9. The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer (1971) 252 p.


This is the second book in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series, the first of which, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I read in December. I bought it from eBay after being intrigued by the synopsis on Wikipedia. Essentially, the entirety of the human race – from prehistoric cavemen to futuristic space-dwelling societies – is simultaneously resurrected along the banks of an enormously long river-valley, averaging only a few miles across and surrounded by impenetrable mountains on both sides. Everyone is in the body of their 25-year old self, minus any facial hair, foreskins and chemical addictions. Anyone who died before the age of 25 is resurrected at the age they died, and they then grow naturally until they reach 25, when they stop. No children under the age of 5 have been resurrected. It is found impossible to conceive children on the Riverworld.

Every person is provided with a “grail,” a canister of metal which provides food, drink, cloth and luxury items like alcohol and marijuana. To be used, the grail must be placed at a “grailstone:” large mushroom-shaped rocks spaced at mile-long intervals along the river, which are powered three times daily (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Agriculture is impossible, since the only plants are grass, bamboo, and various types of tree, and the only animals are earthworms and fish. Therefore a grail is nearly essential to survival – though if a person dies, they are simply resurrected again elsewhere along the river, with a new grail.

Each area of the river initially contains three groups of people: a large group of people from one time and place (say, Meiji era Japanese), a smaller group of people from another time and place (say, 7th century Franks) and a tiny group of people from random times and places. Most people from the 20th century are part of the third group. There is nobody from a time later than 2008, apparently because the human race was wiped out in this year, which I of course find highly appropriate for my reading experience. Humanity – bewildered, frightened, and with all its religions disproved by the existence of this world – sets about recreating its earthly societies, with nation-states growing over time, war and trade both flourishing, and every form of government that ever existed set in place in various new nations lining the riverbank on both sides.

“We’ve passed a hundred new Prussias in the last ten thousand miles,” Clemens said. “All so small you couldn’t stand in the middle of one and heave a brick without it landing in the middle of the next.”

Most people are content to spend their unexpected afterlife indulging in all of the race’s old vices of drugs, sex and violence. Very few seek answers to the mysteries behind Riverworld – who created it? For what purpose? Where are they? How long has it been since 2008? One of these curious few is Richard Francis Burton, who travels up the river as far as he can with a motley crew of other resurrectees. When they are killed passing through territory controlled by Hermann Goring, he utilises the “Suicide Express” to travel randomly across the planet, hoping to eventually arrive at the source or mouth of the river, uncertain whether it has either. He is eventually commended by a mysterious stranger, who identifies himself as one of the “Ethicals” – the presumably alien faction responsible for the creation of Riverworld and the resurrection of humanity. He is attempting to subvert its purpose, and urges Burton to continue trying to reach his goal.

Rather than continuing Burton’s story, The Fabulous Riverboat follows Samuel Clemens, who shares the same goal of finding the crafters of Riverworld and forcing them to explain their purpose. Like Burton, he also plans to reach the river’s headwaters, though he intends to do so by building a great steam-powered riverboat, well-armed and invulnerable, to prevent the inevitable problem of being killed by somebody upriver and finding himself thousands of miles downstream again. Unfortunately, Riverworld was deliberately constructed bare of mineral resources – until a meteorite lands just upriver of Clemens and his band of Vikings, wiping out life in that area and allowing him to quickly set up a nation-state and mine the meteorite for iron. But others soon arrive, lured by the same lust for metal that Clemens’ followers have, and he faces a long struggle before he can ever build his riverboat and set off on the greatest voyage of all time.

These books are certainly imaginative. The concept is grandiose and Farmer deserves praise for coming up with it in the first place. Unfortunately, he’s not quite the greatest writer of either his generation or even his genre, lacking any particular flair or style (especially after just reading Michael Chabon). While the Riverworld series gets five stars for concept, it can only manage two or three for execution. But it’s still worth reading, and I’ll certainly be buying the next few books.

As an aside, I found it a little unbelievable that so many recognisable historical figures would be rubbing shoulders. The Fabulous Riverboat alone features Mark Twain, John Lackland, Eric Bloodaxe, Lothar von Richtofen, Hermann Goring, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mozart, Odysseus, Frederick Rolfe, Pedro Ansurez, Liver-Eating Johnson, Tokugawa Iyeyasu, Joseph von Radowitz, and Cleomenes. And I don’t think that’s all of them. Obviously that’s part of the appeal of a series like this, especially for someone with any basic knowledge of history, but c’mon. Seriously.

Books: 9/50
Pages: 2974