The Dark Design

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The Dark Design

Dark Design, The - Hardcover - USA - Berkley Putnam - 1st Edition.jpg

Hardcover - USA - 1st edition.

Author Philip José Farmer
Published 1977-??-??
Type Fiction
Genre Adventure
Themes Adventure, Religious Fiction, Science Fiction
Age Group Adult

The Dark Design is a science fiction novel by Philip José Farmer published in 1977. The book is the third novel in the Riverworld series, the sequel to The Fabulous Riverboat, and was followed up by The Magic Labyrinth.

The story takes place 30 years after the resurrection day from the first book and follows the characters from the first two books. Mark Twain has finished his second paddle boat is off after John Lackland, the remaining citizens of Paralando are building a giant airship, Richard Burton's crew is still trying to reach the pole, and a new group involving Jack London and Tom Mix is introduced. However, the stakes have been raised as automatic resurrection no longer seems to be in effect, and death appears to once again be permanent.


Read?Audiobook read by Paul Hecht.

After finishing the first two books in the series, I was curious to see what was going to happen as it went on. I found this one to be far less interesting, even more sexist than the first two, and, for most of the book, I was eager for it to be over.




— This section contains spoilers! —


  • It's nice that there is finally a strong female character in the series. Jill Gulbirra is witty and powerful, not afraid to tell the patriarchs where to stick it, but still has her own demons to defeat.
  • I appreciate that Farmer points out that most of the people in human history, and, thereby Riverworld, are non-white and this angers the racists. However, this ends up being just lip service as most of the prominent characters are white, and, of the few people of color, many are depicted in a negative light.


  • The way Burton's party robbed the Babylonians of their extremely valuable freebie grails was anti-climactic.
  • Having the native Americans be a bunch of drunks wasn't a culturally sensitive choice.
  • A lot of stock is put into the Hollywood version of mesmerism and hypnosis. Farmer must not have done any research into how limited it really is, so this required a big suspension of disbelief.
  • Having both Monet and Peter be ethicals in disguise is a hard-to-believe scenario. They lived with Burton for 30 years, and never let anything slip?
  • The discussion Peter Frigate has with Richard Burton about the definition of science fiction was a bit dull and self-serving, and it becomes self-congratulatory later when Frigate writes a letter about what a great idea Riverworld would be for a sci-fi series.
  • Parolando being once again double-crossed by one of King John's men makes them seem less like heroes and more like saps. At some point they need to take responsibility for failing to properly vet people.
  • Abruptly giving the ethicals super-human strength all of the sudden at the end of the book makes no sense.
  • For some reason, the chapter breaks sometimes occur right in the middle of related prose. Initially, I assumed this was done to have chapters of a uniform length, but there are several really long chapters and several really short ones. It's not too distracting, but enough that I noticed it.
  • A lot of time is spent on Burton's group in the first half, then they're almost entirely forgotten about for the rest of the book.


  • There are several lengthy sections in the book that are really unimportant. Most of the ancillary characters get at least a chapter of backstory, none of which pertains to the plot. I wouldn't mind this so much if it were about historical characters because, at least then I would be learning something, but most of the minor fictional side-characters also get a chapter. Also, the story about a Bedouin who farted and lost his palace was too juvenile to be interesting.
  • Farmer's sexism is even more blatant in this book. In the previous books, he didn't know how hymens worked and all women were relegated to ancillary characters, but, in addition to those faults, women are now described primarily by their sexual characteristics, he describes 15-year-old Eve being raped by her uncle as "not entirely unwilling," and he has Jill Gulbirra, a caricature of Feminism, photographed in the nude without her consent then violently raped and burned alive in a hallucination.
  • Frigate, an author, works with another author and an actor to build and operate a never-before-built experimental airship. And, despite none of them having any engineering experience, it works just fine on its maiden voyage. This is entirely unbelievable.
  • Despite a read time of 18 hours, very little new information is learned about Riverworld. Most of the book is building machines, some sabotage action scenes, and failing to enter the tower. This book could have been a tenth of its size, and I wouldn't feel like I missed anything.


Strong female character?PassJill Gulbirra is smart, capable, and assertive.
Bechdel test?PassI think Jill Gulbirra briefly talks to another woman about the zeppelin, but I don't remember.
Strong person of color character?PassSeveral: Jill Gulbirra, Nur-ed-Din, Piscator
Queer character?PassJill Gulbirra is bi, and more than one of the crew on Jack London and Tom Mix's ship are gay.


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