Is Lost Like Riverworld?

December 12, 2008

It recently dawned on me that the TV series, Lost, resembled the Riverworld series of books written by Philip Jose Farmer.  Given that I hadn’t read these books since I was about 13, I started to re-read them to see if there really were similarities and if the resolution of Riverworld might tell us something about what will happen in Lost.

Let me first say that you should re-read books you really liked at 13 with caution.  It wasn’t quite as great as I remembered.  I wonder what else I thought was really cool at 13 that turns out to be mediocre.  No wait, I don’t want to know.  In any event,  I was struck by the plot and thematic similarities to Lost.

The basic premise  of Riverworld is that every person who ever lived on Earth up until 2008, all 36 billion or so, is resurrected on a giant planet that consists of one super-long river that zig-zags from pole to pole and back again.  The river is lined by impassably huge mountains, so one can only move up or down the river, not over the mountains.  Everyone is reborn healthy at the age of 25 and is provided with food daily from special stones.  If they die in the Riverworld, they are just reborn somewhere else along the river.

The hero of the plot is the explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton.  He is determined to discover who created the Riverworld and why.  He decides to find the headwaters of the great river, just as he strove to discover the headwaters of the Nile in real life.  Along the way he encounters all sorts of historical figures from different places and eras, including the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland (Alice Liddell), Hermann Goering, Samuel Clemens, and others.

Here are the similarities between Riverworld and Lost:

  • In both people are stranded (perhaps after “dying”) in a place and are trying to figure out who made that place and why they are there.
  • In both the need for food and shelter is largely eliminated — in Riverworld the stones provide food and clothing and the weather is mild, while in Lost the Dharma stockpiles provide food and the weather is mild.
  • In both the purpose of their being there seems to have something to do with their moral development.
  • In Riverworld the people controlling the planets (The Ethicals) plant spies among people when they are resurrected.  In Lost the “Others” also plant spies among the Losties.
  • In both the spies are detected and the control of the Ethicals/Others is challenged.
  • Both the resurrectees and the Losties form new “governments” and split into competing factions that fight against each other.
  • People do not appear to age on the Island or in the Riverworld.
  • In both it appears that dead people come back.  In Riverworld it is more obvious.  But in Lost the dead regularly visit the living (e.g. Christian Shephard, Harper Stanhope, Mikhail Bakunin, etc…). 
  • Amazingly there is also a character (based on the historical figure) Mikhail Bakunin in Riverworld.

And I’m not the only person who sees connections between Riverworld and Lost.  While searching for material to verify similarities between the two I cam across this post on the Entertainment Weekly site by “Doc Jensen” that concludes: “C’MON, PEOPLE! There MUST be a CONNECTION!”

Let’s say that the Lost writers were at least partially inspired by Riverworld.  If that’s the case we might expect that the purpose of the Island will be like the purpose of the Riverworld.  Both may be designed to identify who is morally worthy to reproduce and create future civilizations.  Perhaps the whispers are the spirits of the deceased who sometimes find a way to materialize in a new body.  Perhaps the obsession the Others have with getting babies born on the Island is to re-embody those spirits or to figure out a way to create the future civilization.  Perhaps Aaron is important either because he embodies an old spirit or because he has passed the test to carry-on the new civilization.

Of course, Lost is not bound by Riverworld.  And maybe the connections are largely coincidence or just common themes in sci-fi.  But I’m guessing that J.J. Abrams and the writers were influenced by Riverworld. After all, Abrams is my age and may well have read the same books when he was 13.  So, Riverworld may give us some clues about where Lost is heading.

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