Sunday 18 September 2016

An Oldhammer Reader: The Fabulous Riverboat

Continuing our voyage of discovery down the great river, we get to the second part of Philip José Farmers Riverworld saga - The Fabulous Riverboat (1971). I don't know about you but the title makes me think the novel is going to be a cross between It Aint Half Hot Mum, Pricilla Queen of the Desert and Love Boat, maybe a gay romance novel set in the deep south with show-tunes. It isn't much like that at all. Although there is a boat.

First Edition cover by Richard Powers
Richard Powers cover for TYSBG
I like these covers a lot, much better than the cruddy 1990s cover I own.  Powers covers hang between an early Ian Miller and Dave McKean assemblage, echoes of constructivism. Nice stuff, and a slight departure from the usual sci-fi psychedelica Powers is known for.  If I were to hunt down editions, rather than just pick them up randomly, these would be they.

What we do have is the continuation of the progress of humanity as set up in To Your Scattered Bodies Go (see here).  Having started to settle in a little, humanity starts to organise itself into geographically tied social groups, and following old habits, something like nations begin to form. In this Farmer is probably (and quite depressingly) accurate in his depiction of human nature. Even when freed from history, consequence and responsibility, people still seem to refuse rugged individualism.

This time around, Farmer rolls 1D6 times on the D100 Random Character From History Table, and writes us a novel featuring Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Eric Bloodaxe, Joe Miller (an enormous caveman), King John, Cyrano de Bergerac and a nation of Black Separatists.

The racial tension theme runs quite strongly through the second half of the novel, with key characters having living through or just after the American Apartheid and segregation, and still thinking in Earth-terms about white oppression and race relations.  Sam Clemens is forced to confront his use of the word Nigger, whilst simultaneously explaining that Huckleberry Finn is pretty much anti-racist, and the book can't be read any more so can't actually matter. All good stuff.

The first half is much more about the comedy Vikings and establishing Sam as a rabid technologist who just wants to build a damn boat to get to the source of The River, but having to deal with treacherous heavies like King John to get the job done. Having influence with the Ethicals (as the entities running the Riverworld Experiment are known), an iron-bearing meteorite is brought down to help in his quest, iron being used to build the steam-ship. Indeed most of the novel is about the problems of getting the ship built, alongside developing black-powder weapons.

More thoughts on Gaming Riverworld

A hex based wargaming campaign. The technological development of the Riverboat is very much like building dev / arms race in a RTS. There's a kind of ur-Cold War, ideological driven thing waiting to be shaped. Perhaps something like Imperialism in Space meets Cosmic Encounter. Resources, exploration, empire building, diplomacy...

Never miss an opportunity to shoehorn in some great
1980's John Blanche artwork

The reincarnation effect could be a different take on multiple lives inherent in videogames.  A Riverworldian MMORPG would have interesting repercussions for guilds and the suchlike, but  perhaps more suited to Roguelike or solo dungeoncrawl / exploration game where death simply removes the players avatar to another part of the labyrinth or landscape, robbing him of all equipment, followers and henchmen, as well as confusing the players sense of place. I don't know of any game that uses a  random-character-respawn-location mechanic as a reward for character death, but perhaps there is one.

The Oldhammer Consequences

So what of the Fabulous Riverboats impact on early Warhammer?

The Magnificent Sven

Whilst we don't actually get to see much river-action in the Fabulous Riverboat by now I'm pretty much convinced that the motley crew of mismatched characters taken from wildly disparate fantasy cultures in Sven, is inspired by, if not straight-forwardly based on the groups of wildly disparate historical cultures in The Riverworld sequence.  It's tempting to think of Warhammers Lustria, or indeed the whole of the Known World as an example of the ideologically and racially discreet nations that some of the Riverworldians seem keen on founding. A kind of identity politics writ large.

Then there's the boat "The Not For Hire" and the boat "The Voltsvagen" - there's no need for a steam-powered paddle-boat to turn up along the rivers of Lustria, why not a simple medieval-level boat or a pre-colonial floatila? The specific appearance of an anachronistic steam paddler is far too much of a coincidence to not be a direct lift.

