from Heavy Metal, September, 1981
The Riverworld novels of Philip Jose Farmer – To Your Scattered Bodies Go; The Fabulous Riverboat, The Dark Design, and The Magic Labyrinth have a multitude of virtues. They boast as much smashing-and-bashing melodrama as ten years’ worth of old Doc Savage magazines, they are full of odd and interesting bits of historical and anthropological knowledge, and they raise all the important questions of philosophy within the context of a hero’s quest that is both exciting and metaphysical. Best of all, taken together they weigh just enough to make an ideal bludgeon to batter the head of the next person who tells you that science fiction is not serious literature.
The basic plot, or McGuffin (as Hitchcock would call it), is so simple that only a genius could conceive it. Everybody in these books has already lived and died on Earth; now they are mysteriously alive again on another planet, Riverworld, with no knowledge of how this “miracle” was achieved, or who did it, or why. The major characters include the materialistic Mark Twain, the agnostic Sir Richard Burton, the newly converted religious mystic Hermann Goering (!), and the sentimental Alice Liddell (yes, the same one who inspired Lewis Carroll). They all struggle desperately to make sense out of their inexplicable situation and to find a way to the North Pole of Riverworld, where the answer might be found. Along the way are feuds and battles and a gallery of other interesting characters (e.g., Tom Mix, Gilgamesh, Jesus Christ), but Farmer’s greatest achievement, accomplished with brilliant understatement, is to make us gradua1ly realize that our own situation here on Earth is just as mysterious as anything on Riverworld, or that the answer to the enigmas of Riverworld might also be the explanation of the paradoxes of our own peculiar existence here and now. Once again, in a brilliant climax, Farmer demonstrates my pet theory that sf is the only serious literature around these days, because it is the only literature that grapples with the ultimate questions of who or what we are and how we got here.
One minor criticism: Farmer still seems to believe that all the great characters of modem fiction are descended from the Greystokes, even though I have demonstrated in several places that they are actua1ly descended from a peasant named Furbish Lousewart who got to Lady Greystoke while Lord Greystoke was off fighting in a crusade. A small historical error like that can be forgiven, however, since the rest of the Riverworld epic is so rich and wonderfully wrought.
Farmer on Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) is the Kilgore Trout of the Quantum-Cum-Cthulhu universes. A rereading of his books always turns up something you’d not apprehended the first time. Also, he’s very quotable, a true poet: that is, a master or testosterstoned mistress who (or which) is inspired by the muse, who sometimes looks like a moose and who dwells in the mews (labyrinthal or feline or both), a Krazy Kat bammedby the photonic Brick of Ignatz Mouse (read: Ignites Muse).
Though I’d heard much about the Illuminatus Trilology (which RAW wrote with Robert Shea), it wasn’t until five months ago that I read it. I was at once bewitched by this “paranoid” Gulliver’s Travels. I also thought perhaps RAW had been somewhat influenced by me – which was only fair since I was, in turn, being influenced by him in a helicoidal or helicoital feedback. (But, as I and he maintain, every quantum that’s rubbed elbows influences every other, though they’re twenty-three billion light-years apart.)
Shea and RAW parted company, though not quantum influence, and RAW wrote The Cosmic Trigger, which unexplained the trilogy. He then went on with Masks of the Illuminati and Schrödinger’s Cat, a three-volume Allah’s in Wonderland. These books are vital for your health, though the recommendation carries more weight in this universe than in the one next door. Or is it vice versa?
RAW’s works, though he may not know it, are codes. Work them out, and you’ll know the secret of the universes. The codes are not sent by people/ things from Sirius. RAW is confused. The messages do come through the area of Sirius, but they are from a “place” a googolplex of light-years and several universes beyond Sirius. Really? Not really. The source transceiver is herein Peoria, but the bending of the medium caused by SMUT (Space-Matter-Uber-Time) makes the codes come from way behind but along the line of sight of Sirius. (Dirty time is slower than clean time. And who dirtied it?)
I had a vision eight years ago. (Consider the octave and its temporality of significance.) The vision meant nothing until I read Schrödinger’s Cat. Then I realized what I thought it meant. And now RAW will translate for me the meaning of this vision (from Peoria roundabout the line of sight of Sirius), and then I’ll translate his translation for him. And so on. Feedback.
Though Melville omitted it, Captain Ahab said, “In one sense, Aleister Crowley is lower than whale shit. In another, he’s as high as God’s hat. The true shaman knows that God’s hat is made out of dried whale shit.”