The only reason I even heard of this book (or series to be specific) is because Pajiba posted a trailer of the mini-series (or actual series?) that the channel formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel is making with Helo (yes, I realize that is not the actor's name). I honestly wasn't sure about this novel at first - obviously the premise sounded interesting, both from the show trailer and the set up in the book but it took me a while to decide whether Farmer was an author with a really interesting idea that didn't know how to implement it or if he was actually going somewhere with it.
Partially, I blame this on the book I was reading concurrently with this novel (which will be a later post) called American Holocaust. I think this may have made me slightly more sensitive (than usual even) to sweeping generalizations about races and people. Especially his one or two references to the Mohawks and another Indian tribe that described them as either war-like or slave-seeking. However, I should probably actually describe the plot a little bit here since not everyone of course saw the preview.
The main character is Sir Richard Burton (from what I gathered, I think he is real historical figure since some of the other characters, such as the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland, and Herman Goring definitely were). Everyone that has ever died from the beginning of humankind through the 20th century has woken up at the same time next to a river. There are no children under five, and everyone has been reincarnated healthy and young (25ish). They all have grails that only they can open which provide them with food on a daily basis. This river seems endless and all along its banks there are different people from different ages and cultures. Unlike anyone else, Burton remembers waking up between death and finding himself on Riverworld, floating in space surrounded by an endless number of other bodies.
As a result of this, Burton is less likely to believe that this was done by some supernatural being. Many religious are in fact disappointed that this is not the heaven they were promised. Despite the fact that everyone has enough to eat and the climate is rather temperate, people quickly make weapons to defend themselves, and others are waging wars of expansion and creating slave states. Not exactly a hopeful look at human nature. While some just try to enjoy themselves, others feel this might be their second chance at salvation. Burton on the other hand is on a quest to find out why he has been revived and brought here, and wants to get to the end of the river to find answers.
As I said, I wasn't sure about this novel at first - it was published in the early '70s, and while I definitely see how it would be difficult to write characters from different times and cultures, I was less than impressed with his description of people and their interactions at first - especially the women. Alice was just annoying at first. In fact, once the novel gets away from Burton and Alice's relationship and starts focusing on Burton's quest, it becomes much more interesting (I understand that some of the issue is not only was Farmer writing in the '70s which would affect his gender views, but he was writing women from the 19th century, so obviously they might be viewed and portrayed as needing protection and so forth). I've already taken a look at the second novel on Amazon, and it seems like it focuses on entirely different characters so it sounds like the series will get rather involved before finally giving the answers Burton wants.