And Then I Read: THE FABULOUS RIVERBOAT by Philip Jose Farmer

RiverboatOne type of meta-fiction that is considered a relatively new development by many readers puts a group of characters from many authors and stories together in a new book. In comics, this is epitomized by THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN by writer Alan Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill. The first example I can think of in science fiction or fantasy is the novel “Silverlock” by John Myers Myers, published in 1949. In it, the title character finds himself in a fantasy world inhabited by dozens, perhaps hundreds of characters from other literery and mythical works. That book may have inspired writer Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” novels, of which this is the second. I read the first, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” not long after it came out in 1971, but I only remembered the broad concepts, not much of the plot.

Riverworld is a mysterious future world that has been terraformed to create one very long river valley that winds in spiral fashion from one pole to the next, or so I imagine from the descriptions. On it are reborn men and women from Earth, real people from all times and places, but also literary characters from myths, legends, and stories, as in the Myers book. The protagonist is Samuel Clemens, writer Mark Twain, and his dream is to reach the North Pole of Riverworld where the truth about its creation may lie. To do that, he is determined to build a huge riverboat that he can pilot through the thousands of miles of river to its source.

As one learns in this second book of the series, his problems are immense. For one, there is no technology, no metal, and no industry on Riverworld. Basic needs such as food, clothing and “recreational” supplements like alcohol and drugs are supplied by the unknown creators of the place through devices called “grails,” set at regular intervals along both river banks. War, fighting and death are common among the many people and cultures on Riverworld, but if one dies, one is simply resurrected again, though usually thousands of miles away from where one was, interrupting any ongoing schemes or plans.

Sam has some powerful allies in his quest to build a riverboat, and soon makes dire enemies as well, who want the resources he goes about gathering and uncovering. It’s a fascinating story with many ups and downs, and a cast of characters that are quite entertaining, even though the book does not delve deeply into any of them other than Sam. It’s more of a plot-driven adventure story, but one that’s hard to put down. I enjoyed it, and I think I will eventually locate and read the rest of the series.

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