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In the recent past I acquired three of the five books in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series as a gift, but didn’t give them much thought until somebody gifted me the Riverworld movie the Sci-Fi (Syfy) channel did. The movie wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of, but at the end of the day, it’s still a TV movie. Lots of Battlestar Galactica cast members and bad special effects, and some much-needed updates to the plot and setting. It did make me interested in reading the books at least.

It’s debatable whether these novels are fantasy or science fiction. While it features “aliens” and “another planet” parts, the plot is so far divorced from plausibility that many consider the series to be fantasy. The setting itself has science fiction elements, yes, but it’s the details and style that make it fantasy—the sweeping goal, the epic quest. Or, alternately, you could categorize it as dated science fiction, with an emphasis on the fiction parts. It also has many elements of the New Wave of science fiction of the 1960s and ’70s, between its Soft SF socio-philosophical postulating and its handling of religion and sexuality (some of Farmer’s common themes).

I’d read the first Riverworld book years ago, but didn’t remember much about it other than it had everyone who’d ever lived and died and that I liked it, but that’s about the extent of my memory. Curious as to the extent the movie changed things around, I picked up the first two books and delved into them. Here goes nothing…

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

SFBC edition, 1971. Art by Vincent di Fate.

Richard Burton—yes, that one, not the Welsh actor—is dead. Or at least he remembers dying. He also remembers waking up in a strange void, surrounded by millions of hairless, naked people, even though he wasn’t supposed to. After fading to black again, Burton (and the hairless billions) wakes up on the banks of a mighty river, unlike any on Earth. All of humanity’s dead have been given new life. Burton returns to form and wants to find out the secrets of why he was woken prematurely, and what’s at the end of the river. After assembling a small group of followers, Burton sets off on this quest, braving slavers, ancient proto-humanoids, Earth’s many historical savages, and the alien overseers themselves.

The setting is the strength of this work: the Riverworld itself, dumping ground for most of humanity’s long-past-dead. Every person who ever died is here, from the earliest pre-humans to the people of the near future. All of their needs are provided for: they awake naked and hungry, with a metal can attached to their arms, but soon enough, it’s discovered that nearby giant metal mushrooms are methods for generating food and clothing within these lunch buckets. The characters also discover that dying on the Riverworld is impossible, since the dead reincarnate on another random part of the Riverworld. Everyone who ever lived past the age of five, and died sometime before the late-twentieth century, are revied and given a second chance—needless to say, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Every major historical figure you can imagine is alive here, and many make an appearance, with a supporting cast of untold billions of random normal people. Burton’s group includes Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; a caveman who is taught idiomatic English way too easily; a failing science fiction writer who died in the “future” (Peter Frigate, future Mary Sue candidate); a Jewish New Yorker, who we’re reminded is Jewish every few chapters when he complains about Burton’s antisemitism; the alien who caused the death of most of Earth; and later, Herman Goring.

The downside is Farmer’s prose just can’t compete with his imaginative vision. Farmer has been described as “competent” and “workmanlike” on a good day; that’s an insult to all competent, workmanlike writers in the world. His prose is horrid. The pacing is simultaneously glacial and choppy; get ready to stop for frequent lessons as Farmer describes historical figures and peoples in great detail. Farmer also describes everything related to survival or construction in such great detail as to shame the average Boy Scout Handbook.

Things are very predictable, save for the fact that this book has no ending. Farmer mentions that it’s the first part of a trilogy—because they’re always trilogies—and, as such, the first novel consists of world-building and setting Burton’s get-to-the-end-of-the-River plot. We learn that there’s two groups overseeing this worldwide experiment in humanity, like a giant terrarium for studying the Earth’s dead. One wants to observe and toss the humans away when the experiment’s over; the other wants to get Burton to the river’s source, where some important philosophical revelation will occur. (My two guesses: Farmer hadn’t found out what it is at this point in the “trilogy,” and when he did, it’s a realization in the alien overseers that mankind is worth saving after all.)

