[*Kay Tarrant was alert to any whiff of “smut,” but was judged to be somewhat naïve scientifically—George O. Smith sneaked a description of “the original ball-bearing mousetrap” (which sounds like an engineering description, but was actually a tomcat) into a story. Later, under Ben Bova, after Campbell had died (and Astounding had long-morphed into Analog), Kay learned to let things pass that she would have blue-penciled back in “the day.”]
Someone had to be first to break that barrier, and it was Phil Farmer who did so, by writing a tale of a sexual relationship between a human and an alien; he won his first Hugo for this tale, which was not published by any major SF magazine (Astounding or Galaxy, for example) but by Startling Stories. (Interestingly enough, his second Hugo was for “Riders of the Purple Wage,” a story that had more explicit “smut” in it than the first story, but that passed more or less without comment in a morality tale about a welfare state—written in a pseudo-James-Joycian Ulysses style.)
Farmer continued to garner some notice in the SF field with his World of Tiers series, and a number of stories featuring obvious pastiches of Doc Savage (“Doc Caliban”) and Tarzan (“Lord Grandrith”), but it was the publication of To Your Scattered Bodies Go that made the SF world sit up and go “wow!”—because (among several reasons), the scope of this book was in its own way as staggering as the multimillion-year scope of Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men! The Doc Savage and Tarzan stories (also interestingly, later Farmer was to write authorized stories for both characters), together with a thinly-disguised Phil Farmer in World of Tiers (the character Kickaha’s real name was Paul Janus Finnegan) provided Farmer with both the desire and opportunity to take the “real person novelized” ball and run with it.
In the first three books of the Riverworld series, the basic premise is this: every person over the age of eight who has ever lived on the planet Earth (back to something like 100,000 B.C.) is resurrected on a constructed planet, a giant planet with Earth-like gravity, but which is home to a giant river that winds its multi-million-mile course over the entire surface of the Riverworld from pole to pole. There is the River, then there are the banks leading to plains in some cases, but bounded by steep hills or mountains in others, and behind the plains are the mountains, always the mountains—think Everest-high mountains. There are no animals (though the river, nowhere deeper than about 1 1/2 miles, is teeming with fish—including the giant Riverdragon), and no insects. There is grass, and fast-growing bamboo, and various trees, and scattered along each bank of the entire river are giant mushroom-shaped stones with indentations along their rims.
Every person wakes up along the river at apparently age 25, nude, hairless and healthy. The men are all circumcised, and the women have intact hymens (see? If it weren’t for Farmer, I wouldn’t be able to say this!), and every physical hurt is healed. In fact, as the Riverworld inhabitants learn later, their bodies are immune from infection and can heal from terrible physical wounds—better still, if they are killed they are resurrected again, only several thousand miles from where they started! Each person is resurrected with a metal cylinder tied to the wrist (they came to be called “grails” and the stone mushrooms “grailstones”) which, when placed in the circular depressions on the grailstones are almost miraculously filled with food, and drink and a small variety of creature comforts including booze and cigarettes and cigars. (Why not? After all, it appeared that death had no sting along the River.) And cloths held together by magnetic tabs so that they don’t have to be naked all the time. (And eventually, their hair grows back, although the men remain hairless facially, which bothers some of the men who used to have beards and mustaches.)
So that’s the setup; now we move to the characters. I mentioned earlier Farmer’s fondness for using real people in his stories—the first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, is about Sir Richard Burton (not the actor, the explorer), his biographer Peter Jairus Frigate (check the initials) and a woman named Alice Liddell Hargreaves, a Victorian woman who was the model for Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton is apparently the sole person out of the approximately 36 billion human beings who has awakened before they were all placed on the Riverworld, and he meets, soon after waking there, someone who asserts he is one of the beings, called “The Ethicals,” who placed them all there.
This is, the Ethical insists, a test and a proving ground, so that humans may evolve out of their own limited ethicality—the Riverworld is a bare world with few natural resources, but with unlimited food and recreational drugs (alcohol, tobacco and an apparently psychoactive gum called “dreamgum”) so that they can concentrate on inner resources and not evolve another tool-making so-called “civilization” as before! (They may be millions of years scientifically advanced over humans, but they’re not terribly smart, as the novels show….) Yeah, that’ll work. First thing the naked human beings do is grab them some skin. Seems the dreamgum when first used promotes one hell of an orgy. And the oppressor-types start oppressing, and the rapist types start raping and so on and so on… same old song; since the grails are genetically tied to their owners and could only be opened by their owners, if you wanted more than your own grail provided you, then you took a slave and owned the contents of their grails. Human greed and misery continue to play out along the banks of this new world.
Burton, his cohorts (including a Neanderthal named Kazz) and an alien named Monat (who may have been responsible for the death of the whole human species in 2008) attempt to make their way up the river to find those responsible. Along the way they meet various well-known historical personages such as King John (the one who was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede), Hermann Göring and others. By the end of the book, most of the human population along the banks of the Riverworld has ganged together into enclaves or territories—some self-ruled, some as fiefdoms or dictatorships. As always, during anarchy the biggest and meanest rise to power. Along the way there is much musing from all concerned (and more than one bloody war) about whether this is “the afterlife” and what it all means in terms of gods and religion.
