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 Riverworld, 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 Riverworld. 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 Emphasis.]

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 Riverworld 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 inevitability.

Along with the adventure thread, the core of the first four Riverworld 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 end.

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 Riverworld 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 definition of 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 Riverboat, The Dark Design, The Magic Labyrinth, and Gods of Riverworld.]

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Last Updated: 2002.06.23.1939