NOTE: This is a spoiler free review
It's kind of hard to believe that I only just discovered the works of Philip José Farmer just over two years ago. But in that time I have been buying his books up at a rapid pace. Having bought and read almost twenty of his works I have still only scratched the surface. His works are so varied from classic sci-fi to borderline pornographic horror noir. The man was ahead of his time in almost everything he did.
When researching what to read next I kept seeing mentions of his Riverworld series, which is arguably his most beloved work. Tied with the World of Tiers series. A most fans seem to be in agreement that Riverworld is something special. So why did I wait so long to start it? Because I really didn't know what it was about. I read a ton of reviews and though most praised, they really only talked about the set-up of the books. Which is as follows:
"Every person that has ever lived wakes up on the shores of an enormous river. And regardless of what age they died, their resurrected bodies are only 25 years of age."
Ok, cool concept. But what next? That could go anywhere and be about anything. But over the holidays I decided to go ahead and give it a shot. Now I get the hype. Riverworld, which starts with To Your Scattered Bodies Go written in 1971, is equal parts adventure and mystery with sci-fi elements. It reminds me a lot of the TV series Lost, only decades earlier and without the insulting lets appeal to the lowest common denominator ending. It features an engaging cast trapped in a strange place searching for answers. And that is essentially what the Riverworld series is all about. The exploits of a select few as they travel up river, searching for answers.
The mystery elements involve the truth behind the gigantic river planet, the alien technology found on the river banks, the resurrection of billions of people, and the dark tower at the end of the world. The adventure comes in as the various peoples and cultures of history come together, often violently. And then there are other sci-fi elements like a caveman, a giant, and even an alien among the resurrected.
Another interesting thing about the series is that many of the main characters are real people. The main two protagonists of the series, though there are many, are Richard Francis Burton, and Sam Clemmens aka Mark Twain. I knew very little about Burton before reading Riverworld, but he was an extremely interesting fellow and a hero of PJF's. He was an adventurer, explorer, spy, spoke over 30 languages, was an avid writer, and translated both One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra. For more on Burton check out his Wiki entry. It's a good read.
Sir Richard Francis Burton - Total Badass
As far as the negative, you will often hear people complain about the third and fourth books of the series, The Dark Design (1977) and The Magic Labyrinth (1980). I can kind of understand, but people are overly negative in general. They are both still very good books, just not GREAT books like one, two, and five. The problem with the Dark Design is that it introduces a ton of new characters that get a lot of focus. So the characters we truly care about, like Burton, sometimes aren't seen for twenty or more pages. The Magic Labyrinth is also a good book but is very action heavy. Some folks love that. But I like my action in small short bursts.
And unlike Lost, the Riverworld series has a satisfying ending in The Gods of Riverworld (1983) with nearly all questions answered. One small word of warning, Sam Clemens isn't given much of a wrap-up. Which is odd, being the main star of the second book The Fabulous Riverboat (1971). So if you get attached to ol' Mark Twain, don't expect much for him in the end other than a mention.
Apparently, there was a sci-fi channel movie based on the series but for some reason they made Burton, the hero of the books, the main villain. Um....ok. I'm gonna skip that one.
All five books are readily available both in new editions as well as the cool 70s hardbacks. The first two books have been collected together in a paperback edition.