on 2 June 1999
Call me silly, but I think that the level of the story drops steadily from book one through this one. Now, after the Riverboat is built, dirigibles come into the picture (now why didn;t I think of that!?). Okay, Sam Clemens and his cohorts are hot on the heels of King John the dastardly. Are they going to get him? The enterprising dirigible pilot Jill Gulbirra (of the Clemens lot) finally reaches the mysterious tower at the center of the polar sea. I won;t spoil it for you by giving it away. Let me just tell you that it is ..ahem.. less than revealing. But the absolutely worst sin of this book are the endless parentheses dedicated to Peter Frigate's dreams and reminiscences which say absolutely nothing. At the start of the book, Farmer points out the autobiographical genesis of Frigate's character but he still is (at least so far) a very minor character that simply does not justify the soporific dream sequences.
on 21 May 2012
Philip José Farmer originally intended his "Riverworld" series to be a trilogy, but if it had been published as such it would have been a very unbalanced one, with the third volume more than twice as long as the other two put together. Farmer therefore divided his final instalment into two to form the books we now know as "The Dark Design" and "The Magic Labyrinth", and eventually decided to add a fifth volume, "The Gods of Riverworld", to form a pentalogy.
I won't set out the basic concept behind the Riverworld books; anyone reading a review of the third volume in the series is probably familiar with it already. Whereas the two previous volumes concentrated upon a single protagonist, Sir Richard Francis Burton in "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" and Sam Clemens alias Mark Twain in "The Fabulous Riverboat", "The Dark Design" weaves together three plotlines. One involves Farmer's alter ego Peter Jairus Frigate and his adventures on the river with the writer Jack London and the silent film star Tom Mix, both of whom are for some reason travelling under false identities.
The other two plotlines involve attempts by separate parties to reach the headwaters of the river near Riverworld's North Pole; they believe that it is there, and particularly inside a mysterious tower, that they may find the solution to the riddle of why Riverworld has been created. (It appears that those responsible are a group known as the "Ethicals", but exactly who these people are, and what their motives are, remains obscure both to the inhabitants of Riverworld and to the reader). One of these groups is led by Burton, the other by Milton Firebrass who has succeeded Clemens as president of Parolando and has ordered the construction of an airship, which he believes will be able to reach the Pole more quickly than a boat.
Whereas apart from Frigate most of the main characters in the earlier instalments were real historical individuals, in "The Dark Design" there is more emphasis on purely fictional characters. Firebrass is one of these; another is the Australian airship pilot Jill Gulbirra. The book was published in 1977 and Farmer lived long enough to see that his predictions of how technology might develop in the late twentieth century were not always accurate. He foresaw, for example, a major revival of the airship in the 1980s and we learn that Fairbrass, during his terrestrial existence in the 1990s, was an American astronaut involved in manned space flights to Mars and Jupiter.
Jill seems to have been created to answer criticisms that in the earlier volumes the female characters were too weak, but here Farmer seems to have gone to the opposite extreme, making Jill so strident and aggressive that she comes across like a caricature of a seventies feminist.
The title is derived from "The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi", a poem by Burton which contains the following lines, quoted at the beginning of the book:-
"And still the Weaver plies his loom, whose warp and woof is wretched Man
Weaving th' unpattern'd dark design, so dark we doubt it owns a plan".
The significance of these lines is twofold. The words "dark design" can be taken as referring to the unfathomable plans of the Ethicals in creating Riverworld. Burton's "Kasidah", however, has been seen as reflecting his interest in Sufism, a mystical form of Islam, an interest which Farmer may have shared. Certainly, some passages in "The Dark Design" have a markedly mystical tone, and two characters, Frigate's Arab companion Nur ed Din and a Japanese airship pilot who calls himself Piscator (Latin for "fisherman"), are both practising Sufis.
I must admit that I did not enjoy this book as much as its two predecessors. While the basic Riverworld concept is still an entertaining one, the structure of "The Dark Design", jumping from one plot-line to another without warning is an over-complicated and confusing one, especially as the timescale is not always made clear. At around twice the length of either "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" or "The Fabulous Riverboat", the novel is overlong and at times Farmer's prose becomes ponderous and heavy-going. That quote from Burton is perhaps, unfortunately, appropriate in a way the author did not intend. "The Dark Design" can seem unpatterned and I found myself doubting whether it owned a plan.
on 7 October 2014
So delighted to be able to read these again. Characters from history in an out of this world setting, simply perfect. Richard Burton (the Victorian explorer and translator of 1001 nights, Samuel Clemens aka mark twain, Hermann Goring an airship, a river steamer and a world that is a single river
on 9 January 1999
I became a PJF fan in the years between this book and the Fab. Riverboat. It was a tough wait, then I saw it show up in the bookstores. Wow!.. Mr Farmer did a fine job in writing this book and in keeping the reader's attention. He went into such character depth that they became "real", even those based on real persons. He did quite a job of writing himself as the character of Peter Frigate. The daunting task of building a dirigible, the nightmares of Clemens, the voyage of the Rex and the Ra and the Snark, all kept me daydreaming of the journey up the mighty River. I could hardly sit still the next 4 years until The Magic Labyrinth finally came out.
on 25 August 1999
I hate it when authors go back and change around what happened in previous books in later books - and in this book PJF does it in spades, changing both the plot and nature of the characters he introduced in the earlier books. It's unbelievable and uninteresting. Read the first book in the series, and leave it at that.