In my teenage years, I read a ton of science fiction, but not what people call the classics — no Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or even Ray Bradbury. Instead, I was reading people like Alan Dean Foster, Harry Harrison, Roger Zelazny and today’s featured author, Philip José Farmer.
I devoured Farmer’s books in those days, particularly a series that dealt with everyone from history all being alive together. And how it all took place on a planet with a giant river. Now for the second part of revisiting my time in Riverworld, with a look at the third and fourth novels of the series.
THE DARK DESIGN by Philip José Farmer — Supposedly, the manuscript for book three was close to 1,000 pages, causing Farmer to split it into two halves, the first of which is 1977’s THE DARK DESIGN. This installment follows three tales, all interwove, so please note there will be some spoilers here. I’ll try and keep them to a minimum, but again, please note: spoilers.
The shortest of these is the portion dealing with Sir Richard Francis Burton, which includes revisiting some of the events that closed out the first book, TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO. Soon, we find Burton and his companions still trying to get up river.
In this series, time flies by in a sentence. The book opens 40 years after the first one, and Riverworld is having some issues — namely, the grails are producing less food and it seems once people die, they actually die; there are no more resurrections elsewhere on the land.
The main thrust of Burton’s tale deals with an encounter with Egyptians who have tried to make it to the tower, and the discovery that members of Burton’s party might be agents working against him. The second thread deals with a character we also were introduced to in the first book, Peter Jarius Frigate. (This Frigate is the real Frigate — this will make sense when you read the book.) We find this one joining a ship called the Razzle Dazzle, commanded by Jack London and Tom Mix, both of whom are hiding behind aliases to which Frigate does not question for many years.
These men are also headed toward the head of the river, which is all part of the grand scheme we have read about in the previous pair of novels. The whole Frigate episode is a drain on the reader, since he gives his whole history of sorts in a letter he hopes a friend will find. This could have easily have been cut with no issues, since his thread does not end on the best of notes.
The third and final thread deals with some of the secondary characters from book two, THE FABULOUS RIVERBOAT, and their plans of building an airship. This is the lengthiest of all the threads with Farmer taking his time to develop it — too much time, as this portion is really a slog to get through. It’s well over 400 pages, but it’s only until the last 60 or so that we really get to the meat of the matter with a confrontation and a battle with King John and his boat. I mean, the bulk deals with a woman named Jill who wants to join the blimp crew.
There are portions of treachery and the raid toward the end that are a blast, but you really have to fight your way through some truly ponderous and extraneous portions first. It all leads into a discovery that will play right into the next book …
THE MAGIC LABYRINTH by Philip José Farmer — For a series I throughly loved in my teen years, I haven’t had a lot of fun revisiting it. Don’t get me wrong: The first two novels are great, but these last two have been life- sucking endurance tests — this 1980 one especially.
We get a rehash of events and characters that Farmer just spent the previous book going through. We meet up with Burton and his companions as they join King John’s boat. That is thread one. Then, in thread two, we follow Samuel Clemens and his boat. I’m going to save everyone some time in a big way: The climax of this book is literally the best part, when their two ships finally meet for the epic showdown we have been expecting since King John stole the original riverboat. Clemens finally gets his revenge he has been talking about for what seems like forever.
But I’m getting ahead of myself since we have to endure pages upon pages of nothing. Okay, maybe not nothing: Clemens does take on new crew members we have known from book one, who turn out to be Ethical agents there to stop him. After about 200 pages, we finally get to the part with the three best sequences: a dogfight, the ship and a duel.
The dogfight sequence is pure pulp action, and the final confrontation between these ships does deliver in the action. Two major characters die and the two ships are sunk. There is also an enjoyable duel between Cyrano de Bergerac and Burton. But after all that, we still have close to a third of the book to go, and that is where it truly becomes mind-numbing.
Farmer delivers a group of survivors from the battle to the great tower, where they finally get to see what is behind it all. We discover exactly who the mysterious stranger is and why he wanted his plan to work. By this point, I could have cared less, especially since a lot of questions are answered, but not all.
A few years later, Farmer would revisit his series with 1983’s GODS OF RIVERWORLD, which was more of a cash grab than anything else. When I finally finished MAGIC LABYRINTH, I thought, “Wait, weren’t Elvis and Richard III in this?” Then it dawned on me: There are two short-story collections which use Riverworld as their setting. My suggestion: Read the first book and the second. Then seek out those two collections, TALES OF RIVERWORLD and QUEST TO RIVERWORLD. Although written by many other authors, they are actually more enjoyable and play with the concept a lot better than Farmer’s third and fourth books.
But whatever you do, avoid the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2004 piss-poor TV-movie/pilot which completely changes the story, or even worse, the 2010 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, which tries to cram all four books into four hours, changing certain characters completely. —Bruce Grossman