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Literature / Riverworld

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Riverworld is a novel series by Philip José Farmer detailing the adventures of humanity in a world reshaped into one long river-valley. All humans that have ever been born are mysteriously restored to life with a body in its prime, and left to live in this world. There are no ores to make tools more advanced than Paleolithic, so humans are incapable of getting to the other side of the mountains that block the sides of the river. Humans that are killed awaken the next day somewhere else on the river. The novels are told from the perspective of different characters; the first is centered around Sir Richard Francis Burton and the second on Samuel Langhorn Clemens.

The books, in order, are:

  • "The Day of the Great Shout" (1965) (Novella)
  • "The Suicide Express" (1966) (Novella. The novellas were later combined into the first book.)
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)
  • The Fabulous Riverboat (1971)
  • The Dark Design (1977)
  • The Magic Labyrinth (1980)
  • Gods of Riverworld (1983)

There was also a short novella, included in a short story collection, with cowboy movie star Tom Mix as the protagonist:

  • Riverworld and Other Stories (1979) (The Novella was titled "Riverworld").

These were followed by a pair of anthologies, featuring short stories by Farmer and a variety of other authors.

  • Tales of Riverworld (1993)
  • Quest To Riverworld (1993)

There was also a GURPS setting adapting the novels (copies of it were given to the writers of the anthology stories as references), a video game and two adaptations on Syfy. Aside from the basic concepts, neither had much to do with the original.

Tropes include:

  • Alien Sky: characters comments on how the Riverworld night sky has far more stars than Earth, and speculate that the planet is located closer to the galactic core.
  • Actual Pacifist: Many of the Second Chancers (reformed criminals) are this, however it is a little different since they are all immortal, and therefore don't actually have any need to defend their own lives.
  • All Cavemen Were Neanderthals: Played straight with Kaz, but averted with Joe.
  • Anti-Hero: Burton is kind of a bastard at times.
  • And I Must Scream: How Star Spoon punishes her rapists.
  • Army of The Ages: Nearly any military force in the series is this trope, by its very nature.
  • Artificial Afterlife: What Riverworld ultimately is. Souls themselves are the result of a Precursor experiment, allowing intelligent species to develop self-awareness and persist after death, either through Reincarnation or "Moving On". Riverworld itself is an artificial afterlife created by the Ethicals to assess whether humanity could be entrusted with their legacy.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: What the Second Chancers and Ethicals believe happens to wathans that "Go On".
  • The Atoner: Goering.
  • Author Avatar: Recurring character Peter Jairus Frigate (note the initials), who is, of course, a writer of science fiction who was defrauded by a publisher no less. Rather than being idealised, Peter is scared of fighting and a bit of a weenie compared to the rock-ribbed Burton. It's later revealed that this is a false Peter, probably his stillborn twin, raised by the Ethicals and tasked with impersonating him. (He has full knowledge of Peter's life and works, though. And the main characters later find the real Peter elsewhere in Riverworld. It's... complicated.)
  • Axe-Crazy: Star Spoon, but she has a hell of a Freudian Excuse.
  • Bamboo Technology: Due to the lack of metals on the planets, most of the construction material based on the planet's fast growing bamboo.
  • Bangsian Fantasy
  • Body Backup Drive: When someone dies in Riverworld, their wathan (soul) is collected, a new body is created for them and the wathan is released and re-attached to it.
  • The Chessmaster: Loga. To a lesser degree, most if not all of the Ethicals.
  • Cool Ship: The Not For Hire, a 19th century style steamboat modified with a mix of modern technology and Steampunk.
  • Covers Always Lie: Covers of the various editions often depict the heroes as they appeared on Earth, not on Riverworld.
  • Culture Clash: Each section has a mix of people from different times and places.
  • Dead to Begin With: Prior to the start of the series the main cast is dead.
  • Death Is Cheap: The same advanced alien technology which resurrected everyone on Earth who had ever died remains active. Anyone who dies on the Riverworld is brought back to life the next day somewhere else. A few characters use this "Suicide Express" to deliberately, though randomly, explore the Riverworld. Later on, the machinery breaks down.
  • Earth That Was: Obliterated by Humanoid Aliens.
  • Gambit Pileup: Eventually it's revealed that so much has been happening behind the scenes that it's amazing they had room for the scenes.
  • Genius Bruiser: Joe Miller is an 800 lb prehistoric "titanthrop" who is the most fearsome warrior in the series. He is also capable of matching wits with his best friend Samuel Clemens and with Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • God Guise: Deliberately set up by the Ethicals.
  • Historical Domain Character: Richard Burton and Mark Twain are just the tip of the iceberg.
  • Humans Are Special: Why Riverworld was created.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: For those five and over, they grow to the age of 20 and then stay as they are.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: The spirit of this trope is present. Every human who has ever lived is resurrected on an alien planet, upwards of 10 billion people, and yet the protagonists keep running into notable historical figures, like Alice Liddel, Hermann Göring, and Mark Twain.
  • Knight Templar: Loga.
  • Lady of War: Tomoe Gozen, eventually Alice Pleasance Liddell (!) in the books.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To Your Scattered Bodies Go (from John Donne's "Holy Sonnet VII")
  • The Masquerade: Ethical agents.
  • Mass Resurrection: The entire human race is brought back in the titular world after a cataclysm.
  • Metal-Poor Planet: The Riverworld was designed this way to help the human race concentrate on spiritual things. Until a meteorite hits.
  • Mushroom Samba: Dreamgum.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Joe Miller belongs to a previously unknown hominid species called Titanthrops.
  • Only Good People May Pass: The entrance to the Dark Tower has a barrier which prevents anyone from passing unless they are sufficiently ethically advanced.
  • Our Souls Are Different: The soul is an artificial construct implanted by Applied Phlebotinum, recording one's life, memories, and existence to allow people to reincarnate on the eponymous Riverworld, eons later, and work their way to some kind of Redemption/Ascension/Nirvana. One striking scene shows a vat holding thousands of souls: this is metaphysics meeting mass manufacture. Imagine: machinery handling souls like a billion ghostly Coke bottles on a production line. In a supreme irony there is no proof of the final afterlife: the spirit engineers infer that, since some wathans can't be observed, they have passed on. In "Gods of Riverworld" is revealed that this is a lie and that wathans never "pass on"; the apparent evidence of this in Loga's computer was planted by him, to give them some goal while they were in the Tower. The real opportunity granted to the survivors of the test is to migrate to a new world of their choice, plant wathan generators and start over there.
  • Patchwork Story: As mentioned above, To Your Scattered Bodies Go started its life as a pair of novellas.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Each novel has a core group of characters, both fictional and historical, that band together to discover the mystery of the Riverworld.
  • Resurrection Teleportation: The story "The Suicide Express" revolves around this. When someone dies on the Riverworld, they are resurrected at some point along the river. Characters who want to reach the origin point of the river will repeatedly kill themselves, knowing that they will eventually be resurrected near enough to the origin to walk to it.
  • Secret Test of Character: Riverworld's true purpose was to give all of humanity a second chance since the best of humanity proves them worthy of joining a long line of alien creators, yet the worst of humanity proves them unworthy of such an honor.
  • Saintly Church: The Church of the Second Chance.
  • Sea Monster: Riverdragons.
  • Significant Monogram: Peter Jairus Frigate.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: The Ethicals.
  • Take That!: When Frigate settles his score with the publisher who cheated him. It's Farmer's snipe at the publishing industry.
  • Technology Levels

