It is with no small degree of trepidation that I
write this review. First of all, I've been putting it off for
nearly two weeks. There's something about reviewing and
deadlines--even if they're self-set--that makes it difficult to do.
I'm slowly overcoming the burnout that I experienced from doing
this sort of thing professionally, but it will undoubtedly be a
while before I really get over it. Secondly, it's hard to review
most of a body of work, especially one as far-reaching as
, without doing it some degree of disservice. I'll
do my best, but no promises. Avoiding major spoilers is a priority,
but I may accidentally let one or two things slip here and there,
and I apologize in advance for those. Lastly, I've had at least two
people I know recommending this series to me for so long that I
feel at least mildly bad about not being quite as ecstatic over the
series as they seem to have been.
All right, let's get this out of the way: I liked
. However, I did not love it. This mainly came
from flaws in the presentation and characterization than any
overreaching problem with the novels (and one novella) that I read,
but they sort of snowballed to the point that, while I enjoyed the
ride, I'm not convinced that I'd hop back on for another go.
The concept of the Riverworld itself is fantastic, one with immense
possiblities. Just about everyone from human history, going all the
way back to pre-civilization and into the near-future (at least, at
the time of the novels' publications), wakes up one day on the
banks of a long river. A really, really long river. There are
unscalable mountains on either side of the riverbank, with enough
plains and hills to give people room to live, and the trek from one
end to the other of the River entails many, many millions of miles.
Think of it as the Midgaard Serpent gone awry, all over a planet,
and you'll have an idea of just how this works. Sure, there's more
of the River right over those mountains, but how are you going to
get to them? They may be thousands of miles up- or down-River.
[Yes, the River is capitalized like that throughout the works; I
agree that such a focus would engender such a Gratuitous
This presents a genuinely frightful number of possibilities.
Historical characters from all parts and times of history can meet
up and work together. Or, as history tends to imply, fight. The
statistical distribution of peoples along the River changes
throughout the series, but a general feel is something like sixty
percent of a 'majority' population, thirty percent of some other
ethnic group, and ten percent random mix.
That's not all, of course. Food is provided by a number of
mushroom-shaped stones with inset holes. Everyone has a metal
container--called grails, glory buckets, and copias, among other
things--and, three times a day, a massive electrical discharge
fills every bucket inside one of the stones with hot fresh meals.
The meals are effectively random, but certain things are always
there--enough food to keep oneself alive, something to smoke, and a
powerful hallucinogen dubbed 'dreamgum.' And, perhaps most
fantastically, when someone dies they simply reappear--grail in
hand--the next morning.
The actual main story arc, told over four novels, involves Sir
Richard Burton and Samuel Clemens. They both want to make it to the
mouth of the River, and they both meet up with a fantastic number
of historical figures along the way. Some of these are Alice
Hargreaves (whom you may recognize better as Alice Liddell),
Hermann Goring, King John, Jack London, Cyrano de Bergerac, and
many more. Indeed, sometimes the names tossed out seems to be a
'Who's Who' of literate pop culture. Philip Jose Farmer, as usual,
manages to sneak a character who shares his initials in--this time,
his name is Peter Jairus Frigate, and he's a lifetime scholar of
Sir Richard Burton. Throw in an alien, a Mysterious Benefactor, and
a legendary Tower at the head of the River and you've got yourself
quite an adventure.
That is all well and good. However, the execution of the
saga ends up leaving a lot to be desired, at
least to my tastes. Characters are for the most part
two-dimensional caricatures of their historical selves, existing
only as foils or as name-tossing fodder for the inevitable battles.
Clemens and Burton both receive a lot of characterization time, but
the rest of the cast receives little to none, which is immensely
frustrating for someone who thrives on character-based studies.
What's even more frustrating is how the setting lends itself to
just this sort of character study--indeed, it seems designed
to allow vastly different cultures and ideas to clash while we
gleefuly watch the results. And while some of the social statements
made by the works--such as the creation of 'grail slave' states and
the uncountable wars that occur--ring true, Farmer never really
brings the personal conflicts to the forefront. It's as if he
wanted to write about two or three historical people, came up with
a fantastic world for them to live in, and then damn near
disregarded everyone not on his Short List.
Almost as frustrating as the lack of character study is the number
of inconsistencies between the different works. The percentage
breakdown of the world jumps from 60/30/10 to 69/30/1 and around
some more, and it never really settles down. One of the books has
every distance measured in both feet and meters, which makes for
ugly sentence structure at the best of times, and ends up
distracting more than anything else. I thought that Esperanto
becoming the common tongue of the Riverworld a nice touch, and the
existence of the Church of the Second Chance almost an
Along with the adventure thread, the core of the first four
books is a mystery--who did this? Why is everyone
here? What is humanity? All of these questions are answered to a
degree within the first four books, some better than others. To be
honest, I enjoyed the journey more than the solution at the
You'll notice that I keep referring to the 'first four books.'
There was indeed a fifth book written in the Riverworld
timeline--Gods of Riverworld
--that is set after the events
of the main series and reanswers a few of the questions that were
never really closed up in the first books. However, it is a
completely different style of book, and I can see many fans of the
first four disliking the fifth. It's not a bad read, though, and it
can definitely hold its own with the others.
Along with Gods of Riverworld
, there are two other non-core
works that I read that dealt with the series. One, a short story
entitled "Riverworld," has Tom Mix and a Jewish chap named Yeshua
as its main characters. Even the densest reader should be able to
figure out just where this story will undoubtedly lead, and I have
to say that I enjoyed it more than the last three novels in the
five-book 'core set.' It had the sort of character study that I
thought the setting deserved, even if the females were relegated to
nothing more than sexual companions. There is another book that I
managed to read, entitled River of Eternity
It seems to be
very rare, and it's actually an earlier version of the series. It
starts years after the First Day, and ends almost exactly where the
fourth book does. The Riverworld itself is of a different design
than the one presented in the core books, and you'll find many
familiar characters with slightly different names and many familiar
situations with slightly different outcomes.
If this entire review seems like a complaint, it's not. The
books are a delightful read if you have the time,
and they will definitely make you think of things and ideas that
you may not have thought of before. But when you read books that
deal with a setting of this magnitude--perhaps the most imaginative
setting I've ever seen--it's deeply frustrating when the author
doesn't do enough with it. At least, by my
enough. It's one of those settings that lends it self fantastically
to fan-fiction, one that would lend itself to a full-on rewrite of
the core books, one that could have a hundred novels set in it and
still have room for more. It is, perhaps, that which frustrates me
the most--millions of potential stories, happenstance meetings,
climactic situations between historical and 'plain fictional'
characters alike that we will never see.
I highly recommend getting a glimpse of that which you can.
[For the reader wanting to get into the series, the books in the
core series are To Your Scattered Bodies Go
, The Fabulous
, The Dark Design
, The Magic Labyrinth
and Gods of Riverworld
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