Friday, 4 October 2013

Philip Jose Farmer's The Dark Design

3 of 5 stars
I love the big idea behind the Riverworld series—Farmer came up with a great premise, to have all of the people of Earth, born before 1983, resurrected in an artificial world to see if they can “redeem” themselves. Book three, The Dark Design, is the first to really emphasize the 1983 cut-off date and it works to provide the characters in the book with a major clue: everyone who claims to be from that late time period is apparently a member of the “Ethicals” who are running this gin-joint.

With so many people to choose from, I would be interested why Farmer chose the ones he did—were they people he had always been interested in or did he research people specifically to include in the books? I must say that I find his portrayal of Samuel Clemens disappointing—I don’t think Mark Twain would have been as grumpy and humourless as the guy in this book. And with all the wonderfully interesting people to write about, books two and three are really more about the technology than about the people, which is a darn shame.

Finally, in book three, a real female character has shown up (Jill Gulbirra) and she is more than a famous sex-partner for some man in the plot, but only just. And Sam’s female partner, Alice, finally gets included in a strategy session at the end of the book, although under protest. The book certainly fails the Bechdel Test (1. There are at least two women in it, 2. They talk to each other, 3. About something besides a man). There are several women in it, but they never talk to one another, about men or anything else. Hell, they rarely talk to the men. And I don’t care what world you’re living in, that’s just not happening. We’re women and we talk.

I understand that Farmer was ground-breaking for his time. He was one the first to seriously deal with issues of sexuality and religion in science fiction. I appreciate that he was a product of his time and the books are a product of him as he was at that time. But I do find the lack of interesting women characters and the over-emphasis on technology a bit off-putting. At least this book moves along on the story line that IS of interest to me, namely the question of why? Why was this world created? What is expected of the resurrectees? Are the “Ethicals” human or another species? And what’s the deal with the mysterious stranger, X? What’s his motivation in all of this and is he a renegade or is this all part of the game? Just as we get a glimpse of this guy, the book ends, meaning that I’ll be reading The Magic Labyrinth eventually, hoping for some clarity.

(Read from May 5 to 7, 2013)


  1. Hi Wanda

    I have to say I enjoyed the first book but thought that it devolved into a list of
    famous people and predictable situations. It has been a while since I read it but if I remember here was some early hominids and at least one alien and I would have preferred
    more on those characters. But like I say I am pretty foggy on the plot by now.
    Like everyone I loved the mystery of the premise of the first book.


    1. You are absolutely right, Guy, there are Neanderthals and at least one alien involved. Also a mythical pre-human, who I'm not nearly so fond of. Farmer's tendency to discuss heights, volumes, speeds, etc. all in both metric & imperial systems also drives me a bit batty. But its his over-interest (from my POV) in technology instead of relationships that really disappoints me.

      Thanks for commenting.