Riverworld is a fictional planet and the setting for a series of science fiction books written by Philip José Farmer (1918-2009). Riverworld is an artificial environment where all humans (and pre-humans) are reconstructed. The books explore interactions of individuals from many different cultures and time periods. Its underlying theme is quasi-religious: who did this? Why? How? The motivations of alien intelligences operating under ultra-ethical motives are explored.
This concept is similar to the one described in the short story of Robert F. Young called "On the River" (1965).
The five novels in the series are as follows:
- To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)
- Hugo Award winner, Locus Award nominee, 1972
- The Fabulous Riverboat (1971)
- The Dark Design (1977)
- The Magic Labyrinth (1980)
- Gods of Riverworld (1983; later published as The Gods of Riverworld)
There are also several Riverworld short stories. The first of these appeared in Farmer's anthology:
- Riverworld and Other Stories (1979) (a Farmer anthology with one Riverworld story titled "Riverworld")
In the early 1990s, it was decided to turn Riverworld into a shared universe anthology series, with numerous authors being invited to participate. Only two volumes were released:
- Tales of Riverworld (1992) (includes one story written by Farmer: "Crossing the Dark River". A second story, "A Hole In Hell", was written by Farmer under the pseudonym Dane Helstrom)
- Quest to Riverworld (1993) (includes two stories written by Farmer: "Up the Bright River" and "Coda".)
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Located at an indeterminate distance from the Sol system and millennia in the future, the Riverworld is an Earthlike planet whose surface has been terraformed to consist solely of one staggeringly long river-valley. The river's source is a small North Polar sea, from which it follows a course tightly zig-zagging across one hemisphere before flowing back up the other along an equally labyrinthine path to return to the same sea. The river has an average depth of 1.5 miles, and is shallow near the shore but plunges to enormous depths towards the channel. The banks are generally smooth and gentle, expanding into wide plains on either side, then climbing into ever more jagged hills before leaping up into a sheerly impenetrable enclosing mountainous ridge, taller than the Himalayas. The valley averages 9 miles in width, but variations on the basic geography exist, including narrows and occasional widenings into lakes with islands. From source to mouth, the river is 20 million miles long (Books I, II, & III state the river is 10 million miles long).
The weather is absolutely controlled; there are no seasons, and daily variations are metronomic. The only animal life consists of fish and soil worms. The vegetation is lush and of great variety, including trees, flowering vines, several kinds of fast-growing bamboo and a resilient mat of grass which covers the plains and continues on along the riverbed for as far down as anyone has ever been able to reach. The Riverworld has no visible moon, but a great number of stellar objects in the sky, including gas sheets and stars which are close enough to see a visible disk. These objects provide enough light for "valleydwellers" to see at night and have led to speculation, by valleydwellers and fans, that the Riverworld is located in the galactic core.
The story of Riverworld begins when almost the whole of humanity, from the time of the first homo sapiens through to the early 21st century, is simultaneously resurrected along the banks of the river. The number of people is given as "thirty-six billion, six million, nine thousand, six hundred and thirty-seven" (36,006,009,637). Of these, at least 20% are from the 20th century, due to the high levels of population in later centuries compared to earlier ones. There is also a cut-off point, as no one from the 21st century or later is resurrected. Originally the specific cut-off year was given as 1983 (which was still a speculative date when the novels were first published) but this was later updated to 2008. The ostensible reason for the cut-off was that it indicated the point at which most of the human race had been purposefully annihilated during a catastrophic first contact with aliens visiting Earth. The protagonists later find out this is a creative fiction, produced by the masterminds behind the resurrection, so the spies among the resurrectees could identify each other.
In each area, there are initially three groups of people: a large group from one time period and place, a smaller group from another time and place, and a very small group of people from random times and places (most of the 20th and 21st century humans are spread across the river as part of this last group).
Most of the resurrectees awaken in a body equivalent to that of their 25-year-old selves, except in perfect health and free of any previous genetic or acquired defects. For instance, all heart disease, tooth decay, and blindness is gone, and all amputated limbs have been restored. However, certain neurological impulses (for instance, curiosity or chemical addiction) remain intact. Over time it is further discovered that these bodies do not age, after a physical 25 years, and can regenerate nearly any non-fatal injury, including dismemberments and blindings. The new bodies are completely free of infection and seem resistant to it (though later it is discovered that this has as much to do with the absence of hostile bacteria or viruses on the Riverworld). Initially completely hairless, the bodies grow head hair and pubic hair at a normal rate. Men do not have foreskins or grow facial hair. Women are resurrected as biological virgins (with intact hymens). It is impossible to conceive children on Riverworld, though whether this is because the men, women or both sexes are sterile is not revealed until much later in the series.
