Upon the Riverworld

In my previous examination of Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, I spoke much about Farmer and very little about his setting. I’m afraid I find Farmer’s work tedious, but the Riverworld setting incredibly fascinating. In particular, I’m fascinated by Farmer’s depiction of Riverworld as an archetypal paradise and mankind’s inability to accept this paradise as the Heaven it is meant to be. Heaven ought to be a place where all of your needs are met and you can be at perfect peace with yourself. On Farmer’s Riverworld, no one is ever at peace.

Fiction relies on the ability of the reader to accept as reality the foundational postulates of the setting. In the case of exploratory literature, this has a tendency to blur the lines between axiomatic philosophy and the literary arguments which necessitate the presence of a straw man fallacy. The author presents his conclusions as incontrovertible because he controls both sides of the argument. It is therefore vital to remember that exploratory literature such as the Riverworld saga does not present an objective view of philosophy but only the author’s opinions on the subject.

The Construct

Riverworld was created by an alien race for the betterment of humanity; the aliens call themselves “Ethicals”. The inhabitants of the Riverworld awake naked upon the shores of the river, tethered to a grail that provides them with food and luxuries such as alcohol and tobacco. Everyone is young and strong, their bodies entirely without physical defect. The weather is perfectly temperate, so that the absence of clothing offers no physical hardship. The foundation is laid for a society in which everyone has been made equal in every way save for sheer physicality, and materialistic advantage is difficult to attain. All those who die awake in a newly created body in a completely different section of the river.

Religion and spirituality still have a place in the new world. Traditional Western religion is immediately abandoned for failing to fulfill its promise of paradise. The adherents of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism either quickly turn apostate and decry their faith or transform into fanatical zealots without any capacity to reason or desire to adjust to the new life. Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and Buddhism spread quickly and are widely embraced by the populace. Pagan religions are barely mentioned and not treated in detail. The single most powerful religion is the Church of the Second Chance, an organization created by the Ethicals that proclaims life on the Riverworld to be a chance for the soul to become enlightened and move on to the next plane of existence.

Souls are very real. The Ethicals call them wathan, and they are the repository of an individual’s memory and personality, quantum bonded to the particular arrangement of atoms that forms a person’s body. When one body dies, the wathan remains disembodied until a clone may be manufactured. It then spontaneously bonds with the clone body, creating continuity of personhood. The Ethicals do not understand how this happens.

The Progression

The first day, Awakening Day, ends in an orgy of rape and murder that claims the lives of nearly a third of the population. Over time the population of the river builds a society in which the physically strong and socially charismatic oppress the weak and those who are less assertive by taking control of the grails which are the world’s only source of food. Violent men enlist other violent men to their cause and build large communities around the concept of grail-slavery.

Communities develop primarily along racial lines, but even settlements that are completely homogeneous lack peaceful internal relations and become extremely mistrustful of outsiders. Even communities that seem to be the result of mutual decisions to peacefully cohabitate are eventually revealed to be dependent upon strongly charismatic leadership. Those communities that lack external opposition to unify the populace eventually dissolve into anarchy and then tyranny.

In conflict with Sam Clemens, the leader of one community states that their two cities could never be at peace, that he envisioned a world full of “black faces as far as the eye could see, and we would all be soul brothers at last”. This vision is finally realized by another character, who builds an entire community populated by “soul brothers”. He is promptly deposed as leader and the community dissolves into anarchy and tyranny, as does every other community on the Riverworld.

With all religions successfully debunked, human sexuality becomes entirely a function of personal preference and community norms instead of an oppressive religious tool. Those religions that remain take the form of either zealous fanaticism attached to unsupported dogma or Unitarianism. Jesus and Buddha have already reached a superior stage of enlightenment, and so never awakened on the Riverworld. Most other prominent religious figures become either zealots or adherents to The Church of the Second Chance.

The wathan are not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The first wathan were created by accident in an Ethical laboratory, attaching themselves to the scientists and immediately granting them true sapience. Prior to this, life had no continuity of being and although lifeforms could be intelligent they were not truly possessed of self-awareness and free will. Since then, the Ethicals have seeded promising worlds with wathan generators so that other lifeforms might have continuity of being and the freedom to make choices apart from the dictates of universal determinism.

