Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is yet another in a long list of influential science fiction that I keep meaning to read. It won a Hugo in 1972, and represents the first in a series of books known as Riverworld. As with all good science fiction (I don’t know how many times I’ve said this), it’s not even particularly science-fictional except in narrative skeleton, but instead spends most of its time exploring sociological issues.
One of the more interesting things about …Scattered Bodies… is that its protagonist is a real historical figure—namely Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890). An all-around badass, Burton was a consummate explorer in an age long before GPS; he was also before his time in many ways, such as his stance against colonialism. At least in Farmer’s universe, he’s also a lover, fighter, skeptic, stoic, and all-around excellent guy to have on your team if you wake up on a strange planet wearing no clothes and under the apparent watch of a technologically-advanced race of beings whose intentions may be malevolent.
Burton, in the book’s timeline, dies in 1890 and wakes up on Riverworld, an alternate world (actually, a planet in the far future), in what is clearly some sort of experiment. The length of the river, which appears to stretch for hundreds of miles, is lined with “grail stones”, which provide food in the form of, basically, MREs, for all of the billions of inhabitants, all them historical persons resurrected along the river. They are people from all places and times, from modern 1970s Americans to Neolithic nomads. Farmer alludes to the inherent problems of communications, and the disparity of technological progress among peoples, but largely smooths these over as a function of time and practice. It’s a cheap tactic, but in fairness, I can’t think of solving it any other way short of magic. Burton, in any case, takes charge, attracting a small group of followers who either want his protection (ladies from Victorian England) or know for historical fact that he is, in fact, a badass (20th century American admirers), or simply intuit it (neanderthals). Also, he can’t shake off an apparent connection with none other than Hermann Göring, drug addicted Nazi and all-around terrible human being.
Obviously, if you find yourself on a strange world along with every other person in existence who has ever died, your natural assumption is that you’ve found a rather strange afterlife. This is one of the themes that Farmer explores in-depth, though to no real conclusion. Many people, of course, renounce faith in the face of what appears to be incontrovertible evidence that their scriptures were wrong. Still other kept their beliefs, assuming that what was prophesied to them was simply yet to come. Of course others charlatans formed new groups, preaching that they knew the answers, if only you would join their group. To Your Scattered Bodies Go isn’t, of course, a comment on religion, since it becomes clear that it does not deal with an afterlife; rather, it is to some degree a book about how people react when information is scarce. Think Lord of the Flies meets Foundation.
But of course Riverworld is not an afterlife, as Burton finds. Though early on, the book’s resolution is time is minute, it later skips ahead by months and even years as Burton eventually seeks the river’s headwaters and the architects of the world. In the meantime, he meets a rogue member of bespoke architects, sails up and down the river, falls into and escapes enslavement by various tyrants, and dies—sometimes intentionally—hundreds of times, only to be resurrected as in the book’s beginning, sometimes nearer and sometimes farther from the river’s headwaters; Burton calls this the “Suicide Express”.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go does not answer the all questions it raises—many are, I imagine, saved for sequels. This makes it a little difficult to evaluate the book on its own; as the whole, the series may be internally consistent and neatly resolved, or it could be an incoherent mess, but one cannot know for sure without reading the rest of the series. Despite its Hugo award and raft of praise, the book didn’t capture my imagination or curiosity quite enough to continue the series, which leaves me in the uncomfortable position of either foregoing the knowledge of Riverworld’s architects, reading a plot summary online, or simply adding the sequels to the end of my Brobdingnagian list of books to read.