Anyone who died at an age younger than 25 is resurrected into a body equivalent to that lesser age, which then ages at a normal rate before stopping at 25. No one who was less than five years old at death is resurrected on the Riverworld (it is eventually revealed that children under the age of five were resurrected on another planet, Gardenworld). In addition to all the benefits of their Riverworld-bodies, the resurrected human race is effectively immortal as, should an individual die, he will soon find himself once again, as himself, whole in body, somewhere else along the banks of the river. Some people even use this "Suicide Express" to travel randomly, though there is a limit to the number of resurrections available to each person, which seems to be individual to each person's wathan.
Since all the languages of mankind are represented in Riverworld, Esperanto spreads as a common tongue.
One of the themes of the series is the way historical characters change as a result of this cosmopolitan setting. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, amongst other threads, portrays a tormented, drug-addicted Hermann Göring who ends up as a missionary of the Church of the Second Chance, a peaceful religion.
Awakening hairless and naked on the alien world without explanation, the psychological shock to the collective human species is staggering. Apparently left to their own devices, the people set about recreating their Earthly societies and coming to terms with an afterlife no religion ever described.
The resurrected each awakened with a container tied to his wrist. Made of a nearly indestructible material, these containers are commonly called "grails" and produce food, drink, pieces of cloth, and luxury items, such as alcohol, tobacco, marijuana (and lighters for some), hair care utensils, makeup, and a hallucinogenic chewing gum which is known as "dreamgum." To operate, grails have to be placed onto large, mushroom-shaped "grailstones", found at regular one-mile intervals along the riverbanks, which produce an electrical discharge three times per day (corresponding to the times of breakfast, lunch and dinner). As agriculture is absent and impossible on the Riverworld, the grails are vital to an individual's survival (though if they do die, they are resurrected with a new grail). A grail is genetically coded to its owner, thus it is impossible for anyone else to open one not coded to him. Nevertheless, "grail slavery," the practice in which a person is held captive and the contents of his grail, after being retrieved by the owner, are taken by force by the captor, is not uncommon. The slaver will usually provide the slave with enough food to keep him alive, as once a person dies their grail becomes useless.
Of special value are so-called "free grails" that were originally found atop each of the grailstones as a demonstration of how the grails functioned. After the first grail-powering on Resurrection Day, it was apparently expected that the newly-resurrected inhabitants would examine the container and thus infer its purpose. Free grails can be opened by any individual, and as such, are valued because they can provide an extra ration of goods at each charging interval. Throughout the series, several main characters lose their original grail and must seek out free grails in order to survive.
Natural resources and travel 
Though the grails provide for all needs and the climate is hospitable, any further attempts to affect the environment are frustrated by the near-complete lack of metals and ores on the planet. The only building materials available are bamboo, wood, and human or fish bones and hides. Pockets of flint (eventually to be depleted) provide material for tools. With technology limited to the paleolithic level, the bordering mountains are completely impassable, thus the only possible directions of exploration are either upriver or downriver.
Even travel along the river is hindered as the Riverworld soon finds itself divided into thousands of tiny nations; empires, monarchies, republics and every other social system ever invented, each only a few kilometers long (though still with high populations; the Riverworld averages 90 people per square kilometer). Because the distribution of populations along the river seems to have been random, the character of these nations can vary wildly within a very short span. Thus, one can enter dangerously unknown and potentially hostile territory in less than a day's journey.
The reason behind the existence of Riverworld is initially a complete mystery. In Farmer's books a number of historical figures - including Sir Richard Burton, Alice Hargreaves, Samuel Clemens, King John of England, Cyrano de Bergerac, Tom Mix, Mozart, Jack London, Lothar von Richthofen and Hermann Göring - interact with fictional characters in a quest to discover the purpose behind the creation of Riverworld and their reincarnation. Another character, Peter Jairus Frigate, bears a striking resemblance to Farmer himself, and shares his initials. There are two versions of the character - one who appears early in the sequence, and another, being the "real" version, who concludes that the first was his brother who died as a baby, resurrected and used as a spy by the creators of the Riverworld.
During the course of the story it is revealed that the Riverworld had been created as a form of moral test for humanity. In the Riverworld universe sapience is not a naturally occurring phenomenon but is the result of a type of artificially created soul, known as a wathan. Wathans are created by a generator, a technology developed and seeded among various worlds by an unknown ancient alien race. Wathan generators create wathans which attach themselves to sufficiently advanced chordates. Wathans are indestructible but become detached from the body upon physical death and wander the universe aimlessly and apparently mindlessly.
