A Tunnel in the Sky

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by Philip Josť Farmer

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 30, 2011

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Before I get into the main part of this review, I wanted to give some background on the genesis and development of the Riverworld series, some elements of which I was not aware of until recently. Most readers' first experience with this story began in 1971 with the book publication of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which won a Hugo the following year. How many know that the first version was written in 1952 under the title "Owe For The Flesh," or that it was submitted to small-press Shasta Publications for a writers' contest? It did win that contest, but the publisher not only never paid Farmer or printed the book, he also absconded with extra money given to him by Pocket Books for paperback rights. That publisher (under a different name), and the $4000 Farmer never received, are mentioned in an early part of To Your Scattered Bodies Go by the character that is Farmer's alter-ego in the story, Peter Jairus Frigate.

Over the next few years Farmer rewrote the story several times, but apparently there were only two copies of the first version, one submitted to Shasta and the other sold at auction at an SF convention. Whereabouts of either of those are unknown. Farmer's own copies of the revised versions had burned in a house fire in the mid-60s. After the Riverworld novels were complete the author approached another specialty publisher, Phantasia Press, with the desire that the earlier version be published for posterity's sake. Word went out to quite a few other writers and editors, and two separate manuscripts were found and sent to Farmer, one copy each of the second and third versions. Phantasia chose the second one to use when they printed the book, renamed River of Eternity, in 1983, probably because it was shorter. There were only 3000 copies of this edition printed, so it may be difficult to find a copy, but for anyone who likes the rest (or any part) of the Riverworld series, I recommend you try. I lucked out and got one off Ebay for a reasonalble amount, since it was an ex-library copy with the usual negatives associated with that (ink stamps, card pockets, library notations), but otherwise the binding is intact and it is in good readable condition. However, don't expect to find any of the first 500 numbered and signed copies cheap.

It was very early in Farmer's career when he wrote "Owe For the Flesh," and he was uncertain about some elements of the story. He may not have had an agent at that time, or an editor to confer with, but he originally decided to give some of the historical figures fictitious names, in the worry that their descendants might object to some of the things he would be writing about them. He later found out that should not have been a concern, but Sir Richard Francis Burton as depicted in the later published books was first named Richard Black, Samuel Clemens was Sam Halley, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky was Fyodor Borbich. He did change to Clemens for the second version, but Black and Borbich stuck. In the introduction to River of Eternity Farmer states he was not sure why James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok retained his real name and the others didn't, but he thinks he assumed that Hickok had no descendants to worry about. Other than a few edits for grammar, spelling, etc., he left the rest of the text unchanged. I'll make a few other comments about this book further down the page, but now let's take a look at the first of the Riverworld books that everyone else is familiar with.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

As previously mentioned, this book won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1972. I had been reading SF for three or four years by this time, but it is likely this was the first of Farmer's stories I had encountered, and if memory serves I got it from the Science Fiction Book Club. If I had been reading for a few years prior to that, especially the magazines, I might have read versions of this book earlier. Just as this novel was not the first version of Riverworld, the book publication was not the first time a lot of it had seen print either. Two different novellas that make up the majority of the text were printed in Worlds of Tomorrow magazine, "The Day of the Great Shout" in January 1965, and "The Suicide Express" one year later.

I would assume that most people who are reading this are aware of the basic premise of the story, even if it is only from the two different televised versions produced by the Sci-Fi Channel (neither of which are very good). But for anyone who isn't, here's a brief synopsis. Some years after life on Earth has ended (at least that is what some of the characters and the readers are told) almost the entire human race that has ever existed is resurrected on another planet, one which consists mainly of a millions-mile long river that weaves its way up and down the hemispheres and begins and ends in a misty sea at the north pole. It is not Earth reformed, but a larger planet, most likely closer to galactic center since the night sky is full of brilliant stars and luminous gas clouds. Many of the larger stars are visible even in daylight. The river averages about a half mile to a mile in width, occasionally widening to lake-like proportions. The banks slope gently up for a mile or so on either side, with rolling foothills ending in mountain ranges that are extremely high and sheer, which prohibits climbing. It does not take long for the resurrectees to determine that this is no afterlife as promised by any of the world's religions, and quite a few begin to suspect that the world and their existence is the construct of another lifeform, either alien or an extremely advanced form of humanity.

