Black Hole Reads: The Fabulous Riverboat


The Fabulous Riverboat is book two of the Riverworld series. I love how P. J. Farmer created characters based on historical figures, and built a storyline for them so that they repeat in the Riverworld novels, though obviously in a quite different way, what they did – or wrote – in real life.

In the first volume we had Robert Burton, who in his past life had been exploring Africa in search of the headwaters of the Nile, now trying to reach the source of The River.

In a similar way Sam Clemens, alias Mark Twain, is devoted to his project of becoming the captain of a steamboat, and spend the rest of his second life sailing up The River. His alter ego, a mighty but good-hearted giant, is always on his side. Their situation parallels that of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim to some extent. Just like them they have to deal with racism. Also, Jim spoke in vernacular: no wonder his counterpart Joe Miller has a speech impediment. However, Sam will be not nearly as carefree as his fictional Mississippi boy.

A brand new start is impossible on the Riverworld, because men are revived with pristine bodies but also with the memories of their earthly life. Their moral flaws, prejudice, sense of guilt and feuds have followed them beyond resurrection. To Sam, this is evidence to his deterministic philosophy.

In order to realize his dream Sam has to compromise many times: he commits murder and treason, allies with an untrustworthy partner and falls in the traps of diplomacy. A small scale industrial revolution develops around the shipyard, but along with the re-invention of useful technology come pollution and the making of more effective – and deadly – weapons. It’s clear by now that this is not heaven: at most, it’s a steampunk purgatory.

Also, Clemens is haunted by the ghosts of his pasts. He becomes even more troubled when his lost wife reappears at the side of another man. Here’s what he says when reminded of his reputation as a writer:

“A humorist is a man whose soul is black, black, but who turns his curdles of darkness into explosions of light. But when the light dies out, the black returns”.

This sounds like a statement he could really have said. Let’s compare it with something Twain has actually written on the subject:

“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven”. – Following the Equator

The final chapter opens up like a happy ending, but Sam’s trouble are not over yet: expect a cliffhanger.


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