The characters read as very flat, with two-dimensional personalities, most of which is explained in their lengthy biographical-historical monologue. (Translation: the dialogue needs work.) Worse, Farmer often recaps the characters’ discussions, rather than having the characters talk, which makes things even more ponderous. He does attempt to tie the characters to their historical background, but they still feel very stiff: like cardboard cutouts with encyclopedia entries stapled to them.

I’d forgotten just how much sex was in here. I read crime and sleaze novels on the side, smut isn’t the issue; no, it’s the weird free-love philosophizing that goes along with it, which doesn’t gel with the misogyny. Such as Burton’s “she will come to be mine” attitude. Get used to that sexism, by the way: female characters are here to be saved and get laid. And occasionally raped, a fate for several non-hero-characters, which doesn’t seem to bother anybody beyond a cursory note. The characters spend a lot of time screwing, and the aliens provide joints, smokes, and alcohol in their daily lunch buckets. The future of a commune world with lots of marijuana and free-love, all pre-Woman’s Lib, dates itself as a flashback to the early ’70s. Farmer is known for his introspection on sexuality, religion, and philosophy, but here, it feels superficial and under-developed in favor of “This is a cool setting!” and the inherent sexism.

The Fabulous Riverboat

SFBC edition, 1971. Art by Vincent di Fate.

Instead of following Burton around, we turn to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, more famous as Mark Twain. Clemens is another one of the movers-and-shakers targeted by the alien rebels—the same group that woke up Burton—and Clemens has a part to play in getting to the river’s source. Clemens, being Clemens, sets out to make a riverboat (because he can), using future technology and the planet’s unspoiled natural resources.

This novel charts the growth of Clemens’ own city-state, which grows to mine, support, and build his fabulous riverboat. Sam ends up allying with King John, the bad guy from the Robin Hood tales, and has to fend off invasions from the various foreign city-states which are established up and down the river. His allies include the younger brother of the Red Baron, an African-American who was the first man on Jupiter, and a pre-neanderthal giant. There’s a lot of detail about how they find the materials for the boat, and the book spends a lot of time detailing the smaller contraptions they build, and who’s going on the boat, and the roles everyone will have on the boat. Oh, and just as the riverboat is completed, King John turns traitor, jumps on, and makes off down the river laughing maniacally.

The entire point of this book—building a kick-ass riverboat so Sam Clemens can paddle his way upriver at his leisure, with Richard Burton and all the other important people in tow for a fiery finale—yeah, screw that, you just spent the last ~200 pages watching him build the other riverboat. You know, the one no one talks about because nobody wants to piss Sam Clemens off by reminding him of all the work he wasted. Imagine a book that told you “It’ll be this awesome and will be better than the first and set in the same world with new people and will get the plot rolling along,” and ends up being nothing more than “no, no, but come back next time when he makes the real riverboat.”

Farmer’s prose is about the same as in the first book. The parts where things happen are good, but even moreso in Riverboat, most of what we read is build-up, which deflates at the end. The characters are even worse: the main difference between the city-states is that one speaks Jive, and we can see Clemens’ utopia of Paralando (which speaks Esperanto, according to Farmer’s helpful translations; another thing he learned in order to write this book). On the bright side, things start a few years after the first book, so there’s less pointless sex and philosophizing; that’s been replaced by buildup that leads nowhere. I think his prose is stronger, but Farmer is still workmanlike at best.

The sexism is still here; not much change on that front. However, there’s a great example of the dated philosophy/timeliness: there’s a massive subplot about Clemens’ city-state of Parolando having to deal with the city-state that speaks jive and is only populated by persons of color. I have the feeling Farmer was trying to inject the same kind of conflict as he did with Burton’s antisemitism, here with Clemens perceived as a racist because he dropped the N-bomb in Huck Finn. It doesn’t work; when they speak jive, and are little more than caricatures of anti-white Black Power militants, it’s more than a little racist (and more than a ton dated).

