The Magic Labyrinth is the fourth and penultimate book in Philip José Farmer’s sprawling Riverworld series, in which loose ends are tied together and a grand resolution is — well, not accomplished, but the end is nigh.
The chase upRiver to the polar lake and the Tower of the Ethicals continues, John Lackland in the Rex Grandissimus pursued by Samuel Clemens in the bigger, newer, and flashier Not For Hire. Sir Richard Francis Burton, one of those, along with Clemens, contacted by the Mysterious Stranger, a renegade Ethical, is on King John’s ship under the name of a medieval Welshman. Both assume that the ships’ complements include agents of the Ethicals determined to keep them from reaching the Tower. Clemens, however, first wants to catch up to John and blow him out of the water. (If you’re coming in new to this series, see the background in my reviews of the previous volumes, Riverworld and The Dark Design.) Things don’t quite work out the way Clemens planned, and it’s left to Burton and his companions, including Alice Liddel, the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland and Burton’s lover; Gilgamesh; Joe Miller, the titanthrop; Aphra Behn; a Mayan, Ah Qaaq; and sundry others, to make the final journey. Burton is convinced that one of them is X, the Mysterious Stranger.
Needless to say, this is a continuation of the story, and sadly, deserves the sobriquet “The Story That Wouldn’t Die.” In its basics, it’s up to Farmer’s standard: creative universe-buiding, strongly drawn characters, a knotty and engaging story. Unfortunately, it suffers from the “more words than story” syndrome, which seems to be symptomatic of those writers who began their careers writing short fiction for the pulps and being paid by the word. There are a lot of words here, and too many of them are beside the point. This is the volume in which Farmer really begins to explore the whys of the Riverworld and, while ostensibly dealing with the great themes of the reason for our existence and the nature of god (or “the gods,” depending on your proclivities), he doesn’t examine them so much as beat them into submission, along with the reader. I suspect that at least part of the problem here is that this is science fiction, and in science fiction you have to explain everything, even if it doesn’t lend itself to explanation.
(Thinking back, these sorts of themes seem to have been very popular among writers of Farmer’s generation, and it seems that when they started examining them in their fiction, they one and all fell flat on their faces. It’s not the sort of thing you can tackle head-on if you’re writing fiction rather than a philosophical treatise.)
It’s seldom that I find myself reading a book by one of science-fiction’s greats only to realize I’m grinding my teeth and thinking “get to it already!” In Farmer’s case, particularly, it’s extraordinarily disappointing: the man created some of the most pungently provocative science fiction ever written, sharp, concise, and subtle. This isn’t in that league at all.
(Tor Books, 2010)