240 pages, Del Rey
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Philip José Farmer's second book in the “Riverworld” series is no less inventive than the first. As I mentioned in a previous review, the wonderful “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” served as an introduction to Farmer's fantastic vision of an afterlife where all 37 billion members of the human race are simultaneously reincarnated on the banks of a giant river. Dazzlingly inventive and quite unlike anything I've ever read, no sooner had I finished the book was I keen to make a start on the second instalment in the series.
“The Fabulous Riverboat” is a great continuation of the outlandish concept introduced in the first novel. Whilst the previous book established the “rules” of Riverworld and covered the first twenty years or so of life on the strange planet, “The Fabulous Riverboat” details the magnificent technological advances made by the resurrectees. Those who haven't read the previous book will find themselves somewhat adrift in a sea of weirdness but, interestingly enough, “The Fabulous Riverboat” is not a direct sequel to “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”. Rather, it is a separate story with a shared setting.
Whilst the first novel followed Victorian adventurer Richard Francis Burton's journey to discover the source of the River (a goal he came nowhere close to reaching), the second book focuses on Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens and his obsession with building a riverboat with which he might explore the vast expanse of the River. Like Burton, Clemens has been contacted by the mysterious stranger who claims to be one of the shadowy “Ethicals” responsible for the creation of Riverworld. He too desires to find out the reason behind mankind's wholesale reincarnation on the River but seeks to undertake the long journey on a luxurious vessel of his own design. Building such a boat on the iron-poor world is no mean feat. Fortuitously, a meteorite rich in iron-ore has struck the planet and Clemens and his companions scramble to be the first to harvest its wealth. Such a vast undertaking is not to be embarked upon alone and Clemens is accompanied by an eclectic host of characters. His closest friend is the dependable, ten foot tall Titanthrope known as Joe Miller. A monstrously strong proto-human from Earth's pre-history, Joe is actually quite a sensitive, intelligent soul and has a fondness for philosophy and nob-gags. Joe's massive nose and pronounced lisp make him a comical figure but he is devoted to Clemens and the banter between the two friends helps to bring some levity to the often heavy-going proceedings. Clemens has spent twenty years on the River pining for his wife but when he finally stumbles across her, she is in a relationship with Cyrano de Bergerac. Heartbroken, Clemens tries to bury his jealousy and immerses himself in his plans for the Riverboat.
At the start of the novel Clemens is assisted in his quest for the iron ore by the bloodthirsty and dangerous Viking Eric Bloodaxe. However, Riverworld is not a peaceful place and Clemens finds himself forced to ally himself with the reincarnated (yet still tyrannical) King John in order to guarantee a stable enough city-state to see through the construction of the Riverboat. The tumultuous alliance between the two men is the main focus of the novel. The two men both seek the boat to be built but have very different views of how it should be used when completed. King John is not interested in exploring the River using the boat. Rather, he seeks to use the boat as a means to conquer other city-states on the River and increase his own power. Both Clemens and the reader know that King John is not to be trusted and the question is not so much if John will betray him but rather how he will do it and when the double-crossing will occur.
“The Fabulous Riverboat” is a more focused novel than its predecessor. As already mentioned, the rules of Riverworld have been established and this enables Farmer to devote more time on the plot and characterisation. Indeed, the narrower scope enables the reader to get a firmer grip on the day-to-day realities of living on Riverworld. The technological advances made on the River means that Farmer can play around with the dramatic possibilities provided by gliders, basic firearms and explosive rockets. Farmer also seems to have spent more time on his characters in this novel. Like Burton in “To Your Scattered Bodies Go”, Clemens single-mindedly pursues his goal. Clemens, however, is a much more likeable character. His good-natured banter with Joe Miller and his devotion to his wife enables the reader to get a sense of his essential humanity. Duplicitous, underhand and grotesque, King John makes a far better antagonist than hapless Hermann Göring (who also makes an appearance in this novel). With a stronger cast of characters and a more direct plot, “The Fabulous Riverboat” feels more like a complete novel.
It's not all smooth-sailing though. Just as with the first novel in the series, “The Fabulous Riverboat” is hamstrung by the scale of its own ambition. Although Clemens does manage to get the boat built by the end of the novel, the exploration of the River does not even get started. Readers hoping to learn a bit more about the mysterious Ethicals will find themselves no wiser than at the end of the previous novel. Indeed, the main flaws of the previous novel are essentially repeated in this one. Of course, with such epic storytelling on such a huge scale, it would be beyond the ability of any author to get Clemens and chums to the source of the mighty River in the space of a mere few hundred pages. Farmer wants his readers to know that this is a long, arduous journey for all involved and that if they want answers, they are in it for the long haul.
I will be returning to Riverworld soon...
Hereward L.M. Proops
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