Visions of Paradise

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Fabulous Riverboat

After rereading and enjoying Philip José Farmer’s first Riverworld novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I was anxious to reread the second novel in the series The Fabulous Riverboat. This was a totally different type of novel than its predecessor. Bodies was primarily concerned with examining the sociological and theological implications of all of humanity being resurrected on a huge world in which everybody lives on the banks of a near-endless river. The protagonist Richard Francis Burton spent the novel examining many of the societies which have arisen in the strange afterlife. What he learned was that humans brought most of the same ills and evils with them which tormented people on Earth, such as repressive dictatorships and slavery.

The Fabulous Riverboat is mostly set in one society where Samuel Clemens is striving to build a Mississippi-type riverboat to seek the headwaters of the river. Like Burton, Clemens has been contacted by a mysterious stranger who tells him that he is a renegade among the so-called Ethicals who created the riverworld and resurrected all of humanity. The stranger has some plan to overturn the other Ethicals, and it includes Clemens and his riverboat. During the novel Clemens encounters others of The Twelve, the minions of the renegade Ethical. They include Joe, a towering Neanderthal who has become Clemens’ best friend and protector.

The building of the riverboat is a massive undertaking, especially on a world where violence and greed are as prevalent as on Earth. The society where Clemens lives is surrounded by others who threaten their security, including one ruled by a Japanese warlord and another by a black racist striving to build a totally-black society. To complicated matters, Clemens is not sole ruler of the society he has named Parolando, but shares power with King John Lackland, the Norman ruler of 12th century England who is every bit as evil as his legend.

The Fabulous Riverboat is a well-plotted adventure about Clemens’ struggle to build the riverboat. His allies include Joe, legendary swordsman Cyrano de Bergerac, and World War I flying Ace Lothar Van Richthoven (brother of the famous Red Baron). One of the strengths of the Riverworld series is that it enables Farmer to use many historical characters in roles different than their true lives, and he makes those characters very interesting. He is also a strong plotter who manages to make the novel an absorbing page-turner while not ignoring the philosophical questions raised in To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

I recommend The Fabulous Riverboat as strongly as I did its predecessor, even though it is a completely different type of novel. For some reason I never read the two concluding novels in the series, The Dark Design and The Magic Labyrinth, so they have now moved to the top of my list of novels to be bought and read as soon as possible.


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