The Dark Design

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The Dark Design
First edition
Author Philip José Farmer
Cover artist Vincent Di Fate
Country United States
Language English
Series Riverworld
Genre Science Fiction novel
Publisher Berkley Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
ISBN 0-399-12031-9
OCLC 2910978
LC Class PZ4.F234 Dar3 PS3556.A72
Preceded by The Fabulous Riverboat, 1971
Followed by The Magic Labyrinth, 1980

The Dark Design (1977) is a science fiction novel, the third in the series of Riverworld books by Philip José Farmer. The title is derived from lines in Sir Richard Francis Burton's poem The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî:

And still the Weaver plies his loom, whose warp and woof is wretched Man
Weaving th' unpattern'd dark design, so dark we doubt it owns a plan.


The shortest of the three plotlines is that of Richard Francis Burton and his friends, traveling up river. Many decades after resurrection, the stone supplies in their valley are depleted and technology has begun to collapse. Also, for reasons unknown, the people killed are no longer revived. Up river, the crew encounters a group of ancient Egyptians who tell a detailed story of the last attempt to reach the mouth of the river. This mission, which was launched by the Pharaoh Imhotep, included the giant whom Sam Clemens calls Joe Miller (believed by the Egyptians to be an incarnation of the god Thoth). This mission reached the end of the river, and found a massive waterfall. Scaling its sides, they eventually found a passage through to the polar sea. Descending a ledge carved into the rock, they found a cave filled with food and powered boats. There, one Egyptian died, and was resurrected to recount this story. Burton's followers are also shown exposing a pair of impostors. Under hypnosis, the neanderthal Kaz identifies Monat and Frigate as agents of the Riverworld's creators. Burton goes to confront the two, but finds them escaped.

The second storyline follows the real Peter Jairus Frigate. Unaware that an alien agent has been posing as himself, this Frigate, whose life story is identical in most respects to the one which the false Frigate told, has been living an ordinary life along the river. One day a ship docks near his home and he recognizes the two men who captain it as his childhood heroes Jack London and Tom Mix. Accompanied by the sufi Nur ed Din and the African warrior Umslopogas, the two men are traveling incognito up river. Frigate becomes a valued crew member, not revealing for years that he knows the men's identities. Upon his doing so, they reveal that each was approached by the Mysterious Stranger, who enlisted them to find the headwaters of the River. When the boat arrives at a metal-rich kingdom named New Bohemia, Frigate suggests that they speed their travel there by building a balloon. After a betrayal by the ruler of New Bohemia, the men build their balloon and travel upriver, only to crash when they have a near-miss with another flying vehicle.

The story of that flying vehicle is told in the third plot of the novel, in which the nation of Parolando builds an airship under the engineer Milton Firebrass, to reach the headwaters more quickly than Parolando's two riverboats. Firebrass is assisted in these efforts by Cyrano de Bergerac. They are joined by newcomer Jill Gulbirra, an Australian dirigible pilot and ardent feminist. Making its way through a massive hole in the mountains which surround the polar sea, the airship confronts the dark tower there. Firebrass, along with a few others, board a helicopter to descend to the tower; but the helicopter is destroyed shortly before landing, killing all aboard, by Barry Thorne, an engineer. While he is confined to a prison, the surviving crew explore the tower; but their entry is blocked by an invisible force. Alone able to enter the building is a Japanese Sufi pilot named Piscator, who never returns. After returning to their valley, the crew are cajoled by Clemens into revenge against King John, who has persuaded the pilot of a second dirigible to attack Clemens' ship, the Mark Twain. Seeking revenge, Clemens orders the larger airship, the Parseval, to kidnap King John for punishment; but John escapes as their helicopter returns to the airship. Freed from prison, Thorne parachutes from the airship, and causes it to explode.

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