Philip Jose Farmer’s Magnificent Experiment: Riverworld

Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong sit down for tea. It’s not the opening of a poor joke, but rather a potential scene from Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld. In Riverworld, the entirety of humanity is resurrected naked and youthful along the banks of a single immense river that winds through an intricate valley on a vast and temperate planet. Peoples ancient and modern mingle in what can only be described as a cosmic social experiment.

Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong sit down for tea. It’s not the opening of a poor joke, but rather a potential scene from Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld. In Riverworld, the entirety of humanity is resurrected naked and youthful along the banks of a single immense river that winds through an intricate valley on a vast and temperate planet. Peoples ancient and modern mingle in what can only be described as a cosmic social experiment.

Their every need provided by “grailstones” that deliver food, clothing, liquor, tobacco, and even marijuana thrice daily, the people of Earth find themselves in paradise. For about five minutes, that is. Because, predictably, mankind almost immediately begins working to recreate Hell in Heaven.

Published in 1971, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first instalment in the Riverworld canon, was an immediate hit and unsurprisingly took home a Hugo for best novel. I can remember clearly first picking the book up in the early nineties and being so taken with the central conceit that I could hardly concentrate on the story for the rush of imagination the setting stirred in me. I can’t think of another book that so filled me with an urge to write fan fiction before I even finished reading it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did just that, though thankfully any such efforts are lost to history.

Coming back to the series more than twenty years later, I had an almost identical reaction. The world is brilliantly conceived and when Farmer is exploring the natural results of throwing all people from all places and all times together in a jumble, it is fascinating. The grailstones, for example, deliver the same luxury items to everyone and so, quickly, the practise of “grail slavery” arises the world over where the powerful keep the weak prisoner and confiscate their portions. With no technology and minimal ore deposits, the skills and mindsets of people from ancient history are advantaged over those of modern people. Nations states rise, wars break out, and many historical figures make an appearance. It’s marvellous.

On the other hand, the main plotline is almost tedious. The three central characters — Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), Richard Francis Burton, and Hermann Göring — are all, as portrayed, quite unlikable, though all for different reasons. It’s disappointing, though unsurprising, that despite having the entirety of human history to draw from all three are white males. More on that in a minute.

As the characters pursue their quest to determine just who created the Riverworld and for what purpose, it’s impossible not to wish that they would just slow down and explore the magnificent world they inhabit. Much time is spent slowly climbing back up the ladder of technology, aided by the discovery of an iron-rich meteorite, until steam engines, firearms, and eventually aircraft are introduced to the Riverworld. By the fifth book, The Gods of Riverworld, the story has become almost entirely detached from the fascinating initial premise and become instead a more traditional science fiction tale covering the familiar ground of how humanity might interact with a vastly technologically superior alien race.

And while the plot fails to live up to the promise of such a great idea, the social mores the books reinforce is perhaps an even larger hurdle. The female characters in the Riverworld are, almost without exception, present only as window dressing. Given that the characters come from throughout history and that history has, by and large, been unfriendly to women, it is entirely understandable that the main characters would be less than enlightened feminists. What is less understandable is the way the text implicitly validates their sexism. It’s a common complaint about stories from this era. They are old enough that the social differences are readily apparent, but recent enough that you can’t help but feel the author should have known better.

In fact, I’ve also recently been rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and, honestly, I find its misogynist dystopia less distressing than the off-hand antifeminism of Riverworld. Perhaps it’s that, while Atwood presents a cautionary tale of where we could end up, Farmer unwittingly highlights where we have so recently been. It is that much scarier for being that much closer.

These complaints aside, the Riverworld books have lost none of their power to transport the reader to a world that makes the imagination run wild. If you have never read them, and are capable of holding your nose at seventies-era sexism, I recommend them entirely. And if some of you are driven, as I once was, to make the world your own through fan fiction, embrace it. One of my fondest hopes as a science fiction fan is that someone will someday find a way to adapt the Riverworld to a movie or TV series that can truly capture the magic of the premise and leave behind the chaff. When that day comes, I don’t imagine the final product will hew too closely to Farmer’s books.

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