Everyone is resurrected naked and hairless, at an apparent age of twenty-five, other than those who had died earlier in life than that. No one who had died prior to age five is among the revived, nor are mental defectives and the severely handicapped. It is speculated that that portion of humanity has been resurrected somewhere else. Those younger than twenty-five begin to age normally until reaching that age, everyone else does not age beyond that. The distribution of humanity is random, each area having roughly half the population made up of peoples from one Earth region and era, a lesser percentage of another era and location, with a sprinkling of peoples from anywhere and anywhen. You and I are there somewhere, too.

Practically anything they might need or want is provided for them. They soon discover the containers that each of them has (dubbed "grails") can be placed on the large "grailstones" (located a mile apart along the river's banks), and three times a day they are filled with food, drink, and such amenities as soap, toothpaste, cigarettes/cigars and liquor. The more scientifically knowledgable among them say the grails likely contain matter transmission circuitry that transforms the energy produced by the grailstones into food and the other items. No one but the personal owner of the grail can open it, but that does not prohibit stronger, meaner people from forcing others to give them the majority of what the grails provide.

Thus what could have been a paradise quickly becomes as bleak an existence as many of them had experienced on Earth. Alliances and rivalries are formed, territory is staked out to be defended or conquered, and those who had ruled and controlled others in their former lives begin to do so again. Grail slavery is common, rape and murder are rampant, and most feel no remorse for their actions, especially considering they soon learn that those killed on Riverworld do not stay dead for long, but rather are resurrected again a day later somewhere else along the great river. Inevitably, a new religion arises, the Church of the Second Chance, which postulates that Riverworld is just a purgatory or limbo, and that if one becomes more peaceful and spiritual their resurrections will end and their soul will travel on to the eventual Heaven.

One person who definitely does not subscribe to that religion is Richard Francis Burton, the British explorer, anthropologist, poet and literary translator. Since Peter Frigate is fascinated by Burton, and knows much about his life, we can assume he is an historical figure that fascinated Farmer. Frigate is among Burton's compatriots in the adventure, along with a sub-human known as Kazz, Alice Liddell Hargreaves (who as a child had been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland), as well as Monat, an alien who was apparently responsible for the destruction of life on Earth. Just as on Earth, Burton still is a person who does not like to stay in one place for too long. He wants to discover the headwaters of the river, as he failed to do for the Nile in his previous life. He is convinced that somewhere near the north pole at the source of the river he will find those responsible for humanity's fate on this new world. And he intends to make them pay for their deeds.

The Fabulous Riverboat

The second novel in the series features Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens as the central figure, and recounts his obsession with building a large riverboat to travel upstream to the river's source. Clemens has heard rumors concerning Burton and his quest and longs for the Englishman to join him on his journey. As with the previous novel, parts of this one had been printed as shorter works earlier. "The Felled Star" appeared in July and August 1967, "The Fabulous Riverboat" in June and August 1971, both in Worlds of IF magazine.

Other historical figures we meet in this book include Cyrano de Bergerac, Lothar von Richtoven (brother to the famous World War I ace), Odysseus (Ulysses), the Greek warrior from Homer's epic poems, and John Lackland, son of Richard the Lion-Hearted, a person so vile that England swore never to name another of their kings John. Clemens eventually is reunited with his beloved wife Livy, but she is at that time the mate of de Bergerac, whom she will not leave, which causes Clemens immense grief.

Through a sequence of events that he cannot control, Clemens is forced to ally with John as co-rulers of the nation state of Parolando, which contains a rich metal deposit from a fallen meteor, necessary for the construction of the riverboat. But first they must build fortifications and construct various weapons in order to defend their area, as well as making other metal objects which can be used for trade with other states for resources they do not have. Quite a few years transpire in this book, full of setbacks for the venture, including constant quarrels between Clemens and John, lack of materials and accidents during construction, as well as several different invasions from other states anxious to obtain the boat and other weapons for themselves. Both Clemens and John have people loyal to them, and both spy on each other and on the other states around them. Conspiracies abound, and even Clemens resorts to underhanded tactics to try to get his way and maintain control of the venture. He almost succeeds.

