Monday, 9 April 2012

Getting acquainted with Philip José Farmer

During March, I read the first two novels of Farmer’s Riverworld series.  The basic premise is wonderful:  all of humanity (and non-human hominids), everyone who ever existed, is resurrected on a special world created specifically for them.  This world consists of one long river valley, millions of miles long, along which are groups of people from various eras of history—with some mixing.  Each area has a dominant group, a smaller infusion of another culture and a few wild cards scattered throughout.  If someone dies (accidentally or on purpose), they are resurrected the next day in some other region along the River.  The first novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, introduces us to these basic facts of Riverworld, how it works and what to expect.  We also learn a little about the extra-terrestrials [perhaps inaccurately known as “Ethicals”] who created Riverworld and their suspect motivations. 
            This plot is potentially brilliant—there are so many possibilities and so many directions that an author could take.  I enjoyed the first novel and could hardly wait to get my hands on the second one, The Fabulous Riverboat, which was to feature Mark Twain.  An engaging story and a great historical figure?  What could go wrong?
            Well, for me virtually everything went wrong.  From the beginning of TYSBG to the end of TFR, the plot just gets progressively more violent.  All the bad guys of history seem to be running everything (with an exception that I will get to in a minute).  Slavery and racial tensions run riot.  Call me a wide-eyed optimist, but I’d like to think that being resurrected might shake people out of their previous ways of thinking and get them looking for new ways to conduct themselves in a new world.  After all, this whole situation invalidates the old religious ways of viewing life.  Shouldn’t that shake people out of their complacency?  After all, they seem to shed their old moral codes quite easily—I would expect other world views to be at least as plastic as previously held sexual values, for example. 
            In the initial novel, we are introduced to the Nazi, Hermann Göring, who starts out as a bad guy (as you would expect), but eventually becomes a really annoying religious fanatic [from the Church of the Second Chance—once again, a wonderful name which really doesn’t live up to its potential].  As appalling as all the violence is, I found myself hoping that Göring would get popped off again, just to move him along.  As noted before, if one bad guy can make such a complete reversal, why haven’t more people changed and settled peacefully in Riverworld?
            To be fair, Farmer gave himself a big assignment.  The morality of the whole situation comes into question as the main characters in each book each have encounters with one of the “Ethicals,” who are assumed to be running the show.  Their motives for the experiment are murky [who doesn’t love a good conspiracy?] and one of them has apparently gone rogue to help the humans figure out exactly what’s going on.  But is he really helping the humans or is he manipulating them for his own purposes?  This isn’t clear by the end of the second novel.  Plus, it is difficult to write about well known historical people—perhaps I enjoyed the first book so much because I knew next to nothing about its main character, Sir Richard Francis Burton [I had to Google him to know the first thing about him].  Having no basis to judge Farmer’s treatment of Burton, I really couldn’t know how accurate or awful it was.
            An aspect I did enjoy was having a Neanderthal character feature in the first novel.  I thought the addition of non-human characters was brilliant and I would have liked to have seen large groups of Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo habilus, etc., also scattered along the River.   [I must confess that I have a soft spot for fiction with other human species in it].  However, it was yet another feature that could have been extraordinary and which turns out to be merely a passing novelty.  I was downright disappointed in the second novel when Farmer introduced another para-human species of a completely fictional type, the Titanothrope, a species of gigantic proportions and strength, but very little brain.  Joe Miller, as he is named, ends up being a foil for Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens.  If you are going to use well-known historical figures in your fiction, stick to historically known fossil hominids too.  I like consistency of assumptions.
            The depiction of Samuel Clemens is my main beef with the author.  I readily admit that I know very little about Sam Clemens as a real person—was he a jovial sort or was he a piece of misery?  I really don’t know, but I lean towards the former [with a good dose of acidity], but in this book, he is definitely the latter.  What I’m starting to believe was that Philip José Farmer was a piece of misery and turned all his characters into mini versions of himself—cranky!  The only truly nice guy in the whole cast of characters is Joe Millar.  It is truly ironic that he is the repository for caring, compassion, reason and common sense, since he is a mythical non-human.  Apparently Farmer didn’t believe that people could play nice.  I can’t say I blame him for his lack of faith in humanity—we are awfully good at proving that we are a violent and xenophobic species.  But, by and large, I think we can be reasonable and can co-operate when it’s needed and especially when it is in our own interests.
            Having said all of this, I will definitely read the next book in the series when I arrive at it on my reading list.  I’m still hoping to learn more about the so-called Ethicals and their motivation for creating Riverworld.  And I’m hoping that the third book will abandon the racial conflict fixation and move on to some more interesting issues [or at least issues which interest me more].  There is so much potential in this fictional situation, I have to hope that Farmer did something interesting with it before he was done.       


  1. Hi Wanda

    I did read most of them but I must admit I remember little of the later books. I agree that the premise was great but I felt ( and this applies to lots of series not just Farmer's ) that authors start writting by rote and the same old tired tropes come out this is even more evident in TV which is why I do not watch a lot of dramas. But I did think the concept was facinating I had the same problem with Chalker's Well World it also got a bit racey for me and the more of his books I read the more I found he imitated himself. Farmer is a good writer but I find I often enjoy most people's earlier shorter stand alone books. Maybe it is my aging attention span.


    1. I'd love to see what a modern author might do with them same premise--heck, maybe I'll try my hand at a bit of fan fiction!

      Thanks for stopping by,