Cover by Keith Parkinson
Gregory Benford was born on January 30, 1941. He helped start the first science fiction convention in Germany, WetzCon, in 1956 and the first convention in Texas, Southwestern Con, in 1958. He received the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 1975 for his collaboration with Gordon Eklund, “If the Stars Are Gods.” His novel Timescape received the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the John W. Campbell Memorial, Jr. Award, the Ditmar Award, and the British SF Association Award. It also loaned its name to a publishing imprint. Benford received a Phoenix Award from the Southern Fandom Confederation in 2004 and a Forry Award from LASFS in 2016. Benford was the Guest of Honor at Aussiecon Three, the 1999 Worldcon in Melbourne, Australia.
“Down the River Road” was included in After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Martin H. Greenberg. Originally published in January 1992, the book and all the stories in it were translated into Dutch, Italian, and French. The story has not appeared outside of the original anthology.
Gregory Benford is best known as an author of hard science fiction, so while it might be surprising to come across his “Down the River Road” in a collection of stories honoring J.R.R. Tolkien, it isn’t surprising that underneath the fantasy veneer his world seems to have scientific underpinings. John is traveling on the dangerous river, trying to find his missing father. Along the way, he takes on a variety of odd jobs, during one of which he finds himself unloading a ship with the aid of Zoms, the reanimated dead. One of the Zoms could be his father, but he can’t be sure.
Eventually, John is hired by a river pilot, Mr. Preston to serve as a navigator as they make their way upstream. The story about traveling upstream and downstream on a river that includes timestorms seems as much a tribute to Philip José Farmer and his Riverworld or Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Some of the discussion between Benford’s protagonist, John, and the ship’s pilot, Mr. Preston, could have been taken verbatim from Life on the Mississippi.
Although Benford refers to the river and its link to time, he never really explains how the river can be used to travel through time, although the river’s time-bending qualities eventually become extremely important to John’s search. In some ways, Benford’s background work against the story. If it were written by a known fantasy author, the reader would be more excepting of the vagaries of nature of the river and John’s world, however because Benford is known for his scientific rigor, the reader keeps trying to parse the clues about the world’s nature, although Benford never quite provides answers about the strange lands around the river or how physical rules guide them.
Reviewed in its original appearance in After the King, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Tor Books, 1992.
Steven H Silver is a fifteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Big White Men—Attack!” in Little Green Men—Attack! Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 5 times as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.