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.”