12. The Dark Design by Philip Jose Farmer (1977) 403 p.


Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series grows tedious.

The Dark Design is book three out of five – and I’ll just have to grit my teeth and read the rest anyway, because I don’t leave series unfinished. It is a long and tiring novel that is entirely buildup with no climax, nor any promise of a forthcoming climax. It picks up several years after The Fabulous Riverboat left off, with Sam Clemens’ nation of Parolando building an enormous airship, in order to mount an expedition towards the mysterious tower at the headwaters of the River. Clemens himself is largely absent from the book, making only a very brief appearance. Richard Francis Burton, the first book’s protagonist, is also barely visited.

Instead, Farmer for the first time relies upon fictional characters rather than historical figures to tell this story. The first is Jill Gulbirra, a crabby, intolerable feminist. The second is Peter Jairus Frigate, a barely disguised author surrogate whom Farmer uses to spend chapters upon chapters writing self-indulgent monologues and dream sequences which add nothing to the story. Frigate also spends his time building an airship, a part of the story which is quickly glossed over in comparison with the Parolando vessel, as though it was added in as an afterthought. Farmer spends a remarkable amount of time on a character who is not associated with the main storyline, and who accomplishes very little in his own. Christ, if you’re going to plant yourself in a narrative, at least make yourself important.

Farmer also introduces a plot twist which had clearly not been thought of in the first and second books, and was shoved in retrospectively. Granted, I’ve done this myself, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it (especially when it removes the most interesting character, Monat, for the rest of the book). Another irritating problem was his constant use of both the metric and imperial system, with nonsensical phrases like this:

The first mate Tom Rider, also known as Tex, stood about 5.08 centimeters or 2 inches shorter than Frigate’s 1.8 meter or 6 feet.

Guess which measurement system the writer prefers, and guess which he is simply converting to with a calculator. Also, WHO THE FUCK CARES HOW TALL PEOPLE ARE

The book clocks in at just over four hundred pages, swollen as it is with meandering philosophical storylines and extensive biographies for nearly every character, now matter how insignificant. I cannot imagine how many pages this was before it was edited. Farmer himself seems to think this is no problem at all, with Frigate at one point reflecting:

Too bad I hadn’t thought of something like this when I was writing science fiction. But the concept of a planet consisting of a many-millions-kilometer-long river along which all of humanity that ever lived had been ressurected (a good part of it, anyway) would have been too big to put in one book. It would have taken at least twelve books to do it anywhere near justice.

Actually, Phil, it’s wearing thin after a mere three books, mostly because of your dull writing style and sheer refusal to drag the plot along faster than a sloth carrying a mailbox filled with other sloths, to use an odd and clunky metaphor as you yourself enjoy doing. It’s a wonderful concept, and I tip my hat to your imagination, but the execution is one of the biggest fuckups in the history of science fiction.

Books: 12/50
Pages: 3980