Punhammer shock

Meteor Technology

I'm sure there are other fictional examples of meteors landing and giving a technological boost to its finders. If it's not a well worn trope, it should be. Riverworld gets its iron, and the Warhammer World gets its Warpstone from large meteoric deposits. In fact there definitely are precursors in the magico-religious meteor in Abrahamic religions but that's a path to take another time.

Anarchonistic Technology

From the First Citadel Journal's "Warhammer and Sci-Fi", throwing guns into the Warhammer mix right there in first edition. I don't think it's really a coincidence that Riverworlds motifs of a stranded alien (who turns up on the banks of a river no less) and impact of blackpowder technologies within an otherwise 'primitive' technological framework and The Legend of Kremlo. In parallel with the Steamboat, there are also the development of small aircraft in the guise of gliders. Indeed if one thinks about it really hard, preferably while staring into the bottom of a pint of Guinness, Warhammer 40k's gothic-sci-fi is a reasonably neat depiction of the end-game of Riverworldian human cultural-technological advancement, but then I said that last time too.

Of course, our Oldhammerish voyage to the  Riverworld does not end here, but continues with The Dark Design. Which almost predictably contains a character which one review calls "a stereotype of the militant lesbian feminist of the 1970s".

Yeah... get in!

amazons: lesbian feminist separatists


  1. There's a new rpg out called Phoenix: Dawn Command in which character progression can only occur if the character dies:

    In Phoenix: Dawn Command, you don’t gain power by killing others; you gain power by dying. After each death, you add additional cards to your deck and new abilities representing the lessons you learned from your previous life. However, there’s a catch: you can only return seven times. So each death makes you stronger, but it also brings you closer to the end of your story. In addition, you don’t return right away and you don’t return in the place where you died.

    I haven't seen or played it yet, so I don't know how close it is to what you're talking about here.

    1. Hey, thanks for the tip off. Phoenix: Dawn Command has a nice art style and looks like it would make a nice premise for a YA book series.

      From what I can gather, the resurrection in P:DC occurs back at a stable home-base, so would work better for a table-top collaborative RPG than Riverworld, which would displace the PC to somewhere entirely remote. Whilst it definitely looks to meld together some post-new-agey ideas (the use of 'sparks' is quite a tell) it also seems to be rather mechanically driven. For some reason makes me think of some quasi-mystical 'energy' rationale for demi-human level limits...

  2. Regarding meteorites in Abrahamic religions, I can think of the Black Stone in Islam. Its connection to Adam and Eve is interesting, but doesn't offer much of a technological boon.

    In Christianity there is something like a meteorite described in St. John's Revelation (Chapter 8) -- "Wormwood" -- but it brings poisonous disaster to the world rather than technological blessing. Though, like much of Revelation, this is to be interpreted as symbolic apocalyptic imagery rather than a literal meteorite.

    In medieval psuedo-Christian myth, the epic poem of 'Parzival' by Wolfram Von Eschenbach has the Holy Grail not as the Cup of Christ (as in other traditions) but as a mysterious jewel with magical properties that came from outer space. I have heard some make the case that Parzival's Grail is a meteorite.

    In recent times it's been theorised that a dagger belonging to King Tutankhamun was forged from a meteorite. It had not rusted in 3000+ years, and the metal composition showed clear extra-terrestrial origin.

    Ancient Egyptian space blades sound like wonderful material for Ancient Astronaut theorists...

    1. The Black Stone is the one at the foremost of my mind. There's also some modern interpretations of the Ark of the Covenant. I realise I'm also guilty of back-dating Warhammer lore, as the warpstone meteor of Mordheim is a significantly later conception than the collapse of the Old Slann Warpgates spewing warpstone into the world. Still.

      From a quick google - Parzivals Grail jewel is apparently fallen from the Crown of Lucifer, an interesting notion in light of the Silmarillion. Casually wonder if that ties in to the Bretonian / Lady of the Lake / Elvish thing, but that's all far too Newhammer for my tastes, and Grail symbolism all too messy.

