Fantasy & Beyond

A Book Forum for Speculative Fiction

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I'm not sure how I encountered the first book of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. Back when I originally read it, I used to haunt second hand book stores, and I think I found it in one of them.

It's mostly science fiction, although there are parts of the series and the concepts behind it that could be called fantastical.

It was successful at the time, winning the 1972 Hugo award for best novel, there was a television series loosely based on it in 2003 and a TV movie in 2010. I haven't seen either, and hearing about some of the choices made, I'm kind of glad that's the case.

The premise is that everyone who ever lived on Earth dies and is resurrected on the banks of a giant river. They are resurrected naked and hairless, although their hair does grow back. Everyone has a 'grail' bound to them, and the find that if they place these in the depressions of large mushroom like stones on the sides of the river there will be an electrical charge and the grails will contain food and other supplies. Everyone in Riverworld is twenty five years of age, anyone who dies before that age is also resurrected, but stop ageing when they reach twenty five. Scars and tattoos or other forms of modification disappear, amputated limbs are restored, they can regenerate non fatal injuries and are free of infection. Due to the diverse amount of languages spoken, Esperanto (which seemed to be an interest of Farmer's) is adopted as a universal language.

There were five books in the series, although they changed a bit from the second to the third. I think the first book and the second (The Fabulous Riverboat) may have been intended to come out as one book. They were both published in 1971 and from memory their timelines run concurrently. They also have different casts, who interact more following the second book.

It was the cast of the books that made the series for me. Farmer chose to populate the books with footnote characters from history. His two primary heroes were Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as Mark Twain). There were quite a mix of individuals from history, among them: Alice Hargreaves (made famous by Lewis Carroll as Alice in Alice in Wonderland), King John of England, Cyrano de Bergerac, Tom Mix, Mozart and Hermann Goring. They all interact with fictional characters, one of whom Peter Jarius Frigate, was a case of the author inserting a version of themselves into the work. They represented a variety of times on Earth, and included a gigantic prehistoric hominid who Sam christened Joe Miller and an alien who had arrived on Earth sometime in the 21st century.

In the first book Burton discovers that it isn't possible to die on Riverworld, at least not permanently. He finds by dying himself that the person is resurrected further down the river. Determined to locate the source of the river (possibly drawing a parallel between the actual historical Burton, who was famous for discovering the source of the Nile, and his fictional counterpart), Burton keeps riding what he refers to as the 'suicide express', although he is warned that last point the amount of times someone can die and be resurrected has a finite number. A group of the characters later find out that different people have a different amount of resurrections allowed them.

The books did get really weird at times (in my experience Farmer's work could be like that), but overall they were a wild ride with plenty of food for thought about human behaviour, societal breakdown and life after death. There were wonderful historical tidbits connected to the characters, and I love reading about those sorts of things. That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Flashman books so much.

I haven't read any of the books for a long time, so I'm not really sure how well they hold up now. They were certainly an interesting journey, though, when I did read them, and a lot of it stayed with me.
lejays17, DragonFlame liked this
Haven’t ever read them, but the concept sounds very interesting.

I do enjoy fictionalised versions of historical characters - as long as they don’t depart too far from the actual history (which is why I can’t read that “historical” book that Matthew Reilly wrote - my suspension of disbelief only goes so far :beaming: :beaming: )

Maybe if I ever get to the bottom of my planned reads, I’ll pick it up.
I can't remember if I read this for my Hugo winners readthrough, or if I'd already read it by then, but I read two or three from the series sometime this century, and very much enjoyed the concept. One of those big ideas that really fires the imagination.

I've been enjoying your picks so far. I've read all of them except Master and Margarita, which I've owned for many years but never quite got to.