Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld”


I used to be a pretty rabid sci-fi & fantasy reader in my teens and early 20s. I read a fair bit of the staples: Frank Herbert‘s Dune series (well, up to Chapterhouse: Dune), Tolkien‘s The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings (I started on “The Silmarillion”, but only got about a third of the way through), Philip K. Dick‘s Ubik and A Scanner Darkly, Heinlein‘s Stranger In A Strange Land, etc. etc.

I didn’t have time to read everything, natch – so there’s some I still haven’t checked out. Issac Asimov‘s Foundation series is one I keep meaning to delve into. Ray Bradbury‘s (who sadly passed away a short while ago) The Martian Chronicles is said to be very good as well. Some of my friends really dig Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova, too. I’ve never read any of their books. I want to read more of Michael Moorcock‘s sci-fi as well – I’ve only read the Dancers At The End Of Time series and a couple of others.

I had heard of Philip Jose Farmer, but he was only on the periphery of my sci-fi knowledge. Around four years ago, Pixie and I visited Hidecote Gardens. There’s a used bookshop near the entrance to the gardens–in which I found three of the four main Riverworld novels, along with a short-story collection called “Riverworld & Other Stories”. I liked the cover art and decided to purchase all four books. On a side note, I found a copy of Camel‘s A Live Record LP in really good condition, so I bought that as well.

I’d recommend the book, as an introduction to Farmer’s writing. It covers a smattering of stories published in the 1960s and 70s. Besides the “Riverworld” story – there’s a great pastiche of William S. Burroughs, writing a Tarzan tale. Y’see, it’s supposed to be written by W.S., instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Very clever, or I thought so, anyway. It’s called “The Jungle Rot Kid On The Nod“. “The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol” sees the titular character having amourous adventures in a nursing home, which he describes in terms of World War I dogfights, as he is a former pilot. “Monologue” is a creepy story, told in the first person by an ill boy, lying in his bed. There’s more, but I won’t list them all. Find a copy of the book – it’s worth it.

The “Riverworld” story features Tom Mix, the American actor who starred in several “Western” films in the 1910s to 1930s. The main premise of “Riverworld” is that every human who ever lived on Earth, suddenly is resurrected on a strange planet. Running along the circumference of the planet, is a mile-wide (or thereabouts) river. There are plains that extend back from the banks for a few miles, then foothills, then steep mountains, made of black, smooth rock. The mountains are impossible to scale, as their faces rise up 10,000 feet at a sheer angle.

All of the humans are ‘resurrected’ at the same time and all wake up on the planet at the same time. Farmer initially called this the “Day Of The Great Shout”, as no-one was prepared and the disillusionment and utter confusion caused chaos and dread, until everyone began to adjust to the new world. No-one know why they are there, but most religionists are in agreement that it is nothing like what they were promised on Earth. This causes loss of faith, though many still cling to their beliefs.

The short story happens some time after “The Day Of The Great Shout”, as Mix is sailing on a boat, with a crew of disparate resurrectees. City-states have been established along the banks of the river and Mix and co. are fleeing from one of them. One of Mix’s crew is a mysterious Palestinian who lived 2,000 years before Mix. It turns out this character was quite famous. Mix and his crew are captured by a German Protestant zealot, who was living during the 16th century. I won’t reveal too much more detail, but you peice together who the mysterious Palestinian was by the end.

The first proper book in the series, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”, concerns explorer Sir Richard Burton and his awakening and journey through Riverworld. The book starts as Burton dies – then he suddenly ‘wakes up’ in a massive dark space, which is filled with millions of other human bodies, somehow floating, but held in stasis. He is able to move his hands and momentraily breaks free of whatever force is holding him. As he does this, a strange floating canoe-like craft approaches him and he falls unconcious again – only to wake up again on the Riverworld. Like Mix – he gathers a disparate crew around him. They build a boat and travel up the river. Burton is joined by Alice Liddell, the model for the heroine in the “Alice In Wonderland” stories, by Lewis Carroll. A Neanderthal called “Kazz” and a 20th century American called “Peter Janus Frigate” (check the initials, heh heh), are also part of the group. They are captured by a surprisingly philosophical Hermann Goring, but escape from his territory. Goring is killed in an ensuing battle, but as happens in Riverworld, he is ‘resurrected’ in another spot along the river and meets up with Burton again. This happens a few times – Burton and Goring are killed (or kill themselves) and then resurrect near each other. There’s much more to the story, but I don’t want to include any more spoilers in this post.

The second book in the series, “The Fabulous Riverboat”, swaps Burton for ‘Mark Twain’ (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens), as a lead character and concerns his quest for iron deposits to build a grand riverboat, like the ones he used to pilot on the Mississippi River on Earth. He gets help from a mysterious stranger, one of the so-called “Ethicals”, who are the beings over-seeing the Riverworld planet. Clemens gets his iron in the form of a meteorite, but has to deal with the machinations of neighbouring states, as well as King John Of England. Clemens reluctantly co-rules his state with John, after John’s army defeats other invaders looking to get the iron for themselves. Clemens’s Earthly wife, Olivia, also turns up with Cyrano de Bergerac – causing him much grief.

There’s many plot twists and you can almost lose track of all the double and triple-crosses going on. In the end, Clemens does get his riverboat and loses it quickly. You almost feel his frustration, but he vows to build another boat and capture it.

There are two more books in the original series. “The Dark Design” is the third, which I’ve only just started reading, followed by “The Magic Labyrinth”. Farmer also published “Gods Of Riverworld”, which seems to be sort-of a postscript to the series. Seriously, if you dig your sci-fi – you really can’t go wrong with “Riverworld”. It’s epic, in a good way and Farmer had a knack for dialogue, even between historical characters. He doesn’t over-do the detail in his imaginary planet either, so you don’t get bogged-down in miniutae. The series (so far) gets a big thumbs-up from me!

5 responses »

  1. Really interesting stuff, Wizard. I’ll admit I do struggle with some sci-fi, no matter how much I have tried. I don’t really enjoy stuff about life on other planets, which is odd because I’m fascinated by the potential reality of such a thing. I’ve never been much taken by ‘fantasy’ either, even though I always enjoyed old Tolkien. I don’t sound much like a Prog head, do I? Perhaps I should give Mr. Farmer a go, however. My kind of sci-fi usually resides somewhere in the haunted, thoroughly British imaginations of people like Wells or John Wyndham. There’s something powerful in the atmosphere of their books that I have failed to find in other sci-fi writers. Thanks for the tip on Farmer, though.

  2. No worries, Bear – to be honest, I don’t read a whole lot of sci-fi anymore, except for the authors I mentioned (P.K.D., Herbert, etc.). A lot of it seems very formulaic and not very imaginative. The “Riverworld” series seems an exception to me–Moorcock’s stuff is very good as well. I’ve gotta read some Wyndham and some more Wells. I’m pretty sure I read “War Of The Worlds” in my early teens, but I can’t remember. Could be just confusing it with seeing the 1950s film and listening to the Jeff Wayne LP. 😉

  3. Thanks for the post – I’ve been meaning to get back into reading fantasy/sci-fi more as I haven’t read much in a long time. I’ll check out the Riverworld ones. Moorcock’s Elric series is a great one I’d recommend as well!

  4. Riverworld was an incredible saga into a very strange, supernatural afterlife world in which things certainly are different from the earth everyone came from and was used to, from first waking up, naked and hairless, and finding that hair did not grow in riverworld, all the way down to being supplied by the grails, only to possibly become a victim of grail slavery.

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