The first race to create wathans were only extraordinarily adept tool users up to that point, but lacked individual sapience. Once the first wathans were created their civilization was transformed. Self-awareness increased their capabilities by an order of magnitude, and as the creators of wathan technology, they understood it to the degree that they were able to "catch" wathans released by their own deaths, resurrecting themselves endlessly - or so they thought. They began to have difficulties in reattaching certain wathans to physical bodies, eventually finding it impossible. As this happened only to the wisest and most ethically advanced wathans, they came to the conclusion that they were "passing on", a process comparable to the Indian religious concept of Moksha.
With this in mind, they began wandering the universe, placing wathan generators on worlds with life that could host wathans, thereby creating other sentient species. Once they created a species they determined they could trust, they tasked them with creating yet more sapient species after the whole of their own species had "passed on". This cycle occurred several times until relatively recent times, and the creation of humanity.
Humanity's creators are a race of aliens known, among their human allies at least, as "the Ethicals." The only alien Ethical who is seen in the stories is Monat Graatut, who poses as an ally and friend of Richard Francis Burton. Monat is a tall long limbed humanoid alien who would be instantly recognizable as non-human. The Ethicals were the ones who originally brought Wathan technology to Earth, installing both a generator and a collector. The collector would catch and store Wathans—and the human personas and memories accumulated by them—for later retrieval.
The reason for this change of policy was that humans were, to them, extraordinary. That is, humans could be both extraordinarily civilized (capable of "passing on" within a single lifetime, such as the Buddha), and extraordinarily barbaric (capable of brutality unimaginable to any of their species, such as genocide, slavery etc.). The best of humanity was more than worthy of carrying on the cycle of creation, yet the worst of humanity obviously could not be trusted with wathan technology. To solve the conundrum, the Ethicals decided to put humanity to a test - the Riverworld.
Deeming that children who died before age five had not had a sufficient "chance" at life on Earth they resurrected these children early on a planet known as "Gardenworld". Gardenworld was a physical paradise where the children would be raised as Ethicals by the aliens. Eventually the human and alien Ethicals began work on terraforming the Riverworld. The idea was that every human being who ever lived on Earth would be resurrected on this planet and given another chance to embrace their better natures, thus proving themselves worthy of continuing the cycle of creation.
The entire construction of the Riverworld ecology was meant to help further this process of moral contemplation. The repetitive nature of the physical environment was supposed to encourage a concern with inward rather than outward issues. The poverty of natural resources was meant to prevent the development of a higher technology and the same old kinds of human society, and the food provided by the grails, the presence of abundant water and potential shelter, and the resurrections were meant to obviate the need for an economy or the need to strive for survival. Alcohol, marijuana, and the LSD-like dreamgum were provided for recreational purposes and as emotional enhancements to help the process to contemplation along—although the use of the drugs does not always take humans in that direction.
Derivative works 
Since the publication of the original books, several authors have used the Riverworld setting for their own stories.
A licensed guidebook outlining the setting for use in the GURPS role-playing game was released by Steve Jackson Games. Copies of this guidebook were provided to the authors of the stories published in Tales of Riverworld and Quest To Riverworld, as this book summarizes the chronology, characters, geography and technical details of the Riverworld universe.
A television series loosely based on the Riverworld saga went into production for the Sci-Fi channel in 2001 but only the feature length pilot episode Riverworld was completed. It was first aired in 2003. It used elements from To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat, though it replaced the books' hero, Sir Richard Burton, with an American astronaut and King John of England with Nero as the villain. This pilot is available online through the Joost software worldwide except in the United States and Canada. It can be found on the Alliance Atlantis Sci-Fi channel.
A 4-hour TV movie, Riverworld has been produced and released by Syfy (formerly The Sci-fi Channel) in the US and by Studio Universal elsewhere, written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The protagonist is Matt Ellman, an American war reporter, played by Tahmoh Penikett. The main villain is Richard Francis Burton, although in the books he is the protagonist and is written more as a hero than a villain.
A PC computer game version of Riverworld was released in October 1998 by Cryo Interactive. The soundtrack was by Stéphane Picq and published as a CD by Shooting Star Music.
Fan fiction 
Some stories written by fans and taking place in the Riverworld universe have been published through the official Philip José Farmer Web site.
Scholarly studies 
Antoine Ruiz, from Université d'Avignon (France) wrote a Masters Degree memoir entitled Redemption in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld in 1995. This work is available online on the Official PJ Farmer Home Page.
- Riverworld (2003) at the Internet Movie Database
- Riverworld (2010) at the Internet Movie Database
- Riverworld at The Official Philip José Farmer Home Page
- The Riverworld Saga at Worlds Without End
- Excerpt: To Your Scattered Bodies Go - An excerpt from the first novel in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, published by Random House
- The Generic Universal Role Playing System (GURPS) sourcebook for Riverworld adventure, by Steve Jackson Games