Syfy Adaptation

The Sci Fi Channel (later Syfy) made two pilots for a possible television series — one in 2003, the other in 2010.

  • Artistic License – History: Nero in the 2003 film is portrayed as happily greeting a Praetorian Guard who he sees there in Riverworld, along with other Romans. The real man would probably have been far more wary, since the Praetorian Guards had defected from him to a governor who rebelled against Nero, and he'd also be unaware of whether the rest would follow him (his usurper had been popular). Here, he's portrayed as undisputed Emperor whom they immediately hail as their ruler. Also, he orders a human sacrifice, which Romans by his time viewed as anathema. They even claim Nero's misrule brought down Rome itself-it actually endured over three more centuries, so this is ridiculously off.
  • Big Bad: Emperor Nero in the first adaptation, and Francisco Pizarro in the second. Given that King John is just a walk-on role in Robin Hood to most Americans this isn't surprising.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Pizarro in the 2010 version has to be reminded that he killed Dan, when Deb tries to kill him.
  • The Chessmaster
    Ellman: Is this another one of their chess games?
    Male Ethereal: (appearing) Chess. One of my favourites.
    Female Ethereal: (appearing) Mine too.
    Male Ethereal: Your move.
    Female Ethereal: No. (indicates Ellman) His.
  • Colony Drop: What causes The End of the World as We Know It in 2003.
  • Cool Boat: Averted in 2010; obviously it would be impractical to construct a huge paddlesteamer/aircraft carrier with Steampunk machine-guns, but would it kill them to mock up some armor and gatling turrets, as opposed to a small black powder cannon and sandbags?
  • Death Equals Redemption: The suicide bomber in the 2010 version, responsible for killing all of the protagonists, later redeems herself by helping Matt escape, at the cost of her own life.
  • Evil Brit: Burton is made the villain of the 2010 movie, even though he's the hero of the novels!
  • Femme Fatale: (2010) Allegra. And proud of it.
  • Giving Up on Logic: This is presumably why in both versions no one's particularly fazed for very long upon discovering they're back from the dead, young again in some cases, or that the world was destroyed by aliens. Also, they have a lot to deal with before too long, giving them little time for much thought about it.
  • Gladiator Games: (2003) Nero is captured and placed in the arena to fight to the death. Unfortunately he's in his element (not quite true as Nero entered the arena to race chariots) and not only quickly defeats his opponent, but also the local Big Bad, taking his throne. In the 2010 movie Burton thinks this is the true purpose of Riverworld.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Burton is made the villain of the 2010 movie, even though he's the hero of the novels.
  • Mechanical Horse: Pizarro rides a horse, an animal which didn't exist in Riverworld in the novels. But when the horse is 'killed' they see it's flesh has been cut open to reveal robot parts.
  • Mind Rape: In addition to the waterboarding, Matt Ellman is tortured by having visions of his beloved Jessie having sex with Burton beamed into his head.
  • Naked on Revival: Averted in 2010 where everyone crawls out of the river in the clothes they died in, but not in the first adaptation.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Burton.
    "If you had seen what I'd seen, your eyes would be dead too."
  • Scenery Porn
  • Storming the Castle: The 2010 movie has a scene involving jumping from a burning zeppelin onto the deck of the Not for Hire to battle Burton's men. The sequence is rather underwhelming.
  • Suicide Attack: A female suicide bomber kills the protagonist in the 2010 adaptation. She is not happy when she wakes up in the afterlife and discovers it's full of infidels.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Dan in the 2010 movie, to the point where you can't really disagree with Pizarro's later comment that he finds Americans rather arrogant. Seriously, what kind of moron walks up to a bunch of heavily armed conquistadors, hellbent on flaunting their law degree at them?
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Burton (perhaps unintentionally) comes across as this, since he's basically right about the Riverworld being a giant game for someone else's amusement and no-one ever presents a valid counterargument to the question of why they should save it?

Alternative Title(s): To Your Scattered Bodies Go