To start things off, I’m going to ask you go read my review of the first two Riverworld books. Go on. It’ll be helpful, since I reference those a lot. This review isn’t going anywhere, barring a WordPress server-crash or a global catastrophe of some kind, so you can always read that review now and this one tomorrow.
Back already? Good. Now you know where I’m coming from, my opinion of the series thus far, and we can get into… The Dark Design.
The book is divided amongst three plotlines. The first returns us to Richard Burton (the dashing explorer who searched for the source of the Nile and translated the 1001 Arabian Nights undercover). Burton & Co. are still traveling upriver, running into Indians and Egyptian pharaohs and such. After a couple of “harrowing” encounters, they realize the neanderthal Kaz can see strange shapes nobody else can, revealing some of his crew to be alien imposters.
The second is a new plotline, following heroine and Australian zeppelin pilot Jill Gulbirra in her attempts to gain a slot in Parolando’s new airship project. Astronaut Milton Firebrass—African-American and first man on Jupiter—is in charge here, Sam Clemens having left on his second riverboat; Firebrass has decided to build his own zeppelin and overtake Clemens, who’s more interested in the journey than the destination. Gulbirra has to overcome misogyny and fierce competition to get her place on the zeppelin.
Her militant feminist perspective could be a reaction to the weird sexism in the first books. But instead of nullifying those claims, she comes across as insufferable and two-dimensional… She’s homely, therefore, she hates men, and gets up into everybody’s grill about gender diversity and women doing everything men can do. Providing a cardboard cutout of ’70s militant women’s lib does not make a decent female character; it just shuffles the sexism around a bit. She does soften later on, but by then I disliked her, so it didn’t really matter.
The third is of the real Peter Jarius Frigate, who is the novel’s Mary Sue stand-in for Philip Jose Farmer (PJF, get it?). This section really kicks in after the novel’s mid-point, and doesn’t do much. Frigate’s a late-20th-Century science fiction writer, who gets a number of dream-fugue and philosophical chapters devoted to him, including lengthy letters he writes which will never be delivered, before actually doing anything. Frigate ends up with his childhood heroes Jack London and Tom Mix, along with a Sufi poet and Umslopogas (from H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quartermain novels); the first two are being led by the same Mysterious Stranger who’s got Burton and Clemens gunning for the river’s source. They build a balloon and take off, but have a harrowing near-collision with another zeppelin (cough Storyline Two cough) before fading back into obscurity.
There’s also a fourth thread, that of Sam Clemens, but it’s almost a footnote until Firebrass, Gulbirra, and their characters arrive to stage a revenge strike against King John and the first riverboat. Speaking of Firebrass and Gulbirra… their airship is kind of the mover-and-shaker here, doing more than the other plotlines combined, and ending up as the most interesting thread… after starting as my most hated plotline.
The worst part about the novel: its handling of these divergent storylines. At any time one of these storylines begins to get interesting—the action heats up, the plot develops, there’s a “harrowing” ship-sinking or crash or fight scene or what have you, and—surprise, flash-cut to another story thread, and only return well after any conflict or climax has finished, the characters having moved back into dull exposition and buildup. The worst is the introduction of Jill Gulbirra, whose thread is pointless for the first half of the book compared to the other, more interesting thread (Burton); Burton & Co. get into trouble at a ludicrous pace, but then, bampf, we’re back to dealing with Jill and Firebrass and more airship politics. It gets worse when Frigate is introduced as a PoV character, because we have to wade through several chapters of his life story in the form of letters. It makes the Gulbirra parts seem like white-knuckle adventures in comparison.
And the Gulbirra chapters end up just that; her section really takes off near the end, and has some of the more interesting developments, both with characters and plot: the return of Sam Clemens, the fight against King John, the arrival at the river’s source, the disappearances, etc. But it doesn’t matter; the first half of the book is a lesson in making Burton’s group interesting but never actually doing anything while we build up Jill’s story, so that by the time she’s doing something, there’s a good chance you’re already sick of these new characters compared to the old hands you got to know in the first two books. Then there’s the addition of Frigate, who takes the book off in another direction…
The plot-lines make The Dark Design bloated and disjointed: we have three fully separate plots, each going in different directions, each stumbling over each other, overturning the interesting parts in favor of another plot’s dull buildup. In all, this is a huge book that could have worked—at all—if it were half its size: there’s a lot of wasted space taken up in retelling and recapping things which would have been more interesting as conflict or drama. The Frigate plot is dull; the Clemens plot is barebones; the first half of the Gulbirra plot is slower than sluggish; the Burton chapters always seem to pick up but stop right before they get to the good parts, in order to focus on someone less interesting. There’s about a hundred-fifty pages of interesting plot in a novel over four-hundred pages long, and most of that occurs in the last hundred or so pages.
