The Fabulous Riverboat: In which we learn very little about Riverworld

Philip Jose Farmer Riverworld review 2. The Fabulous Riverboatscience fiction book reviews Philip Jose Farmer Riverworld 1. To Your Scattered Bodies GoThe Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer

To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels, was a fast-paced, highly creative, and extremely exciting story, so I was eager to continue the tale in the second novel, The Fabulous Riverboat. This part of the story of mankind’s resurrection onto a million-miles-long stretch of river valley focuses on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) — one of the people who’ve been contacted by a traitor who hopes to use twelve special humans to disrupt the plans of the creatures (gods? aliens?) who are responsible for the Resurrection.

At the beginning of The Fabulous Riverboat, we meet Sam Clemens and his 800 lb Neanderthal bodyguard named Joe Miller. (Note: I highly recommend Recorded Books’ audiobook version narrated by Paul Hecht. Joe Miller’s lisping speech is difficult to read in print, but Mr. Hecht is brilliant with him.) Sam Clemens and Joe Miller are on a Viking ship that is searching for iron-rich meteors (the Riverworld has very few mineral deposits). The Vikings want the iron for weapons, but Sam wants to build a huge steamboat so he can sail up the river to its source and confront the beings who run the planet.

Sam gets some help from the mysterious traitor who tells him where to find required materials, but then he must work with tyrannical humans who want to hoard their countries’ natural resources or promote their political or religious agendas. Thus, there’s a lot more threatening, squabbling, political maneuvering, dealing, double-dealing, and war going on than actual ship-building.

It’s fun to meet real historical tyrants in Riverworld — they tend to rise to the top and become the leaders of aggressive city-states. It’s also amusing to watch the interactions of humans from such a wide range of time periods. For example, we see Joe Miller gradually becoming more cynical and humorous as he spends time with Mark Twain and we watch a 20th century engineer teach Twain how to store electricity to power the riverboat.

What’s not fun is that Philip Jose Farmer takes every opportunity to provide information about each of the characters who’s a real historical figure, and this is inelegantly done:

I read about him in school!” von Richthofen said. “Let’s see. He was born in 1797, died about 1853, I believe. He was an artillery expert and a good friend of Frederick Wilhelm IV of Prussia. He was called ‘The Warlike Monk’ because he was a general who also had strict religious views. He died when he was about fifty years old, a disappointed man because he had been dropped from favor…

And sometimes the facts are repeated. For example, we’re told at least twice that John Lackland was such a bad king that the English swore they’d never have another king named John.

Also annoying is that Farmer frequently takes the opportunity to address topics such as racism and determinism by either having characters hold long philosophical discourses, or by obvious and clumsy manipulation of the plot. The end result is that there is lots of teaching and moralizing and little action in The Fabulous Riverboat. If you look at the book cover, you’d expect to be exploring Riverworld from the deck of Mark Twain’s steamboat, but the boat finally gets finished at the end of the novel.

It’s the wonderful world-building and intriguing questions that make this series so compelling: Why has humankind been resurrected? Who created this world? Who is the traitor? Is there a way out? What’s the purpose of dream gum? But we don’t get to explore much of Riverworld and we learn very little about it in The Fabulous Riverboat. I’m still so curious, though, so I’m hoping we’ll progress more quickly in the next installment: The Dark Design.

Later addendum: When I began downloading the audio version of The Dark Design, I realized it was 18 hours long — twice the length of the previous novels. I decided to investigate before committing and was disappointed to learn from other reviewers that the series degenerates after The Fabulous Riverboat. Readers cite the same issues I’ve mentioned here and other issues that killed their enjoyment of Riverworld. There was such a consensus that I feel I should believe them and not waste my time on a series that will ultimately disappoint me. I’m sad to say that I’m going to quit here — I just don’t have time to read bad books. This is especially upsetting because I really loved To Your Scattered Bodies Go. I also want to find out the answers I posed in the previous paragraph. If you know the answers, please tell me in a comment below. If nobody knows, I’ll just skim through the last half of book 4, The Magic Labyrinth, to find out. According to readers, that’s where the uninspiring answers are to be found).


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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2 comments

  1. I couldn’t finish this. It probably didn’t help that I hadn’t read the first one. Based on your review I think my plan should be to read the first one only.

  2. The first book, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s such a disappointment that the sequels are quite bad, especially since TYSBG left us with so many questions that we can’t get the answers to unless we read the horrible sequels!

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