Background -- The Fabulous Riverboat
The first volume of Philip Jose Farmer
's Riverworld cycle
It begins with the death of Sir Richards Francis Burton. He, along with the rest of humanity, has been resurrected along the banks of a seemingly endless river. (Burton, unlike the billions of other resurrectees, woke briefly before the mass reembodiment. He was in a huge chamber, surrounded by naked bodies hanging in the air. Two humans in a flying canoe put him back to sleep. The story gets told up and down the river, eventually becoming a legend unconnected to Burton.).
Burton immediately forms a coalition with Kazz, a Neanderthal, Peter Jarius Frigate, a writer (and Burton biographer!) from the end of the 20th century, Monat Grrautut, an alien from Tau Ceti (the only non-human on the River ), Alice Pleasance Liddel Hargreaves, the real Alice in Wonderland, and Lev Ruach, another late 20th type, a Jew who had survived Auchwitz and later settled in Israel. Burton and Ruach conflict immediately when Ruach accuses Burton of antisemitism based on Burton's writings, but Farmer makes a convincing case for Burton.
At first everything is anarchy. The first night, most people chew the gum they find in their grails, not realizing it is a mild psychedelic. The "dreamgum" releases their inhibitions. Considering the shock of the day, this is not the best thing that could have happened...
Burton and crew build a boat and set off upriver, headed for the Big Grail, a tower in the center of the North Polar Sea they have heard about. (Rumor travels fast on the river because of the Little Resurrections, the rebirth of those who die on the River.) As they travel upriver, states start to appear out of the people, different societies from toatl freedom to brutal fascistic slave regimes.
The boat is lost 25,000 miles upriver, when they are captured by slavers led by an ancient Roman emperor and Hermann Goering. Offered the choice of killing a Jewish prisoner or becoming slaves, they all choose slavery, save Kazz. In a conversation with Goering, Frigate theorizes that they are not really the people they think they are, simply duplicates, unless there is a soul that attaches to the body.
Eventually the group escapes, thanks in part to Kazz, whose defection was actually a ruse. Burton kills goering with a spear in the belly.
Burton learns that Kazz sees a symbol on everyone's forehead, except for a select few. Capturing one, they interrogate him. Monat leads the interrogation. They learn that humanity of the 70th century (the "Ethicals") are behind the resurrection, giving everyone a second chance at salvation. At the end of the interrogation, the agent of the Ethicals abruptly dies. They find a tiny metal ball implanted in his brain and theorize that it enables him to suicide with a thought.
A month later, Ethical agents attempt to capture Burton. He leaves the rest of the group behind and heads upriver, only to find Hermann Goering's new home. Goering has become a dreamgum addict. In the end, Burton ends up killing him with a spear to the belly again, and drowns himself in the river shortly afterward to avoid certain capture by the Ethicals. He awakens far away, at the northernmost point of the Riverbank. The area is populated by hairy giants who seem to be fighting some kind of internal war, and kill him almost immediately, but not before he sees that Goering has been reincarnated in the same spot.
The next morning, Burton wakes up next to Goering again -- somehow, they have become linked. Joining the society they have awakened in, they follow their own paths -- Burton becoming a warrior, Goering appearing to backslide into his dreamgum addiction. There, they first hear about the Church of the Second Chance, a pacifistic group, probably started by an Ethical, who preach incessantly about mankind's spiritual development. They claim that Riverworld is puragatory, and those who advance enough will go on to a true heaven. They are annoying and frequently killed, which, due to the nature of death on the River, only serves to spread the religion across the entire world.
Goering, tormented by his internal demons, goes insane and kills himself. Burton, at the same time, is confronted by an Ethical agent who tells him startling things:
- There is no Second Chance, no heaven.
- The Riverworld is simply a giant anthropology experiment, to record all languages and customs, and, as a secondary goal, to see what happens when all humanity is jumbled together with no external threats.
- The "Ethicals" are not. They are bored immortals playing with their ancestors before eventually snuffing them out permanantly. (A common theme in Farmer's work.)
- The agent, who Burton dubs "the Stranger", is a mole, fighting the evils, attempting to give humanity the true second chance he feels it deserves, to live forever on the banks of the River. He is the one who woke Burton in the preresurrection chamber and set the machinery to bring him the source of the River on his first re-resurrection. He didn't count on Burton being killed by the Titanthrops.
- There is an aura, called a wathan, that is unique to each human.
After giving Burton this startling information, he also gives him a suicide pill. Burton wakes up the next morning, once again next to Goering. They are in a hostile state, and are immediately blindfolded and executed. Burton theorizes that it is a society that believes the lazari, as the re-reborn are called, are vengeful ghosts and kills them to protect themselves. Everey low-technology way to be human exists somewhere on the banks of the River.
Burton and Goering awaken together again. Goering kills himself by willing his body to shut down, refusing to urinate until his bladder bursts, a gruesome way to go. Burton buries him, and realizes that Goering was right next to him in the preressurection chamber. For the next seven years, Burton keeps travelling the Riverworld in the fastest, most random way possible -- the Suicide Express. He kills himself and wakes anew 777 times. He has gotten out of the Goering loop somehow, waking alone again and again.
He ends up at the mouth of the river. Goering is there ahead of him, now converted to the Church of the Second Chance. Before Burton can hook up with him, the Ethicals capture him. He awakens in a chamber, faced with twelve humans. The main speakers are two men, identified as Loga and Thanabur. Burton is sure that one of them is the Stranger. They tell him that he is the most resurrected man on the river, the Loping Lazarus, and that there is a limit to the number of times he can be reborn. Multiple death is weakening the connection between his wathan and his body, and if he keeps taking the Suicide Express, he will soon wake up dead. They tell him to abandon his quest for the Tower and concemtrate on his moral development.
Burton wakes up back on the River, back among the people he left behind nearly eight hundred deaths ago -- Alice and Frigate -- and vows to reach the Big Grail or die trying.