Science Fiction

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Read: The Magic Labyrinth

The Magic Labyrinth is the second volume of the two volume conclusion to the Riverworld series. It is still not the final novel as it was supposed to be, though, there is a fifth one. Farmer just could not stop.

In The Magic Labyrinth the quest for the headwaters of the Riverworld continues. In lieu of the character development that made the first volumes so compelling this volume is dominated by unnecessary lengthy descriptions of air combats and private wars on the River, superfluous duels and plain murders that just kill off most of the cast.

All, or rather most mysteries are solved when the band of survivors arrives at the Tower at the end and the beginning of the River. This band of survivors is by now decimated to less than a dozen River dwellers including a new companion who is killed just before the rest of them finally is enlightened.

I did not really like the religious / esoteric connotations of this “conclusion”. (This is also the reason why I struggle with some of the Ender-novels.) However, Farmer offers a rather scientific solution for the nature of the immortal soul, or wathan as his characters call it. So he saves the day, at the end his novel is still science fiction. Science fiction with aliens, space ships and everything.

This being said, I feel a bit like I was cheated. This whole “conclusion” was kind of anti-climatic. Well-written, mostly quite suspenseful: yes; yet, anti-climatic. Nevertheless, I just cannot stop. There is still this fifth novel…

Read: The Dark Design

The third book in Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series The Dark Design differs in several ways from its predecessors.

First, it is almost three times as long. Yet, it is only the first part of a two-book conclusion of the plot started in the first two novels To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat. A conclusion that will be over 400.000 words long as Farmer himself reveals in The Dark Design’s introduction.

Second, while the two predecessors are self-contained The Dark Design builds on characters and plot lines introduced earlier. To fully enjoy it you have to know the other two novels.

Third, Farmer wants to further develop most of his main characters leading to several changes in the narrative perspective. He switches back and forth the different plot lines. Sometimes he describes the same events from the viewpoint of two different persons thus connecting to two strands of his story. Sometimes he changes abruptly place and persons.

And finally, owing to the circumstance that the series has a two part conclusion the book ends with a cliff hanger, forcing the reader to start reading the last volume if he wants to know the answers to all the questions he has after finishing this tome. And the last few pages raise more questions than the preceding several hundred pages (try to) answer.

The Dark Design is still quite enjoyable. Though I did not like the regular changes in perspectives. Farmer easily could have split this book in 3 separate novels and thus stick closer to the style of the first two volumes. On the other hand, I never complaint about Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, so why start nagging here?

Read: The Fabulous Riverboat

Back to Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld. In The Fabulous Riverboat Farmer continues his use of historical figures for his own fictional world Riverworld. The second Riverworld novel describes Samuel Clemens’, that is Mark Twain, striving for a riverboat.

Since the Riverworld is without own resources and therefore industry Clemens dream of driving up River on a Mississippi-style riverboat is not easily and certainly not fast put into action. Yet, after a long series of hardships he seems to realize his task. Yes, it is not just a personal dream but a task. A task bestowed upon him by a mysterious stranger, one of the Riverworld’s secret rulers who follows his own agenda. While building his ship and an industry to do so, Clemens collects a few other “enlightened” fellows…

Farmer does not reveal more about the mysterious rulers of the Riverworld. Instead his world, or rather its societal conditions are explored in more detail. The Babylonian confusion of languages is, for example, resolved by the adoption of Esperanto. A nice idea. Though, the number of people speaking English as first or second language in the real world today would rather hint to English as the universal language. Esperanto is just not known by that many people today (or in the past).

Farmer’s use of a few familiar names is a brilliant move to raise the initial interest in his work. Though the figures are based on their historical counterparts they are soon developed much further and in diverging ways. The Riverworld shapes its river dwellers.

The Fabulous Riverboat is full of espionage, war, and well primed double crossings. There are not many surprises. Yet, the novel is quite compelling.

Concerning the industry and (rather advanced, given the Riverworld’s possibilities) inventions Farmer does not go into much detail, regrettably. This is perfect steam punk material for a role playing game. I almost would like to play one.

Read: Ensign Flandry

Obviously, my vacation reading list contains more books than I could possibly read during one vacation. The idea is rather to get started with a larger set of authors. The final author on my vacation reading list is Poul Anderson. Anderson wrote a lot of different series, primarily Science Fiction. For reading during my two summer weeks off I picked the first Dominic Flandry Novel: Ensign Flandry, first published in the sixties.

The novel describes a military / political conflict between the star-faring earth and some alien nation, mostly from the viewpoint of the young Ensign Flandry. The conflict focuses seemingly on one rather insignificant planet with two sentient races. Both races receive help from one of the two protagonist races, one of which is earth’s mankind. Though this is only a smoke screen. The ultimate goal is galaxy’s hegemony.

The novel is a nice example of the ways of international diplomacy. It is written within a futuristic Science Fiction setting. Yet, it could have been as well set on earth in our current time or immediate past as far as political or military strategy is concerned.

I wonder how Anderson develops his character Flandry in the next novels. So far, Flandry’s success seems to be a result of chance and accidents. Nevertheless – or maybe because of this –, he seems quite likable.

Read: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Next on my vacation reading list is Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series.

Some time ago – maybe a decade or so – I read a collection of short(er) stories: Riverworld and Other Stories that left me with a very good impression of Farmer and his work. So finally, I decided to read the Riverworld series in its entirety. Again, I start with book one.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go introduces the resource-barren Riverworld were most of mankind is resurrected. A world that is home for some 36 billion humans, a world that is one long river that flows not to a sea but back to its origin, a world that is controlled by some mysterious aliens (?).

Most of the story focuses of Sir Richard Franics Burton’s quest to find the origin / end of the River and confront the secret rulers of the Riverworld. A quest that Burton himself calls the Suicide Train. After each death he is resurrected somewhere else (the same happens to any unlucky river dweller dying), maybe somewhere closer to his goal and so he does not really mind to commit suicide every once in while…

Riverworld has no noteworthy resources, no metal ores, no agriculture. The people are fed by “grails”, a kind of energy-matter-transformer provided by the secret rulers to every river dweller. Nevertheless, the world is inhabited by modern engineers, too. So it makes a very nice background for any steam punk role playing game. And indeed, there is – or rather was; it is out of print – at least a GURPS resource book for the Riverworld.

Read: A second chance at Eden

During the late 90s Peter F. Hamilton published his Night’s Dawn trilogy. A rather dark space opera where humanity is segregated into two major groups characterized by their different technology and personal enhancements and the resulting societal organization.

A second chance at Eden is a collection of some good and some not as good short stories that depict some steps from our world today, or let’s better say tomorrow to the fictional universe of the trilogy. Hamilton shows how advances in technology and space travel may transform society but not necessarily man. His work is sometimes Utopian, sometimes Dystopian.

I really liked the trilogy. This book, however, leaves me a little bit torn. I was somewhat lost after one of the otherwise nicer stories, candy buds. Who the heck is Rubus? Ok, I may have read the book too fast and cursorily. Nevertheless, in my opinion it’s always the authors’ fault if the reader is lost or does not get the point.

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