Jean-Paul Sartre’s aphorism, “Hell is other people,” keeps drifting across my mind as I wade through Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld saga. Right now I’m halfway through volume 2, The Fabulous Riverboat, and I’m rather distinctly unimpressed with Farmer’s view of human nature.
The story, in case you’re unfamiliar with Riverworld, is that every human who ever lived has been resurrected, in the flesh, along the 20 million miles or so of a great planet-girdling river. (Children under 7 years old are not resurrected, probably because it would have been inconvenient for Farmer to have a lot of toddlers underfoot. What happened to the children, we’re not told.) Everybody starts out naked, healthy, and physically young, but their whole lifetime’s memories are intact. Food is provided, but nothing else. So they have nothing to do for amusement except make knives, spears, and axes out of flint and bamboo and start stabbing and bashing one another.
Their compunctions about doing so would seem minor enough in any case, but are soon erased by the discovery that people who are killed in Riverworld only pop up again somewhere else along the river. Effectively, everyone has become immortal. So there’s no reason not to bash someone’s head in or rip their guts open, if it suits you.
There’s more to the books than stabbing and bashing. There’s also a lot of slavery, some highly unlikely metaphysics, equally unlikely biology and planetology, sophomoric philosophizing, authorial intrusions, Esperanto, five hundred novel uses for bamboo, and a great deal of name-dropping. The major characters in the first two books include Sir Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor), Sam Clemens, Hermann Goering, Cyrano de Bergerac, King John, and Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves (the real Alice after whom Alice in Wonderland was named). Nobody who was nobody in their Earthly life counts for much except as a sidekick; it’s the Great Man theory of history run amok.
The writing is sometimes adequate, but not, on the whole, very good. Farmer seems to relish the scenes of hand-to-hand combat, but tends to fall back on narrative summary at other times — possibly in order to keep the sprawling story from developing a monstrous word count, or possibly because he knew his primary readership was made up of teenage boys.
There’s no music in the writing, and none in the story either. Nobody makes a flute out of the ubiquitous bamboo. Nobody makes any sculpture. Nobody dances. It’s all hacking and stabbing. Wheeee….