Philip José Farmer, Riverworld (Tor Books, 2010; omnibus edition incl. To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat [both orig. 1971])

 

It may seem as though Philip José Farmer was terrifically prolific, with the first two novels of the Riverworld series both appearing in 1971. He was, in fact, quite prolific, but parts of these two books had appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow and If beginning in 1965. The series continued until 1993 and even included a "shared universe" volume with contributions from other writers -- which only seems fair, since Farmer borrowed so many others' characters.

The premise is both simple and breathtaking: everyone who has ever lived (at least, up until 1984) is resurrected on the banks of a great river -- figure 37 billion people on a riverbank extending 20 million miles. They are born naked and hairless, with a container that provides food and drink and a few goodies -- dubbed a "grail" -- strapped to their wrists and a few squares of cloth, which can become kilts and capes, to hand. (Don't worry -- their hair grows back.) People being what they are, they don't always get along, but if you're killed you wake up good as new twenty-four hours later somewhere else on the River.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go features Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great nineteenth-century explorer. Burton, as was so often the case in his earthly life, is an anomaly: he wakes before he's supposed to, in a seemingly limitless space filled with orderly tiers of bodies suspended in mid-air. Being who he is, he begins to explore, until he is spotted and zapped back to sleep. When he wakes on the banks of the River, he decides to find the source, in part perhaps to make up for never having found the source of the Nile, but mostly because of visitations from one he dubs "The Mysterious Stranger," who appears to be part of a faction of the Ethicals -- those who have arranged this whole show -- not in agreement with his fellows on means and ends.

Samuel Clemens, the focus of The Fabulous Riverboat, is also the recipient of visitations, perhaps from the same entity, perhaps not -- there exists, after all, a cabal. Twelve humans have been selected as the agents of this group, and Clemens is one. Being what we would dub a "technogeek," Clemens decides he's going to travel the River in style and sets about building a paddle-wheeler to carry him to the source -- which of course means he has to create an industrial base.

I've long maintained that speculative fiction -- and I'm not going to attempt any closer classification of these two books, though I will concede that they can fall into "science fiction" of the "I know it when I see it" variety -- is ready-made for social commentary: the minute you say "What if?" you've set the stage for that kind of exploration. In Farmer's hands, we are given humanity in all its somewhat tattered glory: the "grail-slavers," little dictators with their own bands of thugs who appropriate the grails of their slaves to keep them under control; the conquerors, who need to occupy the countries next door, just in case (and yes, of course there are countries, usually organized along majority racial and/or temporal lines -- most areas are a mix -- and united under strong leadership, one hopes in order to work for the common good). There's even a new church, the Church of the Second Chance, which preaches peace, love, and spiritual growth. (One of the notable converts is Hermann Goering.) However, the people here are the people they were, and the Church has severely limited success. (Oh, and about that racial component: not only does Riverworld contain all the races of modern humanity, as might be expected, but also the ancestors and cousins, including Neanderthals and the "Titanthrops," gigantic men with pale skins, blue eyes, and fair hair, an apparent evolutionary dead end, but mean fighters nevertheless.)

As novels, both are eminently readable adventures, although I have to give pride of place to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The story has a little more meat, a little more tension -- the Mysterious Stranger is an ongoing presence there -- and it has Richard Burton, who as a protagonist has everything that makes adventure stories worth reading: he's smart, savvy, ruthless when he needs to be, live-and-let-live until you cross him, and displays a full range of human frailty.

Sam Clemens doesn't hold up so well. Perhaps it's because the human frailties outweigh the smart, savvy, and ruthless. Maybe it's because he's paired with the perfidious King John, no longer a king but still perfidious, and never quite manages to best him. Clemens' character just doesn't seem to jell -- he's not a particularly impressive hero, and I long ago consigned ineffectual protagonists to mainstream fiction. Farmer also takes the opportunity in this volume to bring up the racial tensions of mid-twentieth century America, at least in part because of Huckleberry Finn -- or at least, that's one of the hooks he hangs it on. It's a plot device and little more, and doesn't really add any depth to the story.

Even with that, I found myself thoroughly engaged, giving a hint of the strength of Farmer's writing. It's rich, inventive, and engrossing. One assumes Tor will continue these reissues, bringing a landmark work of speculative fiction to a new generation. They'd be crazy not to.

 

[Robert M. Tilendis]