The Fabulous Riverboat -- The Magic Labyrinth
The third Riverworld
novel by Philip Jose Farmer
. A quarter-century after humanity's resurrection on the banks of the river, death returns to the species. The little rebirths have suddenly stopped. Sir Richard Francis Burton
, and the rest of Burton's crew are far upriver. This book flashes back and forth between three main groups -- Burton's crew, the group led by Cyrano de Bergerac
in Parolando, and Peter Jarius Frigate
. This is not the Frigate introduced in To Your Scattered Bodies Go
, however, but another one, who died sooner, not in 2008 like the one Burton met on the first day. He is traveling upriver in the company of Jack London
and Tom Mix
(Mix is featured in the short story "Riverworld", traveling with Jesus Christ
, but that isn't brought up in The Dark Design
In Parolando, Cyrano has built a giant dirigible to fly to the mysterious polar tower. He has assembled a crew of 20th century blimp and zeppelin pilots, including Barry Thorn and Jill Gulbirra, and a Japanese sufi named Piscator . The dirigible will also be used, on the way to the pole, to locate and battle King John, who Samuel Clemens is chasing in his new riverboat.
Burton learns that Monat Grrautut, the Tau Cetan, and anyone else claiming to have died in 2008, in fact anyone dead after 1983, is in fact an agent of the Ethicals. Burton and crew, minus the agents, keep on truckin' upriver.
The real Frigate learnes that his traveling companions London, Mix, and the sufi Nur are all recruits of Burton and Clemens's Mysterious Stranger. They end up building a revolutionary hydrogen balloon based on Jules Verne's design in Five Weeks in a Balloon, and take off for the Tower. They have heard a story, from one of the ancient Egyptians who traveled north with Joe Miller, that there is an entrance in the base of the tower.
Back in Parolanda, the great airship, the biggest dirigible in history, also takes off for the pole. They land at the top of the tower. The first landing party dies when the possibly insane Thorn plants a bomb in the helicopter (one of two on the Riverworld, both on the dirigible). Autopsy reveals that one of the pilots, and Sam Clemen's chief engineer Milt Firebrass, were both agents. Noone on the airship is able to enter the tower's top entrance, except for the highly spiritually advanced Piscator, but he does not return. The dirigible goes back to the River, contacts Clemens, and asks for the use of his secret weapon, a laser he intends to use to destroy King John's riverboat. He agrees under the condition that they attack the boat and bring him King John.
They raid the boat, and nearly capture John, but he ends up being thrown into the River. Among the many duels fought in the battle is one between the two greatest swordsmen in the world, Cyrano de Bergerac and a dark, unidentified man. The duel ends inconclusively when Cyrano has to bail.
On the return to Clemens's boat, the dirigible encounters the real Frigate's balloon. One crashes and burns, but the book ends there without telling us who. The final chapter, an epilog of sorts, reveals that the Mysterious Stranger, the renegade Ethical, is stranded. He is waiting upriver of both boats, as is his key enemy, known only as the Operator at this point. His only technological edge is a map, keyed to the Riverworld's satellites, that shows him the locations of all agents on the River -- and as he watches it and thinks about his options, it goes dark. The technology which is sustaining the great River is failing, piece by piece. It is his fault, and he is the only one who can fix it...