    2. The theory that Parzival's Grail is a stone from the crown of Lucifer is fun and may indeed have inspired Tolkien, but this particular aspect of the legend (as well as the stone being green in colour) is in fact a literary myth, derived from some 19th century re-imaginings of Wolfram's work. Wolfram himself never wrote anything of the sort in the original text of Parzival! He only mentioned that the Grail came, by means of angelic transportation, from the stars.

    3. There is a warpstone meteor in Death on the Reik, and that's a good twelve years before Mordheim.

    4. Oh yes, I'd completely forgotten about that! The meteoric warpstone, the central importance of the river, multiple factions racing to retrieve it for their own ends, all quite Riverworldian.

    5. All this chat about Parzival has led me to create a new wargaming scenario set in the Third Crusade. The Gemstone of Paradise that fell from Lucifer's crown has been found in the desert (after untold millennia) by the Saracens and kept under guard in a castle. The German Knight, Wolfram Von Eschenbach, and his Frankish friend, Guiot de Provins, have learned of its location and seek it out with their band of men-at-arms. Little do they know that the 'Grail', much like Sauron's Ring, is a repository of its Master's will...

    6. That sounds quite cool. I hope the Saracens are keeping people away from the danger, and haven't been corrupted by its fluence!

      The other stone I was thinking of, and often considered to be part of the origin of Tolkiens Silmaril conception is the Zohar of Genesis and Rabbinical legend - this is a good intro. Like Eärendil's Silmaril, the Zohar is a solidified piece of the primordial light which goes from earth into the firmament. Interestingly Eärendil's Silmaril becomes the Morning Star, which is, of course the origin of the name Lucifer. What Tolkien was trying to say with all that is anyones guess!

    7. That's brilliant, Zhu! I have seen the Noah film (which I really liked) and wondered what the glowing rock 'Zohar' was all about. I knew it was likely some obscure reference to rabbinical myth, but knew not what until now. This has given me some great ideas and I may have to re-write my idea for the proposed wargame scenario.

      Firstly, I'm shamelessly stealing all the ideas in that blog post and fusing them with the Parzival story. The 'Gral' of Parzival could in fact be a gemstone that fell from Lucifer's crown and landed in the Edenic river Pishon. It is in fact a piece of the Primordial Light of Creation. It was given by the angel Raziel to Adam after the Fall and was passed down through the generations to Noah, who used it to illuminate the ark as described. After the Deluge, it passed down to Abraham, who passed it to Isaac and him to Jacob and him to Joseph, in whose sarcophagus it was discovered by Moses, who placed it in the Tabernacle etc. After this, it was lost to history. Until now...

      Wolfram writes in 'Parzival' that the source of his information concerning the 'Gral' is a Frenchmen by the name of Kyot the Provençal. Kyot supposedly found a lost manuscript in Moorish Spain, written in Arabic by a Muslim astronomer called Flegetanis, who was descended from King Solomon himself. Flegetanis learned the secrets of the Grail "written in the stars", he claimed, and wrote them in the manuscript. Kyot learned Arabic with the purpose of understanding the manuscript. Having read it, he then travelled around Europe and the Orient to track down the Grail and its possessors. Later, he tells his friend Wolfram all he learns, who writes it down as the poem 'Parzival'. In the poem, Wolfram also writes that the Gral eventually falls into the hands of the mythical oriental Christian king, Prester John.

      My current idea is that Wolfram and Kyot travel to Outremer together, under the pretence of going on Crusade to reconquer Jerusalem, when in fact their real intention is to seek out the Kingdom of Prester John to claim the Gral for themselves (by force). The fact that Prester John's introductory letter, written to the Byzantine Emperor in 1165, claims that his kingdom is populated by all manner of creatures (griffons, cyclops, centaurs etc.) adds a lot of fantastical potential for Prester John's own warbands that the Crusaders will have to face in battle.

