My first go at one of the grand masters of scifi and the beginning of the “Riverworld” series. It was… fine. Certainly the concept is arresting. Someone took the whole population of humanity and reincarnated them into new, young, naked bodies along the course of an endless river. Everyone who ever lived is there, scattered in quasi-random linguistic/temporal groupings. They get food (and booze, and weed) from magic lunchpails someone issued them, and other than bamboo and stone, there’s not much to make stuff with.
I emphasize that last bit because Farmer emphasizes it, a lot. Way more of this book than I would have figured is about the quotidian act of survival in this comparatively-easy-to-survive world. You’d figure given the sheer scope of the setup, Farmer would have jumped to the implications of their situation a little more quickly… but instead we get a lot of speculation about how much you can do with bamboo, rocks, and fish (and human!) parts.
Either way, we get our narrative viewpoint from the newly-reincarnated Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian traveler, linguist (he could supposedly speak twenty or thirty languages or something like that) and writer with many a legendary exploit under his name. Naturally, he takes charge of the surviving-and-organizing business of his little band, that includes the grown-up inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice (for whom Burton obviously gets horny), a Holocaust survivor, an alien, a caveman, some Italians, a know-it-all who provides periodic infodumps on Burton or assorted others, etc.
Burton had had a vision where he met with the organizers of the Riverworld, and is determined to find them again. He and his band make a raft and head upriver. Because this is midcentury scifi, naturally everyone has set to warring with one another, even though (because?) their material needs are basically met. One set of slaver warlords led by Hermann Goering capture Burton and his band. They escape, but it sets up a dynamic wherein Burton and Goering get killed and reincarnated time and again, generally in close proximity to each other. Burton is doing it because he thinks being randomly distributed somewhere on the river is a more efficient means of travel than trying to sail through the rival factions, so he kills himself over and over again, getting newly reincarnated each time. Goering does it because he’s addicted to both heroin and a special “dreamgum” issued in their rations and tries killing himself when he can’t kick successfully, even when he’s otherwise turned a new leaf.
Once it gets going the action is commendably out there, though with enough of that midcentury scifi flavor — the omni-competent ubermensch protagonist, the women and their hangups (Farmer was something of a pioneer in bringing explicit sex into science fiction), the faceless hordes fighting for no reason, etc. — to dampen the originality some. In all, good enough to have a look at the sequels.