Oh, boy. Don’t let that tantalize you. We’ve got a lot of annoying things going on in this book. Shall we begin?
Richard Francis Burton, esteemed 19th century explorer, geographer, cartographer, culturaler, racister, and sexualar (“master of thirty-nine languages–including pornography” ), dies in 1890 Trieste, and wakes up in this moving tube of slime that rotates like a rotisserie chicken, surrounded by other tubes of rotating naked, hairless people, but he’s mostly noticing the Black guy over there, and the Asian guy over there, and this really pale chick whose breasts move with her breathing, and I guess those would be normal things for an undead 19th century European guy to notice. Then he shoots out of the tube and arrives in the bank of this river, and everybody is naked and hungry, and he winds up leading a group of people.
Our cast of characters:
Our group decides to sail the endless River, encountering various historical cultures and figures along the way. Eventually, they discover the Ethicals, the people behind this manufactured afterlife, and Burton realizes they are after him because he woke up during the transition and so he is officially a danger to their grand master scheme. So, Burton just keeps killing himself to escape the Ethicals, and they don’t notice that’s his M.O. until the end.
I know what you’re thinking. “That sounds amazing! How could this possibly go wrong?”
Shut up. I don’t need your sarcasm right now.
Let’s get the obvs out of the way. Burton is a 19th century imperialist dildo. He’s a racist, and Farmer characterizes him so. For accuracy’s sake, this would be okay, but Farmer slips and muddles in a lot of places where Burton is not influencing the narrative. Too many stereotypes are reinforced in this tale, and no one is safe: people of color (77), Italians (81, 91), Jewish women (104, 110, 110), and Jewish men (65, 103-104, 110, 127) are just a few examples. Farmer inserts his avatar character, Peter Frigate, to combat Burton’s racist tendencies with modern thought, but Frigate isn’t around enough to succeed, and, really, some of these bigot bombs go completely unnoticed.
But women get it worse, serving merely as eye candy and playthings for the men along the river (55, 57, 60-61, ), always described in lurid detail, which is annoying and irrelevant:
“Anyway, all women, including the ugly ones, were occupied” (61) He means, “occupied.” FML.
“‘I think she wasn’t resisting the idea of intercourse so much as their idea of simultaneous attack… she went with me (61) (This is from Frigate, the supposed idealized Farmer, there to enlighten Burton.)
“Loghu had a beautifully rounded posterior; her buttocks were like two eggs.” (75) (Again, this is PJF’s lady friend.)
“Too many prostitutes had to rationalize their profession; too many had justifying fantasies about their entrance into the business” (85-86).
“So far, they had neither seen nor heard of a pregnant woman. Whoever had placed them here must have sterilized them…” (98). I love how PJF doesn’t have the imagination to consider the possibility of male sterilization.
Again, most of this narration comes from Burton’s POV, which means thoughts like these are appropriate for this controversial historical figure. But! A more responsible and sensitive 1970’s author would use this premise as a place to argue with Burton, and perhaps inspire growth. This does not happen and most of Burton’s offensive and alienating observations lie festering in the sun, completely unchecked.
And the tale crawls into even creepier creeper territory with the many, many, many nude depictions of Alice, who happens to be a real person and this would be grounds for a lawsuit if she were still alive.
“She must be teasing him” (57). (Burton’s thinking when Alice turns him down. Oh, don’t worry. Of course she will realize the error of her prudish Victorian ways.)
“She had certainly cooperated as enthusiastically as any experienced woman in a Turkish harem” (58).
“‘Any action that resulted from taking the drug came from you, from what you wanted to do'” (59). Just Burton dismissing Alice’s regret after drug-induced copulation.
Which begs the question, why this obsession with Alice? It’s creepy.
But what most bothered me was the negative way humanity is depicted, not as some commentary on society, but rather just another contrived way to induce conflict. When 36 billion humans wake up in youthful bodies in an idyllic setting, they just start raping and fighting. “Some children had been badly beaten, raped, or murdered, or all three” (66). And Farmer is inconsistent with this notion, because “it didn’t take long for everyone to get used to [the nudity]” (69), except for maybe the women and children who were being raped every night.
Even one of the more likeable characters, seventeenth century writer John Collop, preaches:
With few exceptions, men are a mean, miserable, petty, vicious, narrow-minded, exceedingly egotistic, generally disputing, and disgusting lot. Watching them, the gods—or God—should vomit. But in this divine spew is a clot of compassion (174). And I’m thinking PJF sees himself as this “clot of compassion.”
And maybe, maybe, I could forgive all of this bullshit, if it was a well-written, solid story, but I can’t even tell if PJF ever edited this sucker. Heavy on passive voice, it sometimes feels as though Farmer just wrote the story straight through, and never went back to revise, or move things around. If something strikes him, he just wedges it into his current paragraph. “They had discovered yesterday that only the owner of a grail could open it” (62). Well, why didn’t you tell us that yesterday when you were talking about it, Philip?
And the plot holes are a-many reading hazard. PJF never explains why the resurrected start off hairless. Or why there are predators in the river sometimes, but not at other times. His reasoning for why the all-powerful Ethicals fail to realize Burton’s method of escape by suicide, but suddenly catch him on his “777th jump” doesn’t make sense. (And “Jump?” Is this the inspiration for Quantum Leap?)
Oh, and only women cough in fires. Men can carry on full conversations and instructions (117).
The sad, but bottom line: This could have been something really cool. Everyone wants to go back in time and converse with fascinating, controversial, and even frightening historical figures. This novel serves as Farmer’s fantasy to do so, but he fails. Richard Burton intrigues and confuses Farmer, and Farmer’s intention was to use Frigate as an avatar of himself, in order to make sense of the provocative Burton from a 1970’s perspective. But where Frigate should be a device to help enlighten Burton, he is either absent, or complicit in Burton’s escapades. And, Farmer just isn’t enlightened enough to be the right 1970’s white guy to pull it off.
And it’s not even over! There’s a sequel!
“I’m going to build a boat and sail up The River. All the way! Want to come along?” (p. 210).