    8. By the way, if you're interested in how the myth of the "stone from Lucifer's crown" was falsely attributed in the 19th century to Wolfram's Parzival, here is an interesting article from 1904 which reads almost like one of your analytic blog-posts.

      I don't exactly understand everything about it, but it's fascinating how these literary "myths-about-myths" develop. The article also briefly mentions the concept of Parzival's Grail being a possible meteorite.

      Also, I am slowly reading Arthur Edward Waite's (of Tarot deck fame) book entitled 'The Hidden Church of the Holy Grail' where he explores in great detail the subject of Wolfram's Grail and reveals his own interesting theories of the mysterious 'Kyot' and his lost Arabic manuscript. Exciting stuff!

    9. Ah, everything is meta. Thanks for the link - Grail lore seems to be a never ending rabbit hole! As an aside, I would like to have a stronger grasp on the matter of the Tzohar tho, especially in regards / opposition to the Miltonian prima materia, the stuff of Chaos, but the efforts involved would require more focus than my multiple obsessions allow!

      Your campaign scenario outline sounds really fun, quite Oldhammeresque (Red Redemption, Cleansing Knights in refactoring the Cruasades as fantasy) and Narnian, what with the panoply of creatures.

      Ah, Tarot is funny stuff. I've been toying with the idea of drawing up a Britpocalypse tarot set / card-based story game, but it'll likely never get beyond being a vague idea.

    10. The Tzohar and the understanding of its nature, origin and meaning almost seems like a Grail-Quest of its own, but a thousand times more esoteric! Throwing Milton into the mix will only make things even more interesting! Let me know if you ever find anything...

      On the subject of the Grail being a stone from Lucifer's crown (to which I keep obsessively coming back to) there is a passage in the Bible -- from the prophet Ezekiel -- a divine judgement against the powerful King of Tyre. However, the language employed against the earthly king is the same kind of prophetic language found in Isaiah 14 against the King of Babylon, from which the concept of "Lucifer's Fall" derived from in the first place -- i.e. words addressed to an earthly monarch, but prophetically referencing an angelic/demonic occurence.

      Listen to this:

      Ezekiel 28:13-19

      If this is another reference to the fall of Lucifer, it lends credibility to the idea that this bright, annointed Cherub, so bedecked with precious stones and gold, would lose one of them in his cosmic tumble from Paradise!

      And what are the "stones of fire" on the Mountain of God, I wonder? More shards of Primordial Light? Something that has fascinated me for years.

      On the subject of the wargame campaign (and thank you for saying it sounds fun), I have in my mind something similiar to Nicolas Winding Refn's film "Valhalla Rising". Have you seen that? Some Norse Crusaders set out in a long-boat from Scotland with the intention of sailing to Jerusalem. Their boat is surrounded by a dense (possibly even magical) fog which somehow carries them to an unknown world, which could be North America, or even Hell. It's never really made clear, but things do not go so well for them there!

      In any case, I have something similar in mind for Wolfram and Kyot's Grail Quest.
      Further research I've done would put any such Oriental venture they might undertake in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade (against Constantinople), rather than the Third as I originally suggested.

      Apparently some (a small minority) of the Crusaders did continue on from Constantinople into the Holy Land itself to continue the campaign, though obviously without success. Plundering Constantinople would be a good opportunity for Wolfram and Kyot to find out all they could about Prester John. After all, it was to the Emperor of that city that the fabled oriental king introduced himself, by leans of letter to Christendom.

      So, after Constantinople falls to the Latins, Wolfram and Kyot set out into the mysterious east to find the location of Prester John. However, perhaps they are caught in a sandstorm (similar to the fog of Valhalla Rising) which may or may not be magical. After coming nearly to death, finally they arrive at this fabled Kingdom, only to find it is not what they imagined...

      Ah, so much mental energy going into a story for a simple skirmish between plastic Saracen and Crusader miniatures. But, it's given me great pleasure and I've learned all kinds of new esoteric and literary lore! Which is always welcome.