The Deconstruction

Farmer has some very pointed things to say about human nature and human society. Farmer clearly states that the reason mankind cannot create a peaceful society is that an individual human can never be at peace with himself. Religion, racism, sexism, and every other form of social attitude control are merely expressions of this state of discontent.

The Ethicals predict this behavior, stating that it comes from some flaw in the wathan. They also state that some wathan evolve beyond this flaw, and that these individuals behave ethically enough during their life that their wathan moves to a higher state of being. This is Farmer’s own version of original sin and salvation through good works, although he would never have called it that. Farmer seems to want humanity to be its own god, responsible for its own creation and the architects of its own salvation.

It is this quest for internal salvation that forms the foundation of Riverworld. All of the people therein are profoundly discontent with themselves and their lives. Jesus and Buddha are said to have become enlightened by shedding their desire for purpose, yet it is the very lack of purpose that drives the main characters to seek out the Ethicals. Like Solomon, Farmer explores every avenue to happiness over the course of the Riverworld stories. Also like Solomon, Farmer ends up proclaiming that everything is ultimately futile and that true contentment can never be attained apart from the intervention of some outside force.

Farmer personalizes the Riverworld quest for identity and purpose in the character of Peter Jairus Frigate, who appears in two incarnations in the story. Standing in for Farmer himself, the two versions of Frigate embody both sides of the conflict between the residents and the Ethicals. Like every other character in the series, the two Frigates are utterly unable to resolve their differences. In the end, the pursuit of ethical behavior serves no goal other than to provide characters with the hope of a better existence for the wathan after physical death.

This hope that the wathan eventually passes on to another place has no basis in reason, only in speculation. This stands in marked contrast to every other postulate in Farmer’s work. Farmer builds every other societal construct on a solid foundation of logical motivation, cause, and effect. His logical justifications for slavery, segregation, and sexual promiscuity are impeccably built on a humanistic foundation. It is only when Farmer attempts to justify non-violence and codes of honor that he turns to pseudo-spirituality. Farmer seems to find no basis in human nature or societal evolution for personal virtue.

The Riverworld series closes on the bleakest of notes, with the surviving characters trapped in an eternal existence that is unable to provide them with a reason to live. Farmer wrestled with religion heavily in his writing, and built his Riverworld as a setting entirely without its influence. I think it is no coincidence that a world entirely without religion is also entirely devoid of purpose. It is particularly telling that not a single one of Farmer’s characters is able to behave ethically enough for their wathan to transcend. Riverworld is a story that raises innumerable questions about human purpose and ultimately ends in the conclusion that all human endeavor is mere vanity.

I cannot argue with Farmer’s conclusions but neither can I accept them. Solomon comes to the same conclusion in Ecclesiastes, but Solomon acknowledges that the flaw in his reasoning comes from the absence of a Creator who perfectly knows His creation and is actively involved in their daily lives. I think Farmer’s work here highlights in the strongest possible way the Biblical truth that humanity was created by God for a singular purpose to which God Himself must elevate us. In the words of the Lesser Scottish Catechism, “The chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Welcome to Paradise; Welcome to Hell

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series postulates the mass awakening of the entire deceased population of the Earth on a paradise planet where a single, massive river separates two shores bounded by impassable mountains. All of those who have died, from all throughout history, inexplicably find themselves once more “in the flesh” and placed within a garden where they do not require shelter and do not need to work for food or drink. Luxuries are provided for them. They are in perfect health and without any kind of physical or mental deformity. Mankind has entered paradise.

Nothing could be more like Hell.

The story centers around the historical figures of Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Clemens. Both men seek to solve the mystery of the Riverworld by reaching the headwaters of the river and confronting the unseen architects that reason, and a Mysterious Stranger, tells them must exist. Their search for purpose provides the framework around which the entire thematic structure of the series revolves.

Farmer wrote primarily in the 60s and 70s. His 1953 Hugo Award winning novella “The Lovers” is credited with breaking the unspoken taboo about depicting sex in science-fiction stories. Much of Farmer’s later work continues to explore sexual themes, though he shows an equal interest in theology. Both themes are heavily explored in the Riverworld series, but they are ancillary to Farmer’s primary drive to define the identity of the individual and discover his reason for being.