Other than that, it has all the same benefits and flaws as the first book: an imaginative idea I adore, with a choppy and mediocre execution not at all helped by the author’s ham-handed pacing. I can tell Farmer’s getting into this by the amount of research he’s done on all his topics; the problem is his need to tell the reader all of it. The plot developments added little to the first book, and amounted to nothing in the end; all you’re getting are some more characters, most of whom fit the same roles as the group in the first book. Instead of an unlikeable sexist Victorian adventure hero, instead we have the least funniest Mark Twain ever to grace the earth. (Granted, I had the luxury to watch a Ken Burns documentary on the guy; Farmer had his encyclopedias and his imagination, such as it was.)

The Bottom Line

SFBC 50th Anniversary #9. Art by Bob Eggleton.

The idea of the Riverworld dates back to Farmer’s unpublished novel, Owe For the Flesh. Farmer took the concept and made it into To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which formed two seperate novellas in Worlds of Tomorrow: “The Day of the Great Shout” in January 1965, and “The Suicide Express” in March 1966. The second Riverworld novel, The Fabulous Riverboat, first appeared in the magazine If serialized as the short novels “The Felled Star” (July and August 1967) and “The Fabulous Riverboat” (June and August 1971). This history of short novels and novells might explain why the books are choppy at points. (And why the third book, not serialized in a magazine, is so damn big.)

I do really enjoy the covers to these; the covers by Vincent di Fate are iconic and trippy at the same time. I think it’s his technique plus the use of color that gets to me; people drifting through the air, the trippy alien landscape, those crazy hot pinks and aquas. It’s hopelessly retro. Eggleton is one of my favorite contemporary artists, and I’m glad the Science Fiction Book Club picked him to do the 1960s for their 50th Anniversary collection; his take is more serious, and in comparison, that lush Riverworld is the one I’d rather be reincarnated on.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat are the high-water marks in the series. Which is a shame, because they’re not very well done. Farmer came up with outstanding ideas that are THIS BIG!, which end up being too big and unwieldy for Farmer to grasp without dropping more than a few times. To be fair, I can’t think of many authors who would pull it off without a few hitches; then again, most wouldn’t dare attempt something this expansive. Whether or not you should read them depends on how much you like the ideas they put forth: are they worth the grinding through Farmer’s ill-paced prose? Have you read, and liked, Farmer’s other works? Do you mind reading dated ’70s SF?

I don’t consider either book terrible in the truest sense of the word; lacking, slow, contrived, and dated come to mind. They’re short, so worst-case scenario, you’re out a few nights of reading. Both were reprinted in a single omnibus when the TV movie came out, and if you want to get into the Riverworld, that’s a good place to start… and stop. Because of the third book in the series does bring the word terrible to mind, along with a lot of profanity and boredom, and deserves its own review. In any case, I found the first two classics in concept, but not execution: I wasn’t as thrilled with the novels as I remember being when I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Heck, it should be telling when I thought the Sci-Fi original movie was superior to the novels. It had Battlestar Galactica actors, and a Sam Clemens who was actually funny, two gold stars right there.

Most damning, this great, deep idea he’s constructed is used as nothing more than a simple SF adventure story, making it rather shallow and underdeveloped. Farmer creates the means for a lot of introspection and commentary, with every major historical figure to use, a blank canvas of a world to work with; instead, he gives the world as few details as possible. It has several kinds of fish, and lots of plants, and convenient mountains which act like the “invisible walls” in video games: you can’t go there, plot’s this way. Ok, I like adventure novels; problem is, this one falls short, because Farmer focuses too much energy on setting up the basics: how people are fed and clothed, the history and how-things-work lessons, Riverworld political dynamics, getting a group of characters together to go on an epic quest… and by that point, the novel’s finished. These adventure novels are adventure-less build up. (Both novels are like that, making them all but bereft of plot; The Dark Design tries to rectify that, but too little and too late in its 400 pages of drudgery.)

Farmer’s Riverworld series is quite popular and well regarded, and it has many devoted fans. I’m in the minority when I say the books were flawed and lacking, so who knows, they may be very much to your taste. I will say idea behind the Riverworld is fantastic, and it deserves recognition as a landmark in the genre. And while I thought Farmer’s prose weak, his plot slow, and his characters unconvincing, it didn’t discourage me to stop reading, for what that’s worth. Not so with the next volume, The Dark Descent. My love for it is like a truck.