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'The Dark Design' first published in 1977 is the third instalment of the Riverworld series, the first two books being 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' (1971), 'The Fabulous Riverboat' (1971). The idea of the 'Riverworld' stories is a rather unusual and imaginative one and worthy of winning the prestigious Science fiction Hugo Award for the author Philip Jose Farmer in 1971.
The story is set on a strange alien world which consists of a huge river valley snaking its way north to south across the circumference of the globe bordered on either side by impassable mountain ranges. The planet is populated by the whole deceased human and pre-human population of the earth all of them 'reborn' in the river valley at the physical age of 25, with all the memories of their previous lives intact.
This book takes up the story where the second left off but separates the narrative into three strands. One strand features new characters, author Jack London and the early western movie star Tom Mix as well as Science fiction author Peter Frigate who set out in a boat to follow the steps of a group of ancient Egyptians led by the Pharaoh Imhotep to the fabled source of the great river. A second strand features old favourites like the great explorer and adventurer Sir Richard Burton, the Neanderthal Kaz and Alice Liddell (of Alice in wonderland) all reunited and once again travelling by boat up river trying to evade the clutches of the mysterious 'Ethicals' and their human agents. The third and most elaborate strand concentrates on the attempts by the humorist and writer turned riverboat captain Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain, swordsman and poet Cyrano de Bergerac and engineer Milton Firebrass who we previously met in 'The Fabulous Riverboat' and some interesting newcomers including Jill Gulbirra, an Australian dirigible pilot and strident feminist and Piscador an enigmatic Japanese fisherman as they attempt travelling by airship to discover the secrets that lie behind the impenetrable mountain ranges.
The first two books in the series were enjoyable at different levels, on the one hand the idea of having great characters from history mixing and competing for dominance on the alien Riverworld made for a great science fiction adventure. Secondly the central premise of eternal youth and reincarnation coupled with the culture clashes and moral paradoxes that this new world inevitably throws up allowed for some serious debate about the nature of life and death, the role of religion and an examination of the role of society in shaping our moral values. The story was told at a fast pace and the philosophical themes were never elaborated on to the detriment of the narrative. Unfortunately in this third novel the balance between storyline and philosophising doesn't work so well.
The central mystery to the story; who or what is controlling the fate of the billions of re-born humans on the planet and what is their purpose? is yet to be solved although more and more clues as to the nature of the mysterious beings known as the Ethicals are uncovered. The technological advances made by the people of Riverworld are now such that they can hope to reach the North Pole or the planet an area, which it is rumoured, holds the key to uncovering the secrets of the strange world. By building electric paddle boats and even hydrogen filled air ships many intrepid adventurer seek to travel to the source of the river and clear the mountain to discover what lies beyond. The problem is that they take such a long time doing so and nothing much happens in the mean time. Increasingly the main characters get bogged down in tedious debates about religion and the nature of this new afterlife they have been gifted by the unknown beings the breakneck pace of the first two books drops to a slow crawl and I must admit that at times I was struggling to finish this. Admittedly things do pick up towards the end but it certainly wasn't as satisfying or intriguing a read as the other instalments.
Once again the author seems preoccupied with bringing themes in the book that were important and current at the time when the books were written but which seem rather dated to a modern reader. The introduction of the feminist character Jill Gulbirra allows the story to explore the attitudes of the Riverworld societies towards the role of women. This is an interesting idea since on this world the traditional role of childbearing is not present since all inhabitants of the Riverworld are sterile. You would think that this would mean greater equality in the roles of men and women especially in the relatively primitive society that people find themselves in, women being ever freer to take on equal roles with men. However Farmer seems to conclude that this would not happen and that women on Riverworld would still be seen and tend to be subservient to the men. This might be explained by the ingrained prejudice of the inhabitants of Riverworld who in their previous lives would have held very traditional views on women roles in society. The character of Gulbirra is different she does not accept the subservient role and strives to be the equal or better than any man she meets. During the course of the book she enters into many argument and debates with some of the less enlightened males she meets expounding a familiar feminist manifesto of the late 70's but these to our modern sensibilities these arguments have to a large extent been fought and won in the years since the books were written and so this part of the story lacks the relevance and insight that they might once have had.
'The Dark Design' is still an intelligent mixture of fantasy adventure tinged with philosophical, moral and ethical debate but the debate in this instance has hampered the progress of the story. Farmer spends too much time in examining the perennial problem of the human condition as emphasised by the strange and brutal environment that the 'resurrectionists' find themselves in. Many of the ideas that he plays with have already been covered in the earlier books and what was needed in this instalment was to push the story forwards and start giving people some answers to the mysteries of Riverworld.
Once again a word of warning, although the Riverworld saga has been filmed twice in 2003 as a TV pilot for a unrealised series and later 2010 as TV movie these bear little or no resemblance to the books and they should be avoided since they are terrible! Even with this third less satisfying book the Riverworld saga is worth reading over watching these films.
'The Dark Design (Riverworld Saga)' in Paperback (461 pages) is available from Amazon UK for £16.19 with free delivery at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2012