These two books are now available in a combined paperback edition. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

That's enough description for now. There are three other novels in the sequence, plus various short stories not directly connected to the main story arc. The first two books are the shortest, so you know there is much adventure ahead if you choose to read through to the end. Not everything works, it gets a bit repetitive at times, but that is likely due to the various parts of the books having been published separately before. If I had been Farmer's book editor, I would have deleted some of the numerous mentions of things the reader already knew. But for the most part it will be worth your time, especially if you lean more toward action/adventure in your SF. I've just finished a re-read of these two books (third time for me I believe), and I read River of Eternity for the first time just prior to that. I'm sure I will eventually re-read the later books, but other things await. I do recall the resolution to be a let down, but who knows how I might feel when I read them again. If or when I do get around to them, I'll update this page with some other thoughts on the whole saga.

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For now, I think the way the story was shaping up in River of Eternity sounded more interesting and logical than what he gave us in The Magic Labyrinth and Gods of Riverworld. Unlike To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which began at Burton's death on Earth and then into the resurrection, River of Eternity, even though written first, was actually what would have been third in the chronological sequence as Farmer first planned it, beginning twenty years after the resurrection. The character of Frigate does not appear in it, so instead of him recounting many of Richard (Burton) Black's exploits and quoting his poetry, we get a better portrait of the man through his own words and his interactions with the other characters. As for The Fabulous Riverboat, Mark Twain has always been a personal favorite as a writer, but I feel Farmer did a disservice to him in several regards. He may have joked about it from time to time, but I don't think Clemens was the total advocate of pre-determinism as depicted here, nor do I think he would have reacted as ruthlessly and violently as Farmer has him do on several occasions, although it is probably true that Farmer did more research on these characters than I have.

The best thing about the whole adventure is its scope. Imagine having the opportunity to meet famous historical figures on a (somewhat) equal footing. It would be an historian, anthropologist or linguist's dream. This is as much a fantasy as it is science fiction, but just as mind-expanding as most anything that Asimov or Clarke were able to give us. I give props to Farmer for his action narrative techniques, his dialogue and the mind-boggling concept of it all. One negative is that there are so many other historical figures that could have been featured, but instead he limits the main action to so few. I am also disappointed that he wasn't more philosophical about it, delving more into the psyche of humanity and why we do the things we do, rather than devoting so much time to plain action.

It would have been nice if a more positive, humanitarian spirit could have been exhibited more often, but every time it was those concepts were generally discredited as being unrealistic for the situation at hand. He did a little bit of that in River of Eternity with the characters Borbich (Dostoyevsky) and the fictitious Phyllis Fairbairn, Black's mate for twelve years or so. It is possible there are elements like that in the later books, but it has been quite a few years since I have read those. At one point, Black makes the statement that "War in any form is a game," yet in the later books war between the various factions up and down the river doesn't seem like a game, but rather a ruthless and passionate profession for most. Perhaps Farmer was trying to say that man is doomed to always be a creature of animal instincts no matter how many chances he is given.

Oh, and one other thing. Farmer made a change to the overall story for the later novels from something said in River of Eternity pertaining to the span of time from which the humans come, starting around 75,000 B.C. in the first book, but expanded to a million or so years prior to that in The Fabulous Riverboat. A figure given by one of Riverworld's builders is that 36,609,000,637 members of humanity have been resurrected. I think Farmer realized that for there to have been that many they needed to be from further back in pre-history, but then he makes a major mistake by inventing the Titanthrop race. It is hard enough to visualize modern-day humans interacting cooperatively with sub-humans like Kazz, probably a Neanderthal or related race, but then Farmer wants us to accept the friendship between Sam Clemens and Joe Miller, the ten foot tall Titanthrop from around 2,000,000 B.C., who can speak English intelligibly, albeit with a lisp. If it was humanity that is being studied on Riverworld then there shouldn't have been anyone that was not in our direct evolutionary line, and the Titanthrops were definitely not that. No evidence that any such race ever existed, much less them being in our ancestral tree.

Please don't take these negative comments to mean that these books, even the later ones, are not recommended. I doubt I have ever read a book I would consider perfect, and sometimes it is enough to just be entertaining. Even though I wish Farmer had delved deeper into the philosophical and psychological, the reader is still encouraged to speculate on these matters themselves. What would you do on Riverworld if given the chance?

Related Links:
PJFarmer.com, the official Philip Josť Farmer Home Page.
My profile page on Farmer's career.


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Philip José Farmer



To Your Scattered Bodies Go & The Fabulous Riverboat now available in a combined edition

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.