I recently finished reading the first two books of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series.

It sounds like the book made a major splash when it was published — it won a Hugo award, had several sequels, and so on.

However, I'm not clear on why this was. Can anyone clarify why it was notable or influential, and what made it stand out among other science fiction works when it was published?

  • 5
    No its not out of scope. One of the reasons Riverworld was considered excellent was its reimaginings of famous characters being resurrected on the Riverworld. This had not been done often or well, but Riverworld's handling of this trope was considered masterful. Members of the literati spent a great deal of time trying to figure out which famous characters were being reborn and who they might be. There was also its quasi-religious themes which also posited alien superintelligences. It really was as great series as the Hugo awarded for it. Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 22:15
  • The problem is, if this is in scope, then you open the door to a million "why didn't X win the Hugo?" questions.
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 22:28
  • 2
    Specious answer. Why something didn't win a Hugo isn't the same as why something DID. Winning is the notation that matters, not winning is NOT important. Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 22:33
  • OK, should I create a new post with the revised question?
    – Netbrian
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 1:52
  • 3
    I agree with @ThaddeusHowze. We should be able to answer more questions than just those that can be answered with a couple of overlooked quotes from the work itself, possibly some production notes, a DVD bonus, or a word of god. Compare with "Why didn't The Thing (1982) fare better at the box office?" that asked about the (negative, in that case) reception of a work, which turned out to be perfectly answerable.
    – SQB
    Commented Feb 2, 2016 at 9:21

1 Answer 1


Russell Letson (chief reviewer for Locus Magazine for several decades) offered a substantial critique of Farmer's Riverworld series in 1977, just five years after the first book was published.

The article itself is too long to reprint in full (I've excerpted below) but in brief, he felt that the protagonists were heroic yet believable and that the books themselves were "sophisticated" and "grown up" and that they explored the limits of current sci-fi, all factors in Farmer's success as an author and specifically in relation to the Riverworld Series' commercial success.

One of the qualities that makes Farmer's work interesting—perhaps the main factor—is his ability to break new ground in a field which, at its worst (like all formula fiction), repeats standard patterns in standard ways; this is most clearly seen in the motifs Farmer has introduced or championed since the start of his career nearly twenty-five years ago: alien sex and sex with aliens, pocket universes, the Riverworld. I suggest that in addition to his justly-recognized inventiveness in the realm of ideas, Farmer has also pushed at the limits of the science fiction/fantasy conception of the hero. Cawelti writes that the poles of hero design in most adventure fiction are the superhero and the ordinary man, and that "more sophisticated adults generally prefer the 'ordinary' hero figure who is dominant in the fictions of those who are usually considered the best writers of "grown-up" adventures.... Some of the most popular writers of this type have managed to combine the superhero with a certain degree of sophistication as in the James Bond adventures of Ian Fleming" (Cawelti, p 40). Farmer has created heroes at both ends of this spectrum, and it is probably his superheroes that show the greatest degree of innovation in the use of the formula. The fictional logic which results in the superhero, however, also affects other, "lesser" characters, so that there is a constant tendency in Farmer's work to go beyond the ritual and formulaic demands of the genre to examine the nature of the hero and his relationship to ordinary men and their world.

Farmer's work exhibits a fascination with the great hero, both the fictional figure who in the past was the center and protagonist of epic and romance and the historical man whose actions have approximated those of imaginary heroes. Riverworld features the explorer-adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton and a number of fictional and historical characters who qualify as heroic despite their secondary roles: Lothar von Richtofen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Eric Bloodaxe, Joe Miller. The historico-fictional world of the Rivervalley, however, is less epic in its proportions than Farmer's wholly fictional creations and continuations; the universes of the World of Tiers, Wold Newton, and various non-cycle stories3 give us the neo-Amerindian figures of Roger Two-Hawks and Kickaha, the neo-Tarzans Ras Tyger, Grandrith, John Gribardsun, and the borrowed figures of Doc Savage/Doc Caliban, Sherlock Holmes, and Phileas Fogg, to name a few. These heroes coexist in Farmer's fiction with two other classes of central character: the ordinary man who must act the hero and the ordinary man who is transformed into a superhero.

Russell Letson - The Faces of a Thousand Heroes: Philip José Farmer

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