The Dark Design -- Gods of Riverworld
The fourth and, originally, final book of Philip Jose Farmer
's Riverworld opus
begins by backtracking a little, showing how Sir Richard Francis Burton
and his group ended up on board King John
's riverboat, the Rex Grandissimus
. It briefly touches on the duel between the dark man, revealed to be Burton, and Cyrano de Bergerac
. A few new characters are introduced -- Li Po
, chinese poet; Gilgamesh
n king; Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcelin, Baron de Marbot
, historical basis for Arthur Conan Doyle
's Brigadier Gerard
; Ah Qaaq
, a precolumbian Olmec
, and Tom Turpin
All the characters come together at Virolando, home of the Church of the Second Chance. The boats are greeted by bishop Phoenix, otherwise known as Hermann Goering. He tries to prevent the war between King John and Samuel Clemens, but this battle has been forty years in the making and will be stopped by noone. Sam and John arrange the battle as a series of duels, beginning with the first and last aerial dogfight on the river, a meticulously described combat that ends with all four planes down simultaneously. Then the riverboats themselves begin to fight. From the launch of the planes to the final resolution takes 92 pages, and I would be foolish to attempt to summarize it here, except for these few high points:
- Samuel Clemens is fished out of the river by Eric Bloodaxe, whose propecy has come almost true -- but Bloodaxe is now a Chancer, a pacifist. Clemens, not realizing this, has a heart attack and literally dies of fright.
- Burton and Cyrano fight another duel. The two greatest swordsmen on the river are evenly matched, fight honorably, and in the end, Burton draws first blood. Since Burton and Cyrano are both recruits of the Mysterious Stranger, they intend the duel to end there, but Alice comes upon them and shoots Cyrano, not knowing the danger is past.
- The Mysterious Stranger is on one of the boats, and he duels with another Ethical after confessing the murder of the Operator. The Stranger kills the other Ethical, the only man who could stop him from his goal.
The Stranger's recruits and their allies form a party and leave the devastated Virolando behind. They travel the final 20,000 miles up the river to the north polar sea, climbing the mountains via secret passages arranged by the Stranger. Just before reaching the Tower, Joe Miller falls into the sea and dies, once again falling just short of the goal. At the last stop before actually entering the Tower, the Mysterious Stranger is unmasked by Burton. Ah Qaaq is actually Loga, the renegade Ethical.
Loga's story is that wathans, souls, are artificial, produced by an alien race as their souls were produced for them by their ancestors. Monat Grrautut, the Operator, was not Tau Cetan, but one of the last 10,000 of his race. They resurrected humanity on the Riverworld (and the children under 5 on Gardenworld) to give them time to develop ethically. A being far enough advanced "goes on", vanishes from the universe and presumably merges with the godhead. Humanity from 100,000 B.C.E. to 1983 C.E. have been brought back and given 120 years to grow. Afterwards the souls from 1983 to 2307 would get their 120 years. (The 24th century is, in fact, the actual era, not 72,000 C.E. like Burton was led to believe). Loga thinks this is evil, unethical, and all of his measures and plots are simply to extend the time and give humanity (and his own parents) all the time they need.
The problem is that Loga's plotting threatens them all. He is the one who shut off the little resurrections, in order to prevent his capture. He caused the death of every person in the Tower. Unfortunately, the immense living computer that controls the entire project is both dying from the lack of a critical piece of maintenance, and insane from his attempts to reprogram it. (It has divided into a dominant and subordinate personality, much like Blaine in Stephen King's Gunslinger series.) If the computer dies, all the souls it is holding will fly off into space, and the people will not be resurrectable. Monat had time to activate the computer's defenses before he was killed on the River by Loga. All that needs to be done to prevent the giant brain's death is the replacement of a single circuit board -- this will restore full nutrient flow, and buy time to cure it of its insanity and hack Monat's programming.
Hermann Goering arrives at this point, having followed the group. He volunteers to try to replace the board, but is killed. The Riverworld series up to this point could almost be considered the story of the redemption of Goering, but this, his final act of repentance, does not work. Alice, on the other hand, has been talking to the computer, discussing concepts from Alice in Wonderland with it. One of these pieces of logic allows the subordinate part to take control long enough to shut down the defenses and allow its repair.
The book ends with all the mysteries seemingly wrapped up, the little resurrections reenabled, and humanity given all the time it needs to redeem itself. But the book's last paragraph indicates that they are not alone in the tower...