Book two of this omnibus Riverworld volume is The Fabulous Riverboat, in which we meet one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. In this and The Dark Design we also meet Manfred Von Richtofen, the so-called “Red Baron,” Cyrano de Bergerac (the real one, not the Rostand character), a man named Firebrass, a very large proto-human called Joe Miller, who lisps, and more Ethicals here and there. Sometimes there’s an almost staggeringly large array of historical personages, including Tom Mix and Jack London (who are disguised as someone else) and occasionally it appears Farmer is throwing these people in for the hell of it. But I digress…. Also, since many of the major religions appear to have been discredited by this resurrection, someone has started a Church of the Second Chance, which Hermann Göring joins, repenting of his Nazi ways.
Clemens is determined to, and with the help of another Ethical does, build a riverboat, which he names the “Not For Hire”—partly to flout the Ethicals’ no-technology rule, partly to impress the locals, and partly to journey upstream and confront the Ethicals on their home territory and find out what they were thinking when they did all this. Also, Clemens is hoping to find his dead wife, Livy, somewhere on the river… almost nobody has been resurrected near someone they knew—and with 36 billion people along the river, it could take years to find anyone. Clemens has help, as I said, from an Ethical, who causes a metals-rich meteor to crash nearby, and he and rival King John agree to share the task of building the boat so they can all voyage upstream together. At the end of the book, King John betrays Twain before the latter can cut him out of the voyage altogether, steals the boat and sails on up the river, with Twain vowing eternal vengeance.
Book Three, The Dark Design, continues the story of Richard F. Burton, as well as those of Mark Twain, who found and lost again his Livy (to Cyrano de Bergerac!), King John and many historical personages, including one on whom H. Rider Haggard based the character of Umslopogas. (For further information on this person, read Rider’s Alan Quartermain stories, such as She.) However, the stories take several detours into the personal life of Farmer in the fictional character of Peter Jairus Frigate, who is revealed to have two personas! There’s a false Frigate, who is actually an agent of the Ethicals, and the real Frigate, who is unaware of the existence and actions of his double. In this book more than in the previous two, Farmer explains to the reader much of his background (I haven’t researched, but it seems obvious that a lot of what’s explained is true to Farmer’s life), his thoughts and feelings. So much so, and so much introspection, that the novel bogs down a bit in several places.
Ultimately, though, we get to the main conflict, which takes place partly in a city-state called Parolando, headed by Milton Firebrass, who is determined to build the biggest lighter-than-air craft (i.e., “Zeppelin”) the world (either of them) has ever seen; he begins searching for crew and enlists Jill Gulbirra, an Australian aboriginal and extreme feminist as well as former airship captain, having logged over 800 hours in a gasbag. They eventually reach their destination only to find themselves (all except a Japanese Sufi who calls himself “Piscator”) denied entrance to the tower at the headwaters of the river. The end of the book sees a confrontation among the various parties: King John, Mark Twain, Milton Firebrass and Jill Gulbirra.
I’ve glossed over a lot of the action in these three books (there are two more in the series—The Magic Labyrinth and The Gods of Riverworld) so as not to deprive the reader of a lot of the enjoyment to be had therein—as a matter of fact, I’d forgotten a whole lot of the story myself after thirty or so years. And enjoyment is to be had whether you’re an action fan, a hard SF fan (although Twain, Firebrass and the rest seem to get high technology including radar fairly quickly; in actuality it’s probably close to or more than fifty years since the books’ beginnings—one forgets that the people on Riverworld don’t appear to age and remain at the apparent physical age of 25 for a very long time), or a philosophical SF fan, there is enough here in just the first three books of the quintology to keep you busy for a while.
Is it worth it to the reader? Is there enough there to justify all the hoopla? Considering that Farmer won his third Hugo for To Your Scattered Bodies Go, it would seem that the readers have thought so for many years. I’d have to add that I’ve really enjoyed rereading these, and will seek out the other two—I must confess that when Gods of Riverworld came out in 1983 I had lost interest and didn’t read it. Do you, who’ve never read any of these, need to read them? Absolutely. It’s one reason we all began reading SF—the mind-expanding concept, coupled with enough action to fill several seasons of TV shows and some interesting philosophical juggling.
Also, there have been two or three absolutely terrible TV movies made from the books; I’ve seen both of them, and have two on DVD, and they’re uniformly bad. They pick and choose what to include from the books, and although the 2003 one was somewhat faithful, the 2010 was not very. So don’t judge the books from the movies. If you let the movies turn you off the books, you’ll be the loser.
In summary, the folks at Tor have done a fine job and a service to the SF/F community by reprinting these books and allowing the newer and/or younger reader to experience some of the best of past SF in a day where the SF/F bookshelves are crowded with media tie-ins (which seldom hit the high notes of independent SF writing).
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