Burton can’t accept a world that presents no struggle to survive and forgives the sins of the previous life. He continually comes into contact with Hermann Goering, the Nazi war criminal. The harder Burton struggles against the unseen architects of paradise, the more Goering comes to accept their new life. Burton’s life only has meaning in the face of opposition, either real or imagined.

Clemens is opposed by King John, famous despotic monarch of England. Clemens struggles continually to find an existential meaning on Riverworld that eluded him on Earth. For Clemens, life has no purpose at all. He concludes that hedonism is the only valid pursuit but is unable to find fulfillment in any of the pleasures afforded him.

Farmer made no pretense that his works were anything other than an exploration of his own interests and his own frank opinion about them. Farmer went out of his way to challenge ideas for the sake of challenging them, particularly ideas of religion, social justice, and sexual behavior. Riverworld certainly makes bold and plain statements about society, including:

  • All religion is a human invention and should only be used for peaceful societal governance, for which it is actually the only suitable tool. There is no facet of life beyond the material.
  • Restrictions on human sexuality are a societal construct for the sole purpose of controlling the size of the population, and the only humane method of doing so.
  • Total racial, cultural, and sociological segregation allows like-minded people to live together peaceably, and this is the only way peace can be accomplished.
  • Life has no intrinsic meaning. Mankind cannot be at peace with himself, but can only achieve an acceptable state of discontent.

Significantly, Farmer’s ideas and observations continually challenge my own perceptions and opinions. In this Farmer accomplishes his stated goal for all of his writing, that of exploring transgressive ideas that stay with the reader. His logical constructions proceed virtually perfectly from his central humanistic and materialistic premise and his view of humanity in paradise aligns oddly with Reformed Protestant religion, though Farmer himself was an avowed atheist.

Steve Jackson Games licensed the setting for a 3rd edition GURPS sourcebook. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the story as a television mini-series twice, neither of which attempts garnered enough attention to justify a series. None of the adaptations explored the issues that Farmer raised in the novels. There is also a PC game inspired by the series, but I’ve never played it.

Farmer’s work earned him a great deal of critical attention during his lifetime. Both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov praised Farmer’s literary construction and speculative treatments, citing him as an important personal influence. Personally, I find Farmer’s prose to be merely adequate and his story construction borderline unreadable. I read all of the Riverworld material and watched both television productions, but I didn’t really enjoy any of it. The GURPS book on the other hand portrays a fascinating setting in meticulous detail; it will forever be a treasured part of my library.

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Citizens Grok TANSTAAFL

RAHeinlein_autographing_Midamericon_ddb-371-14Robert A. Heinlein consistently tackled social themes through the framework of his speculative fiction in such a way as to force to reader to confront his own opinions on the subject at hand. Though Heinlein’s work is generally considered to be “hard” sci-fi instead of space opera, the author seldom delved into the fundamentals of the science or problem solving behind the technology of his stories. Instead, Heinlein tended to focus on the evolution of society, the individual’s role within society, and the responsibility of individuals towards their society. His protagonists are nearly always adventurers, philosophers, or engineers of some sort instead of natural or mathematical scientists of the kind favored by Asimov.

Three of Heinlein’s most famous works received Hugo awards (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) while the man himself was named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1974.

DSCN2040Stranger in a Strange Land explores the life of Valentine Michael Smith who was raised on Mars, being the sole survivor of a human expedition to that planet. With Michael as his mouthpiece, Heinlein discusses human behavior, particularly in the realms of religion and sexuality. Organized religion has largely taken the place of nationalism within society; the Fosterite cult dominates all other religions and wields a great deal of economic and political power. When Michael establishes his own religion which teaches Martian psychokinetic abilities and philosophy. The novel affirms that an individual’s highest calling is to discover and rely on himself, a concept embodied in the Martian word “grok”, whose closest English translation is, “Thou art God.”

