July 22, 2013


by Philip José Farmer
464 pages, Tor Books

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I'm really enjoying my time on Riverworld. Philip José Farmer's truly bonkers series of novels detailing a very strange afterlife are so conceptually unique and inventive that one can't help but be swept along by the author's audacious imagination. Those who have read my reviews of the first two books in the series (“To Your Scattered Bodies Go” and “The Fabulous Riverboat”) will have an idea of the fantastically weird and wonderful set-up for those who live on Riverworld. I'm not going to cover old ground here so if you haven't read the first two books (or at least my reviews of them) you may as well stop reading now because what is going to follow will most likely make no sense whatsoever.

“The Dark Design”, first published in 1977, is a little different to the previous novels in the series. For a start, it's a lot bigger. Rather than following just one group of characters, this time the narrative is split between three distinct storylines. Whilst this does lead to us feeling somewhat detached from the narrative drive that propelled the first two novels at such a cracking pace, it does also give the novel a broader scope that seems befitting of the conceptually enormous yarn that Farmer is spinning. The first plotline reintroduces us to Richard Francis Burton, the protagonist of the first novel. Burton's journey up-River to locate the headquarters of the mysterious Ethicals is ongoing but in the decades since the initial day of resurrection there have been some changes on Riverworld. Firstly, death now appears to be permanent. There are no more resurrections along the banks of the River and what was once considered an inconvenience is now, once more, something to be feared. Secondly, Burton and his crew discover that a number of the grailstones upon which humanity has relied for food for so long have ceased to work. Indeed, the more Burton and his companions investigate this strange phenomenon, the more it seems that the vast alien technology that runs Riverworld is beginning to malfunction or break down.

If this isn't problematic enough for Burton, he is left reeling by the discovery that two of his crew, Peter Jairus Frigate and the alien Monat, are perhaps not who they claim to be. This is, of course, exceedingly confusing for both Burton and the reader and is just one of the instances in this book where Farmer pulls the rug from beneath our feet and leaves us feeling totally baffled as to what exactly is going on.

The second storyline only adds to our confusion. Focusing on the real Peter Jairus Frigate, we follow his time on the River from the early years after the day of resurrection to his time spent in the company of author Jack London and cinema icon Tom Mix. This Peter Jairus Frigate is yet another one of the resurrectees contacted by the Mysterious Stranger and given instructions to seek out the source of the River in order to unlock the secrets of the planet.

The final storyline returns us to Parolando, the setting of the second book in the series. Samuel Clemens has built a second giant riverboat and sets off in pursuit of the villainous King John Lackland who stole the first. Those who remained behind in Parolando have embarked upon another ambitious scheme – the construction of airships with which they will aid Clemens' quest for vengeance and seek out the mysterious tower of the Ethicals at the North Pole of the planet. The main protagonist of this storyline is Jill Gulbirra, an aboriginal airship pilot from the twentieth century. Jill is a fiercely independent woman and is passionate about taking on the role of piloting one of the airships. Through her, Farmer is able to focus on issues of race, gender and sexuality as well as providing the series with a strong female character, something that it has been lacking up to this point. Jill is a very well-drawn, believable personality whose own prejudices and frailties give us a very human perspective on life on the River.

Farmer weaves the three separate plotlines together, skipping between them in a way that never seems contrived, and always ensuring that the readers are left with a juicy cliffhanger to keep them guessing. As with the previous two books, the novel ends with a hugely frustrating lack of resolution. We aren't even given a clear idea of which characters (who we have followed for four-hundred-or-so pages) have survived the final explosive climax. This ambiguity is par for the course on Riverworld where confusion and uncertainty reign supreme. Saying that, it would be nice to see some form of coherence in the overall story when you are three books into the series.

Another change that can be seen in “The Dark Design” from the previous novels is the different style of writing. “The Dark Design” displays a far more sophisticated style and there are times when Farmer's descriptions of the alien world are verging on poetry. This change will please those who felt the first two novels were too sparse but will probably irritate those who enjoyed the stripped-back, direct style of the early books. Personally, I didn't mind the change but it did take a couple of chapters to get accustomed to the more florid prose.

“The Dark Design” offers some tantalising glimpses of what might come next in the Riverworld saga and is a far more substantial book than previous instalments. The growing sense of dread that all might not be well behind-the-scenes on the planet is extremely effective and we feel the same kind of wild anxiety as we did on the day of resurrection in the first novel. However, the continued lack of clear direction in the overall narrative is bound to prickle those looking for some kind of explanation of the secrets of Riverworld. What we learn about the mysterious Ethicals and their strange tower at the North Pole only serves to rouse our curiosity still further. Three books into the series, Philip José Farmer was clearly playing a dangerous game with his readers who had faithfully followed him on this wild journey. I'm sure there are many who would tire of all the unanswered questions and uncertainty and give up on the stories at this point. I'm going to keep going on my journey on the River... I feel like I've come so far that I have to learn what it is all about.

I will be returning to Riverworld soon.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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