The Dark Design, the second volume in Tor’s reissue of Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, is actually the third book in the saga, following To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat.
We’re following four threads of narrative here. The first begins with Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose story began the saga. He’s aboard the Hadji II, a riverboat wending its way up the River toward the polar regions, where there is said to be a tower in the middle of a lake wherein all the secrets of the Riverworld can be answered.
We are next introduced to Jill Gulbirra, who in her earthly life was an airship pilot. She’s made her way to Parolando, where Milton Firebrass is building just what Jill is after: a huge dirigible. Jill wants to be on it when it departs for the polar regions. Among Firebrass’ company is Cyrano de Bergerac.
Peter Jairus Frigate, who on earth was one of Burton’s biographers and a writer of science fiction, anchors the third narrative. Frigate falls in with two men whom he recognizes immediately, although they style themselves Tex Rider and the Frisco Kid. This group winds up building a hydrogen balloon.
And Sam Clemens is on the River in pursuit of the perfidious John, who stole his riverboat and left him stranded. So Clemens built another: he has plans for King John.
This is a big, loose, sloppy book, and to be quite honest, that’s not entirely praise. As compelling as Farmer’s prose is, there are too many places where one finds oneself skimming — the digressions turn into small dissertations in their own right, and I found myself wondering if all this was really necessary. Part of the problem is our introduction to Jill Gulbirra — she seems nothing so much as a stereotype of the militant lesbian feminist of the 1970s, purely two-dimensional, and it’s not until much later in the book, when she finally drops the chip on her shoulder, that she starts to become at all sympathetic. Fortunately, she does become someone we can root for, but, even though no one has ever accused Farmer of being overly subtle, I could have wished that he’d been a little more adroit in introducing her, since Gulbirra is a major focus in the first part of the book.
And although the four lines converge in a rush to the Pole, it never really seems like it — there’s not that kind of focus here. There are moments that are truly edge-of-the-seat, but what seems to be an overall lack of focus works its way into the overarching story line as well. We only get sequences in which the full range of perfidy and deception wreaked on the various protagonists is made plain, and sadly, scattered sequences are not enough to keep the story moving smoothly.
It’s not a total loss, by any means. Farmer has developed the characters more deeply — even Sam Clemens shows in a better light — and the juxtapositions of various schools of belief sometimes offer interesting, if often long-winded, counterpoint. As much speculation as the characters engage in concerning the Ethicals and their agents, however, it would have been more fun for the reader to be treated to a few more scenes like the one that closes the book — a mysterious person, disguised as human — or perhaps he really is human — making his own plans for the future.
All in all, if you have the patience for long rambling asides and backstory that doesn’t quite explain anything, you’ll probably enjoy The Dark Design. For myself, I think the book could have used a good pruning.