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Sold Down the Riverworld

01/05/2003. Contributed by Mark R Leeper

Buy Riverworld in the USA - or Buy Riverworld in the UK

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Philip Jose Farmer's interesting premise of adventures set on a strange life-after-death-world is squandered on a fairly commonplace barbarian-planet story that appears to be the pilot for a most uninteresting and humdrum TV series.

I never read the Riverworld series from Philip Jose Farmer. I have heard people liked it very much and I admit that I have had some curiosity about it.

This is in part because I knew that one of the major characters was Richard Francis Burton, one of the most fascinating people in all of history. This is a figure that very interesting fiction and non-fiction could be written about.

Riverworld television movieSo it was with mixed anticipation that I looked forward to RIVERWORLD, a film adaptation that was being made for the Sci-Fi Channel, based on the Farmer books.

The material was certainly promising, but I do not associate the aptly named Sci-Fi Channel with really high-quality science fiction. Nevertheless I wanted to give RIVERWORLD a try.

The premise of the novels is that all our ideas of life after death are wrong. They have come from people speculating who have never bothered actually to die. Once people do die they seem disinclined to share their post mortem experiences.

So the whole semi-Biblical structure of life and death may be entirely wrong. Philip Jose Farmer threw out the conventional afterlife cosmology and created his own. His premise is that the afterlife is sort of like an undiscovered country. A river runs through it. In and around the river dead souls gather and have adventures very similar to ones that living people might have.

The chief difference is that the souls are really those of people who have lived at many points of history and several - too many really for credibility - are famous people of history.

In Farmer's books among the dead souls having an after life are Mark Twain, Alice Liddell (of Wonderland fame), Richard Francis Burton, Herman Goering, etc. Sadly, there is no Burton in the film version. Alice Liddell is present, but not identified.

The main characters are a dead shuttle astronaut from our near future and Mark Twain. The villain is the reincarnated Roman Emperor Nero. Jonathan Cake, who plays the part is tall, fair-skinned, thin, and is just about the complete physical opposite of how one would picture Nero. Contemporary coins and statues show him as looking rather bloated and chubby.

This also does not seem to be the Nero that fancied himself a great artist. Just like in our world so many or the people who think they are reincarnated think they were famous people in past lives, a disproportionate number of people reincarnated in Farmer's series are also the famous.

The most intriguing scenes are just after the credits as the dead awake in womb-like bubbles or spheres under the water from which they are reborn actually in the river. Each is given clothing including a tee-shirt. Nero seems to adapt to tee-shirts very quickly.

They are given food which all immediately accept. After that they could be in China or someplace else non-supernatural. The good guys are captured by barbarians, but Nero has other plans, though no less nefarious.

Two things are most remarkable about RIVERWORLD. The first is the unusual premise of a life-after-death-world. This is even more interesting in that Farmer created his own after-death cosmology and one not taken from the Bible or Dante or Milton.

The second remarkable thing is how little that premise matters after the first ten minutes. But for the presence of celebrity characters from history, Mark Twain, etc., the film quickly devolves into a fairly prosaic post-holocaust world adventure, albeit one with good guys on a riverboat.

Twain builds the boat with an unlikely amount of decorative woodwork, by the way. The real Twain might have wanted to but would have been more practical.

The story is left open-ended in the hopes that it will sell as a TV series. If this is going to become a TV series it can do it without me. I rate RIVERWORLD a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2003 Mark R. Leeper

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