Remember everything bad I said about Farmer in the last review(s)? Bad writing, horrible pacing, the tendency to over-explain anything he researched, a lack of action and conflict, wafer-thin characters with a vaneer of historical background? The characters’ stilted dialogue, and the lack of distinction between any of them? The fact that it’s a shallow adventure plot overlaying a fanastic and deep concept? It doesn’t get much better. In fact, worse; Farmer’s prose is tolerable when kept to the 200-page level, but here, it becomes grating. By now, there are characters who you probably like, most of whom are the historical figures; none of those do anything, because it’s all about Jill, Firebrass, and PJF. (Which PJF is left up to your interpretation.) Add in more underdeveloped filler characters, a lot of pointless buildup for nothing that goes nowhere, a plot that takes the long and scenic route through Dullsville… and that’s The Dark Design. I might even be describing it too nicely, because it was atrocious enough to make the first two books look like masterworks.
This book soured me on the series; part of me still wants to find book four so I can then read the concluding fifth book (which I already own), and part of me wants to sell the books and cut my losses. A big reason for my hate is because I had to track this one down; I spent the better half of a summer looking for the hardcover to go with my other Riverworld hardcovers, and only managed to dig it up when I went to one of the largest independent bookstores in the Midwest. Maybe if I hadn’t had to look so hard for this novel, its flaws wouldn’t bug the crap out of me… but maybe not. It took everything I disliked about the first two and turned them to eleven. Everything I did like—world-building, the idea of historical figures reincarnated and on an epic quest—felt watered-down or otherwise ignored, second-place to more lackluster buildup and lackadaisical pacing.
I can’t recommend this book at all; to say I dislike it is to understate dislike. The only reason I didn’t put it down is because of my stubbornness and the fact sheer hatred has stopped me from reading only two books in midstride in my life, which are stupid, stupid reasons, and I should have put it down when it went from boring to painful. There is little to salvage from this book, just a few interesting scenes near the end that don’t make up for the first two-third’s tedium and bad writing. Despite all the developments, little is accomplished—there’s still two books in the series, mind you. It makes me shudder that Farmer turned in a bloated 1,000 page manuscript that nobody had the balls to cut down into a real book. Instead, they split it into The Dark Design and The Magic Labyrinth for publication. This is the end result: bloated, unfocused, mediocrity plagued with boredom and only the occasional flashes of quality. Which necessitated the fifth volume as some explanatory coda.
While the series has a large and passionate fanbase, even fans admit this is the lowest point in the series and weakest novel in the line. This is an awful book. Stay the hell away so it can’t hurt you.
And now, a short rant.
In the review of the first two books, I joked that Farmer hadn’t figured out what the big revelation for Burton is at the end of the river. That, in a nutshell, is my problem with the entire series: rather than having a plan for this grand concept, the books are in large part just Farmer putting pen to paper and hoping for the best. What was originally a trilogy exploded, then the third book split into two, which left so many unanswered questions that a fifth book was necessary. What makes the first two books somewhat salvageable is that they’re short, the concept is new and fascinating, and Farmer has a lot of enthusiasm for the subject. The longer the series goes on, the more the plot threads are stretched without being developed; more and more characters are introduced without having development or a point, much less motivation. What makes these books unsalvagable is that Farmer never delivers on his promises (nor premises): it’s a superficial glance at a very deep, very creative idea, filled with horrible writing, bad pacing, and wanton misogyny. I think it’d have worked better if Farmer had tightened up his plot, completed his grand vision, and then penned some stand-alone novels following amazing important people as they walked the Riverworld. (Or better, spun it into a shared world like Thieves’ World or Wild Cards, or hell, the Cthulhu Mythos.) Instead, Farmer tried to shoehorn in the kitchen sink without an end goal, and the outcome is what you’d expect: two gallons of awesome and ten gallons of suck in a five-gallon bucket.