TanstaaflIf Stranger explores the conflict between spirituality and organized religion, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sets out to explore the conflict between individual freedom and societal obligation. The story describes a Lunar colony that attempts to gain political autonomy from the Earth, and the way that political pressures shape society. Lunar society is founded on mutual self-reliance; individuals who do not contribute to society are ostracized and may even be killed if the society deems it necessary. The revolutionaries in the story adopt the acronym “TANSTAAFL” (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) as their slogan. When the moon dust settles over the colony the revolutionaries are left to govern themselves, only to find the freedom they crave impossible to marry to societal rule of law.

Before his recognition for novels critical of social and religious movements, Heinlein came under fire from the sci-fi community for a little novel titled Starship Troopers. It was seen as supportive of military adventurism and glorifying racist attitudes. Hard on the heels of the Korean War and in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein received many letters criticism him for writing the book and was surprised when it won the Hugo Award in 1960. The book deals primarily with issues of personal responsibility and societal responsibility, including long passages of classroom-style discourse that landed the book on the required reading list of the US military for many years. Although not the first story to include the idea, the work is primarily famous for its detailed treatment of soldiers wearing personal powered armor.

DSCN2045Unlike many of his peers, Heinlein predominantly held spiritual or pseudo-spiritual views rather than purely secular or humanistic ones. A firm believer in personal responsibility, Heinlein grounded his views in the utility of the person to society as a whole while also denouncing organized society as repressive of individual freedom, as in modern libertarianism. From a Christian perspective, Heinlein’s work is a provocative and well-reasoned examination of life in a society where God is either absent or irrelevant. At the same time, Heinlein seems to argue that spirituality is a necessary and vital element of human existence. Heinlein’s search for spirituality within oneself comes through most clearly in Stranger in a Strange Land, and even in that novel he seems to acknowledge that although the quest for spiritual enlightenment is predominantly internal, effective instruction in enlightenment must originate externally. As with his views on personal freedom and societal responsibility, it is a position that Heinlein explored throughout his body of work without ever coming to a satisfactory resolution.

CGC LogoHeinlein’s work needs to be read by individuals ready to think critically about their belief systems and look beyond the text to implications therein. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Heinlein’s work in general and these novels in particular a Quality score of 10/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.

The Invention of Lying

l_1058017_8af16772Weren’t expecting this, were you? Based on the trailer, my impression of the movie was that it was going to be a lighthearted romp about people who misunderstand each other and then find each other emotionally, surrounded by a materially improbable setting. I expected the very embodiment of two words I have come to dread.

“Chick Flick”

Don’t wait for the part where I relent and say I was sadly mistaken. This is a chick flick. Snag a notepad and watch it anyway.

The materially improbable premise is that “people never evolved the need to lie.” The phrasing is important. Relationships between people are based on their potential for a positive genetic match in their children. Wedding vows consist of the words, “Do you promise to stay together as long as you want to and to protect your offspring?” A man on the street screams to nobody in particular, “Why are we wearing clothes and living on top of concrete? We’re just animals!”

In addition to lies, this world also lacks hyperbole, fiction, and religion. Marketing consists of a man on the tv asking people to drink Coke because it’s famous and you’re used to it. Entertainment consists solely of documentaries which are read verbatim from a script, there being no such thing as people who pretend to be other people (ie, actors). Religion is simply absent; medical professionals at a hospice are confident that after death is only oblivion.

The movie is mildly amusing. The humor is of the “scandalous” variety, where personal and intimate topics are discussed publicly and in detail without a trace of self-consciousness. Every conversation is one of full disclosure. The people in the movie have no sense of modesty or propriety, and accept both compliments and insults with the same equanimity. Businesses and products are labeled with stark honesty, such the “Place to Abandon Old and Unwanted Persons Hospice” or the “Convenient Place to Have Sex with a Near Stranger Motel.” My favorite is “Pepsi – For when you don’t have Coke.” It’s…. mildly amusing.

And then Mark (Ricky Gervais) learns how to lie.

Hijinks ensue for 15 minutes or so, after which Mark discovers that he can do something else that has been subtly lacking from the dialog. He can encourage people by telling them that life can and will get better, that they have a value not attached to their current economic or physical status. He tells a dying person that oblivion does not follow death, that instead we are reunited with our loved ones in a kind of paradise. It seems so natural from our position on the other side of the screen to offer encouragement and hope for eternity, but remember… as far as the movie is concerned, it’s a lie.

