Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book 21: The Fabulous Riverboat

The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer

While the first novel in this series had some flaws, it was still well enough done to leave me wanting to know what would happen next. The premise of these novels is very intriguing, so I could forgive the fact that Farmer's characters weren't always that likable and somewhat one-dimensional. This novel unfortunately spends too much time on the characters and doesn't spend nearly any time on the overall concept of the series and as a result bored and irritated me.

It is established in the first novel that all humans that have ever lived have been reincarnated or resurrected along the banks of a huge river at the same time - they are all in their mid-twenties and in prime shape when they are resurrected and their grails provide for all their basic needs. Naturally, the question arises of why this has happened, and the main focus of the first novel was Sir Richard Burton. I didn't like Burton for the first half of the novel, especially since Farmer can't write romance and he was trying to romantically link Burton with the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Once Burton, however, started focusing on his quest for answers, the novel became much better.

Unfortunately, this novel does not continue to follow Burton. Instead, it is the story of Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) and his desire to build a riverboat. One of the powers that be (okay, that's not what they are called, they are the ethicals) doesn't agree with what has been done to humans, and he wants Clemens to build the boat in order to find the other ethicals responsible for what has been done. Overall, there are twelve that have been chosen for this, Burton being one of them. Since the planet possesses no natural resources, he maneuvers a comet or meteorite to crash on the planet to provide the iron necessary for the boat. The rest of the novel then focuses on Sam's need for certain raw materials and his uneasy political partnership with King John (honestly, I'm not sure how large a meteorite they found but some of the stuff they decided to build seemed positively wasteful for a planet with basically no resources - the damn boat ended up having a television - seriously, why - what are they going to watch).

This might even have been done in an interesting manner if it weren't for the fact that Samuel Clemens was an annoying character. He was whiny. I don't know what the real man was like but seriously, why did he even need to be in the novel? Couldn't Farmer have come up with a fictional engineer that liked riverboats instead of using someone famous and then portraying them like this? By the end of the novel, seven of the chosen twelve have been revealed - guess what - they're all men (most of them appear to be famous though there's a few where I kind of barely recognize the name but have no clue what they have done - I'm not sure if they used to teach this stuff in history class or if Farmer just assumed his audience would be smarter). In fact, women really only play a role in these novels as romantic partners/ sex objects.

The thing that is perhaps most irritating is that Farmer really does raise some interesting issues but his characters are so one-dimensional that they come off more as caricatures than real people, such as Hacking, the leader of a black community in Riverworld. Farmer tries to discuss race, and portrays Clemens as a liberal. At one point Clemens makes a comment along the lines of "I can't be racist, I wrote Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson." While I don't have a problem with the use of certain words in Huckleberry Finn due to when it was written, it still displays a certain type of racism - Jim, a grown man, basically comes off as a child. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, two boys are switched at birth and the white boy is raised as black and ends up ignorant. One could argue that Clemens was trying to make a statement of nature vs. nurture, showing that the blacks in America at the turn of the 19th century were not naturally ignorant as many may have claimed but that they lacked opportunities. The only problem with this interpretation is that the black man raised as white was somewhat evil and corrupt, hence making it more of a nature argument against blacks. Obviously, given the time Clemens lived in this wasn't the kind of obvious "let's lynch everyone" sort of racism, but he still obviously saw blacks as inferior, both intellectually and morally.

This book really has turned me off from the series because I don't think I can handle anymore of Clemens. I will still watch the miniseries though since it is obvious from the previews that they have changed some of the characters anyway (though I did see a damn riverboat). Maybe I'll give the series another shot eventually, but right now, I'm happy with what the Wikipedia summaries told me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I forgot about the television...

I read the summaries too and will probably watch the series, but I can't bring myself to read the rest of the books right now.