Given that I'm fifty-seven books into a runthrough of the Doc Savage novels, I really ought to have got round to reading something by his biographer, one Philip José Farmer. However, even though I have a shelf of his books, I have never got round to reading any of them and I'm glad that I started with this one, the first winner of the Hugo for Best Novel to be published within my lifetime.
It's the first novel in a series known as 'Riverworld', quickly followed by a second, 'The Fabulous Riverboat', which I should read next because I have unanswered questions.
The setup is glorious. Richard Burton, not the actor who married Liz Taylor twice but the 19th century polymath adventurer, dies in Trieste in 1890, as he did in our reality, but then, after a brief interlude in an endless room of human bodies, wakes up on the shores of a river. He's far from alone but everyone there has changed, most obviously through rejuvenation and by being naked as jaybirds. There are devices dotted around the landscape soon dubbed grailstones, which provide food and other supplies on a daily basis.
The ever-inquisitive Burton soon pulls a core group together, which includes Alice Liddell, the real life inspiration for Alice in 'Alice in Wonderland'; a neanderthal who goes by Kazz (the short form of Kazzintuitruaabemss); and an alien from Tau Ceti who arrived on Earth in 2002 and whose ship wiped out much of our planet's population by accident. Other real life people from the past show up throughout the novel.
They soon figure out commonalities. Everyone had once died, so they've been born again. Whatever age they were at the time, they're now twenty-five. All the men are circumcised. All the women are virgins. Everyone is sterilised. Later on, as Burton leads the group up the river in search of its source, as he did the Nile in our reality, they discover deeper commonalities, such as a rough breakdown of populations on either side of the river by nationality, era and other factors. They also discover that if you die in Riverworld, you merely get resurrected again somewhere else along the river.
What nobody knows is why. Initial thoughts of Heaven or Hell are relatively quickly discarded, but nobody has a better answer. What's more, most people don't seem to care, simply starting again in whatever fashion they deem fit.
Burton is special, perhaps because only he seems to have awoken to see that interlude before waking up by the river, and he's eager to figure out every aspect of the puzzle. He doesn't quote Zaphod Beeblebrox's "who, what, when and where... and one big side order of why?" but he could have done.
I liked how Farmer touches on so many different questions, but wish he would have been more willing to explore most of them deeper. And I don't mean the relatively standard seventies sf nods towards nudity taboos and the unifying power of Esperanto, but how the defaults in this new land might be awkward to some of the newly resurrected because of historically varied taboos and norms, whether religious or cultural.
For instance, the grailstones issue food and other substances in sufficient quantities and at sufficiently frequent times to keep people sustained, but no more and no more often. Tobacco and other drugs are a perennial, but not everyone wants to partake. Knowing how meat was killed is important to many and what particular meat it is to others. Beef or pork are prohibited foods to vast swathes of the population. Whoever's behind the Riverworld does not seem to care about such things.
One other substance issued from the grailstones is a chewing gum, which has hallucinogenic properties, releasing base urges. The first night it shows up prompts, shall we say, utter chaos. I'll let you draw your own images as to how. For a novel written in 1971 and from some older material, there's a lot of focus on the environment, mostly but not entirely pollution. There's some exploration of how faith survives in an afterlife that isn't what most were promised.
While it wouldn't have helped the plot any, I'd have enjoyed more conflicts from a purely cultural standpoint. What's appropriate to one generation may not be to another. And I don't just mean views on race, sex or slavery. At one point, Burton finds he has to defend a book he wrote against a charge of anti-Semitism. There's a running joke for a while about how to explain to Burton, a man of the world, about Hitler. Later, he runs into an area that's being run jointly by Tullius Hostilius and Herman Göring.
Farmer raises these issues and many others, but tries to stay focused on the quest of Richard Burton to find the end of the river and so discover what's on the other side. And we do learn a lot on that front, but we never find an answer, not a true answer, to why. I wonder if that will show up in the next book, 'The Fabulous Riverboat', which takes place twenty years later with a different lead: Samuel Clemens, who we know better as Mark Twain.
I have to praise the originality here. Farmer was an established author and he had already demonstrated his penchant for mashing up historical people, fictional creations by other authors and his own creations into new works. He'd already published three books about Lord Grandrith (a Tarzan knockoff) and Doc Caliban (a thinly veiled Doc Savage). His biographies of both those characters would come in the next couple of years, with a further series set in Edgar Rice Burrough's Opar not far beyond. His Wold Newton concept that ties a vast array of fictional characters together is groundbreaking. We're used to such mashups today but this was wildly original in 1971.
However, as much as such originality deserves praise, the Hugo being the sf pinnacle of such, this does feel rather incomplete. It asks a whole slew of questions but doesn't answer them all and Farmer leaves the largest hanging. The book club discussions after this came out must have been vehement! It's more of a glimpse at what might be contained within a novel than that novel itself and it would seem that Hugo voters didn't care about that.
It's fair to say that I wanted more but I do have the benefit of reading in 2020 with four more sequels published, plus a number of short stories and a career of sixty or so novels. Clearly I should start dipping into it. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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For more titles by Philip Jose Farmer click here