29. The Magic Labyrinth by Philip Jose Farmer (1980) 400 p.


I am one of those sad, sorry souls who simply has to finish what he starts. Regardless of how hard a series sucks, I must see it all the way through. If the remainder of the series is large enough to choke a hippo, I make an exception; Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Tedium series, for example, will remain half-read on my bookshelf while my corpse rots away in its cold, cold grave. But I had only one book left of Philip Jose Farmer’s staggeringly awful Riverworld series left to complete, and so I had no other option but to engage. Onward, Christian soldier.

I knew this was going to be bad. I gritted my teeth and power-read my way through it anyway. If you haven’t read my previous reviews on the series, let me summarise it for you: all of humanity is resurrected on a planet which has been terraformed to comprise of one very long river-valley, with all their needs taken care of, in ageless 25-year old bodies, with no hunger or illness or woes. The purpose of the resurrection and the identity of their benefactor/s is shrouded in mystery. While most people are content to live their lives as usual, fighting and fucking, several more curious riverdwellers take it upon themselves to find out why they have been resurrected and set off towards the head of the river, where it is rumoured the mysterious creators of the Riverworld have their base.

This is one of the most original and intriguing ideas I have read in science fiction, but Farmer takes a perverse glee in systematically destroying it. Dry characterisation, horrific pacing, over-simplification of the world itself (of course everyone would speak Esperanto!), and just plain bad writing all unite to create a four-book epic of unrelenting shit. Minor irritant: every time a character is introduced (and 95% of the time, they’re a historical figure) Farmer dumps their full biography on you whether you want to read it or not.

I will begrudgingly grant The Magic Labyrinth the concession of being slightly better than its predecessor, The Dark Design, because it at least dishes out some answers. Naturally this is done with a 50-page plot dump at the end of 350 pages of utterly useless “adventure,” with expository finesse that would make even George Lucas cringe, but it’s better than the screaming sense of frustration I felt at the end of The Dark Design.

Nonetheless, the majority of the book follows a petty, useless plot thread left over from previous novels: Mark Twain’s quest for revenge against John Lackland, attempting to chase down and kill him after John stole his fabulous riverboat. The final confrontation between the two men and their vessels is agonisingly drawn out over more than 100 pages, with pointless shock-value deaths and abysmal “action” scenes. Here is Farmer’s opinion on the best way of writing a tense, exhilarating sword fight:

They saluted and then assumed the classic epee on-guard positions, the left foot at right angles to the right foot and behind it, knees bent, the body turned sidewise to present as small a target as possible, the left arm raise with the upper arm parallel to the ground, the elbow bent so the lower arm was vertical and the hand wrist limp, the right arm lowered and the blade it held forming a straight extension of the arm. The round coquille, or bellguard, in this position, protected the forearm.

Reading that sentence was like watching somebody snap a kitten’s neck. Shit like that would have earned me a severe beating from some of my creative writing teachers.

After this EPIC BATTLE TO END ALL BATTLES, OH WHAT A MASTER OF PROSE YOU ARE MR. FARMER, things hardly improve. Farmer gets down to the business of solving the mystery of the Riverworld – y’know, the whole point of this stupid series in the first place – and applies to it his typical lack of any writing ability whatsoever, stylistic or structural. Several characters have already been killed off for no reason, and several more are killed on the journey upriver. Some simply disappear around the battle scene, their fates never resolved. The intrepid group of voyagers half-consists of entirely new characters the reader couldn’t care less about, and the remainder are so poorly defined that I often found myself with no idea who was present, and who had vanished into the ether. Farmer’s insufferable author surrogate, Peter Frigate, piped up about five chapters into the voyage and I was so surprised to see him that I flicked back to check if he had been mentioned during the exposition dump following the river battle. He hadn’t.

After all this, the voyagers reach the headwaters of the river and are treated to an excessively long-winded explanation from one of the “gods” of the Riverworld, presented with a problem I couldn’t have cared less about at this point, neatly solve it, and conclude the series with a lacklustre whimper.


As much as I already knew how swollen Farmer’s ego was, what with his insertion of himself into the story and bluntly obvious meta-references to how GREAT AN IDEA FOR A SCIENCE FICTION STORY THIS WOULD BE IF IT WAS REAL, EH, the opening preface to The Magic Labyrinth was something else:

The long-awaited publication of THE MAGIC LABYRINTH solves the greatest mystery in science fiction, completes a twenty-year project, and marks the triumphant conclusion to an epic quest unparalleled in literature.

Even if this is just the publisher’s marketing angle, the sheer amount of hyperbole in that sentence is enough to melt your face. That’s right, folks. The Odyssey was nothing. Shakespeare’s canon was nothing. The works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway and all the rest were nothing. We can now confirm, with straight faces, that the entire colossal library of human literature is swept away by the OVERPOWERING BRILLIANCE THAT IS PHILIP JOSE FARMER’S RIVERWORLD SERIES, GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD

There’s actually another book after this, Gods of Riverworld, which is apparently a companion volume that is unnecessary to read. That’s as much of an excuse as I need. I’m fucking done. I’m done. I’m finished with you, Farmer. You didn’t beat me. I beat you. I finished your wretched series.



Books: 29/50
Pages: 8699