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.

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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.

Shining Spirit Blade of Victory

It’s hard to talk about Spirit Blade without sounding like either a raving fanboy or a nitpicky hater. I purchased the first edition of this story to listen to it in the car on family vacation. I was immediately hooked. The audio design was wholly immersive, the music was resonant and complex, the lyrics were clearly extremely personal. I wound up buying copies for all of my friends and family (Christmas was conveniently near). Not satisfied with his original product, Paeter Frandsen (the creator at Spirit Blade Productions) remastered and released the Special Edition two years later, putting to good use the experience he gained in producing the sequel – Spirit Blade: Dark Ritual – and Pilgrim’s Progress: Similitude of a Dream.

The Special Edition makes everything that was good about the original into something truly remarkable, without actually fixing any of the flaws in the production. Even so, this is both the creator’s and this listener’s preferred production of this story.

{4headphones} Continue reading Shining Spirit Blade of Victory

Demonstration of Truth

I’m in the Reaction Chamber with author Nathan James Norman, author of the sci-fi/fantasy novel “Untold” and contributor to “The Least of These”. Norman speaks with me about his novel, the associated full-cast audio drama through Paeter Frandsen’s Spirit Blade Underground Alliance, and a bit about who he is and where he comes from. We get into the power of story to educate and change lives. We approach literature, fantasy, and sci-fi from a Christian perspective, and touch on themes of salvation and orthodoxy, the promise of trouble in this world, and the nature of God. Plus a glimpse at the internal mythology of the Untold universe.

Check out Nathan James Norman at:

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Dimension of the Mind

Zero Hour by Stoney M. Setzer“Zero Hour” is the new book from ResAliens collection the spiritual suspense stories of Stoney M. Setzer. Setzer’s stories have appeared previously in Residential Aliens and Christian Sci-Fi Journal among other venues. Edited by Lyndon Perry, this collection brings together twelve previously published stories along with three never before printed.

The cover copy claims similarity to The Twilight Zone, and certainly there is something of that flavor herein. Stories like “In the Shadow of the Sphinx”, and “All Hail Sam” feel like they should begin with Rod Serling voiceover delivering the moral lesson of the story. Other tales hearken back to radio programs like Escape and X Minus One, with the subtle deviations from reality that tell the reader something is just barely off about the world they are experiencing; “Doomsday Falls on a Tuesday This Year” and “Square Peg” need only a scratchy background of static noise to complete the illusion. Still other offerings evoke the classic short stories of Larry Niven or Isaac Asimov with their emphasis on the ordinary character reactions to the most extraordinary situations, including “The Alabama Hammer” and “We Serve All Kinds Here”. Finally, Setzer delivers his more direct spiritual lessons in the form of pure morality plays in “Darkest Before Dawn” and “Enamored”.

Readers looking for hard-edged, violent, or sensual fiction need to turn away. Setzer’s stories are comfortable, familiar, and hazy, surrounded in a dream-like quality. He pulls no punches when it comes to questions of morality and spirituality, using his words in direct manner that leaves no question as to his intention to evangelize, or his stance on matter of religion. His message is consistent, and delivered with an urgency that erases all doubt in the mind of the reader: “The world is larger than you realize. Truth is unavoidable. All men need a savior.”

Residential Aliens Press can be found online, and their books are available through a variety of venues. Zero Hour is available directly from the ResAliens Createspace store.

The Missionary

This weekend sees the release of the new Benefit book from Critical Press Media: “Water is Life”.

Author Deborah Caligiuri joins me on the show to provide inspiration for gifts, and talk about the very personal experiences that formed the inspiration for her story in the anthology.

John Wilkerson has been Podcasting for Water all year long, and Critical Press Media is pleased to come alongside him in this endeavor!

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