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'Riverworld' is the collective name for a series of science fiction novels written by award winning author Philip José Farmer between 1971 and 1983. There are five books in the series 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' (1971), 'The Fabulous Riverboat' (1971), 'The Dark Design' (1977), 'The Magic Labyrinth' (1980) and 'Gods of Riverworld' (1983). Although the novels are stand-alone characters recur throughout the series and there is an overriding story arc that binds all of them together. This is a combined volume of book one and two.
The premise of the 'Riverworld' stories is a rather unusual one, on a strange alien world which consists of a huge river valley bordered on either side by impassable mountain ranges the whole deceased human and pre-human population of the earth past and present is 'reborn' in the river valley, naked and hairless with all their memories intact and all at the physical age of 25.
The main character in the first book is the famous English explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton, we first meet him an elderly man on his death bed on Earth but moments after death he 'wakes' up floating in a vast chamber filled with other countless human bodies. Before Burton has time to react a hooded figure appears and zaps him with a weapon that renders once again him unconscious, the next moment he again awakes to find himself on the shores of a great river surrounded by hundreds of other people in the same situation. After teaming up with a group of other resurrectees including Kaz a Neolithic man, Alice Liddell the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and science fiction author Peter Jairus Frigate Burton begins to wonder what the nature of Riverworld is and who the mysterious hooded stranger was that he saw while in 'limbo'. This strange world has all that is needed to survive although no land animals or invertebrates exist. Food is provided within metal canisters that each person finds with them when they awake and that have to be refilled once day by connecting them to special mushroom like structures distributed a regular distances through the landscape.
Is this the afterlife? If not what is the purpose of this world? Who or what is controlling the fate of the billions of re-born humans on the planet? Intriguing questions are posed such has how would different cultures from different times of earth history react to one another. Would great men and women from history outside of their natural environment once again rise to positions of leadership on this new world? Would moral and ethical rules become redundant in a world without death; resurrectees can't die permanently on Riverwolrd, if killed they are simply reborn somewhere at random along the shores of the massive river. Would religion still be of any relevance in a world where the tenets and belief of the old religions have been shattered?
These fascinating questions are examined and played with by Farmer in this entertaining and thought-provoking first instalment of the series. Of course having the whole population of the world past and present at your disposal to populate the story Farmer has fun pitting against each other. The repressed Victorian sensibilities of Alice Liddell are mirrored by the bohemian arrogance and vivacity of Burton. Hermann Goring one of modern history's most evil men comes face to face with survivors of the holocaust and an equally evil ancient Roman king. With an almost limitless array of characters Farmer expands his Riverworld vision with ever greater complexity.
By the time of the second book set some two decades on from the first, humans on Riverworld have progressed and small empires and states some built on slavery, some feudal and others with primitive democracy have sprung up all over the shores of the river. The re-born humans cannot reproduce on Riverworld, women are re-born virgins but they aren't able to get pregnant, no one ages past 25 years of age. So the dynamics of relationships and family units are totally different from Earth. Complex societies are beginning to form and when iron deposits are found metal working starts becomes possible leading to improving weapons and technology. Now man's concerns are not simply with survival but start to look towards more detailed explanation of why they have been re-born on Riverworld and who is behind this 'miracle'.
In this second book the intriguing clash of cultures and personalities continues with Sam Clemens better known as Mark Twain teaming up with a sub-human giant cavemen he has named Joe Miller, are accompanied by the 10th century Norse king Erik Bloodaxe and his band of Viking warriors aboard their longboat. Clemens like Burton has come into contact with the one of the mysterious hooded strangers now known only as 'Ethicals' and is now determined to discover the upstream river source and possibly learn more about the being that control this world. Clemens once himself a Mississippi riverboat captain is determined to build an electric power paddle driven riverboat to complete his journey up stream. But in a world with scarce resources and competing powers progress towards his dream proves difficult.
As societies become more complex in this second book Farmer explores the means by which some human society can obtain and retain power and dominion over others. As Clemens comes to lead a fledging state which he tries to organise on strict democratic rules he soon realised that he has to compromise his precious principles in order to progress his goals even if that means going into an alliance with disreputable men and making deals with power hungry tyrants. Once again the cast of characters is a colourful one including King John of England, German aviator Lothar von Richthofen brother of the famous Red Baron, famous swordsman and poet Cyrano de Bergerac and mythical hero Odysseus.
'Riverworld' is an intelligent mixture of unabashed fantasy adventure tinged with philosophical, moral and ethical debate, as all good science fiction should be. Farmer examines some of the most basic questions about what it is to be human within the confines of a compelling and thrilling science fiction adventure. The characters can't fail to be enthralling being modelled on some of the most interesting people in history. Farmer does a good job in bringing these to life on the page and manages to realistically re-invent some to suit his story.
In terms of the central premise of the story I believe Riverworld is unique and it certainly warranted him winning the prestigious Science fiction Hugo Award in 1971.
A couple of negative points about the books can also be made. Often the philosophising in the form of prolonged debates between some of the characters can slow down the narrative. Also certain aspects of the story have dated; for one thing the most recent humans resurrected on Riverworld are from 2008 the year when the Earth is destroyed in a global catastrophe. In addition some of the themes about civil rights and the introduction of black nationalist groups as well as some decidedly hippy ideology feel a little outmoded and firmly grounds the stories in the 1970's.
One word of warning, if any of you have come across the terrible 2003 TV pilot for this story and the later 2010 even worse TV adaptation please try and put these out of you mind and approach the books anew. The TV adaptation not only were made badly they were also completely different in storyline, not even using the same characters or evens in the book.
'Riverworld: Including to Your Scattered Bodies Go & the Fabulous Riverboat' in paperback (443) is available from Amazon uk for £10.21 with free delivery at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2012