Gods of Riverworld by Philip Jose Farmer; G. P. Putnam’s Sons; New York.

In 1971 Philip Jose Farmer published To Your Scattered Bodies Go. With it, Farmer launched, figuratively speaking, what has become known to science fiction devotees as the “Riverworld series.” There were four novels to landfall. Back in that general period of time, Kurt Vonnegut had become a darling. He had previously been a no body, a writer of third-rate science fiction novels. But when the cuddles began, he wrote a piece for The New York Times Book Review in which he pouted, “I have been a sore headed occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” To a degree, he’s right: people have regularly treated the genre with contempt. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that pulps about spiders from Mars aren’t exactly well-wrought urns, and it may be a bit much to even call them chamber pots. Had Vonnegut’s Tralfamadore not existed, no one would have bothered to invent it. However, there are some rogue science fiction writers who can write nebulas around mere gas bags like Vonnegut. Farmer is one of them. Not only are the first four books of the Riverworld series entertaining, they are also, to a certain extent, educational. While people like Doctorow use a historical figure here and there, Farmer didn’t fool around: Richard Francis Burton, Samuel Clemens, Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves (of Looking Glass fame), Aphra Behn, Tom Turpin, Cyrano de Bergerac, and several others don’t make mere cameos, they are the characters. As Farmer knows something about them, has done more than a little homework, their development as characters and interactions in a world that he created (a Rousseauistic garden that proves to be unsatisfying) is rather interesting. But Farmer couldn’t leave well enough unescorted; he had to add Gods of River world, which
is as uninteresting as the title is pretentious. Indeed, it is fit for Vonnegut’s drawer.