The lie goes global overnight.

In a world of perfect honesty, where people do not treat each other with disguised rancor or concealed hostility, where humanity is merely a civilized animal that seeks to pass on its genetic material, people suddenly discover that compared to the hope of eternity, the present world is meaningless. The world looks to Mark for more answers. He gives them in the form of 10 codified statements regarding life, the afterlife, and how to treat each other. There is additional nonsense here, but among Mark’s claims is that there is a man in the sky who makes all things happen both good and bad. And then something else interesting happens.

Humanity rejects the man in the sky as cruel and heartless, ultimately accepting that there is nothing they can do about him anyway so he should just be ignored. Things eventually return to a semblance of normalcy, with the addition that people now know about the man in the sky.

More chick flick stuff happens. I… wasn’t really paying attention. I was thinking through the ramifications of the premises and what it says about our world. The film is a fascinating study on the nature of humanity and what it could mean to live in a world without God. I found it particularly honest that even though all religions are essentially treated as deliberate falsehoods, the movie acknowledges that hope for eternity is an essential part of both the human condition and the ability to be truly happy. There is quite a bit here to discuss, and the movie isn’t nearly as offensive as I thought it was going to be.

CGC LogoThis review was originally written for the Christian Geek Central forums, so using their scoring system I give it a Relevancy score of 10 out of 10, and a Quality score of “Chick Flick”.

Forward the Foundation

"Isaac Asimov on Throne" by Rowena Morrill
“Isaac Asimov on Throne” by Rowena Morrill

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is most well known as the winner of the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, the only series to date to which the award has been given. Asimov himself assumed the award had been created to honor J.R.R. Tolkien and was surprised to receive it. The original short stories were published between 1942 and 1950 in the pages of Astounding Magazine. These were later collected, and additional material added to form the novels known as the Foundation Trilogy.

The impact of the Foundation stories has been felt in every form of series fiction written since its time, and most significantly in the fiction written for tabletop and electronic gaming. Until Foundation, attempts to build a cohesive mythology around an entirely fictional setting had been mostly accidental and abortive. It’s possible that Asimov’s work was taken more seriously than E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (with which it shares many similarities) due to Asimov’s emphasis on science and problem-solving rather than action, and his choice of humans as the protagonists instead of Smith’s Arisians. It also seems likely that Asimov’s writing was more approachable than Tolkien’s heavily literary style.

DSCN1965In Foundation, Asimov describes the formation and continuance of a great galactic civilization, as predicted by the discipline of psycho-history and safe-guarded by the twin Foundations. The stories are predicated on the continual development of humans along evolutionary and societal lines. The First Foundation is responsible for preserving the store of galactic knowledge and advancing civilization. The Second Foundation is responsible for locating persons with telepathic ability and ensuring their continued genetic advancement. This combination will eventually bring about a Golden Age of civilization.

Like many of his peers, Asimov was a devout humanist. He viewed religion as antithetical to reason, a harmful force impeding the moral and civilized progress of humanity. Asimov argued that a society based on reason would ultimately work for the betterment of all, that those who acted in accordance with rational thought would choose actions that served others rather than themselves. Asimov also argued that the majority of people chose to act according to their base desires rather than rationally.

Asimov’s viewpoint still reflects the dominant themes of modern science-fiction, that reason and religion are ultimately incompatible. It also holds that a majority of humanity is not rational, and therefore not moral. There is a logical fallacy in this thinking that equates rationality with morality, two separate modes of behavior. Ironically, Asimov acknowledges this fallacy, especially in the character of The Mule, and acknowledges without addressing the problem it poses to his arguments.

Asimov’s literary construction of the Galactic Empire has been continually emulated in the years since, and continues to form the pattern for series fiction that uses empire-style civilizations. Asimov’s characters are likeable and relatable, if not necessarily memorable or extraordinarily iconic. His heroes tend to be scientists and mathematicians, and they overcome difficulty based on their capacity for reason rather than physical prowess.

CGC LogoThe Foundation Trilogy is one of the most influential works of science-fiction ever written. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy a Quality score of 9/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.