To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Farmer, Philip Jose, 1971

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Farmer, Philip Jose - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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The first thing likely to strike readers of Philip Jose Farmer's brilliant To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in his Riverworld series, is the sheer immensity of the universe that Farmer created. Imagine a multi-million-mile long river that winds and twists across the face of an entire planet, peopled on its shores with twenty-five year old versions of every intelligent creature that ever lived or died on the planet Earth from the time of the first Neanderthals, right up to the six or seven aliens whose visit in 2008 may have precipitated the death of the planet and virtually everyone on it. Get your head around that and you've got the basics down. What comes after, to me at least, is as big and grand as its premise. The measure of a great SF author should never be counted solely by the scope of the worlds he or she imagines, although world building is a big part of the equation. The true measure is what that author does with that world once its parameters are laid out. The story of To Your Scattered Bodies Go fortunately lives up to its premise.

As mentioned, the central conceit of the story is that one day everyone that ever lived on Earth woke up submerged and nude in an impossibly immense river, rose to the surface, sputtered, then swam ashore to wonder what the heck was going on. Among them, of course, Was Sir Richard Burton, the adventurer who translated One Thousand and One Nights into English, and a number of other characters including Manet, an alien from Tau Ceti, Kazz, a Neanderthal, Frigate, an amateur historian and SF author who had read quite a bit about Burton, and Mrs. Hargreaves, or Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. To their horror they remembered their deaths; at first they thought that they were in the afterlife, and to tell the truth while there was quite a bit of speculation about what was really happening, nothing convinced them that was absolutely not the case. But Burton also had a special memory, which he suspected none of the others shared. Before he awoke in the water, he awoke in an enormous, dark room. Around him were the translucent outlines of a clear container, and visible through the transparent walls were millions of human nude human bodies, some in various states of deconstruction (or was it construction?) They were stacked like stock on shelves, obviously awaiting something. After the caretakers of the place found him and put him back to sleep he dreamed of God, who came to him and demanded "payment for the flesh." Burton's visions set him apart from everyone else on Riverworld, because he and he alone had knowledge of the people who had awakened the whole of humanity.

Aside from the above the Riverworld had some very odd attributes and features. Covered with Earth and alien flora, the fauna classes were made up entirely by worms, a few insects and several species of fish of varying sizes. The bodies of the formerly dead were in the pink of health, and while men awoke circumcised (no matter what their religion), all of the woman's hymen were in tact. Their bodies aged (and the bodies of those who died under the age of 25 grew), but nobody died of natural causes. There were no insane, no disabled, and no young children. There were also large mushroom shaped devices with round receptacles into which fit the "grails" that were lassoed around everyone's wrist upon awakening. At various intervals during the day the grails, when plugged into the mushrooms, would fill up with all kinds of food, booze, tobacco, drugs (in the form of an inhibition loosening gum), and occasionally other items and tools. Those who were killed (and lost their grail) were resurrected at a different point along the river, nude but equipped with a new grail. On this world nobody would starve or die because the grails provided for everyone's needs. At least, that was the original plan. What could have been a new Garden of Eden descended pretty quickly into various forms of organized chaos and slavery. With a population of multiple billions of nude and frightened people, the strong asserted themselves to collect the human resources to thrive, not just survive.

Concerned for their safety but really more interested in exploring their world and finding out who had brought them back to life the intrepid party headed by Burton constructed a bamboo catamaran, called the Hadji, and set out up river past thousands of cultures, kingdoms and empires to the place where everyone assumed the masters of the world lived. Captured and enslaved a year later they became laborers in an ant- Semitic empire of "grail slavers" founded by Herman Goring and Tullious Hostilius. The grail-slavers captured people and confiscated their grails, worked them to the bone, then allowed them only a portion of the bounty delivered daily to the grail. During the revolt that freed them Burton slew Goring and later captured another slave named Robert Spence, whom Burton had decided was a member of the group that ran Riverworld. It turned out he was right; Spence told Burton he was a 52nd century descendant of the survivor of the catastrophe that Manet unleashed, and before he willed himself dead (a handy way to escape in a world where resurrection was a given) he told Burton that the dead were resurrected so that a group called the Ethicals could study them, and so that all men would could have a second chance to redeem themselves.

With a renewed sense of purpose Burton set off to discover the citadel of the Ethicals, the fabled Dark Tower at the headwaters of the river in the Arctic polar region of the planet. Soon after Burton, who desired nothing more than to move further up river as quickly as possible, drowned himself in the hope that he would resurrect close to the Dark Tower. When he woke he found Goring, who had seen the error of his anti-Semitic ways and was seeking salvation through the Church of the Second Chance, a religious movement that had sprung up around the notion that the Ethicals were providing mankind a path to salvation. In another encounter that killed Goring, Burton was approached by someone who identified himself as a highly-placed Ethical called "The Stranger," who told him not only that the real purpose of the resurrection was solely for scientific study and that he was essentially a big, immortal lab-rat, but also that the other Ethicals were on to him, and it was only a matter of time before they caught him and wiped his mind (apparently the Ethicals did not have the ability to track him when he resurrected). Burton saw only one way to stay ahead of them.

With the little knowledge he did have, he planned to lever his way into more, to pry open the lid, and crawl inside the sanctum. To do so, he would attain the Dark Tower. The only way to get there swiftly was to take The Suicide Express.

To stay ahead of his hunters Burton killed him self hundreds of times, eventually moving to the last kingdom before the source of the great river. Killing himself yet again to gain entrance he awoke before the Ethicals "Council of Twelve" who told him that by committing suicide so many times in succession he was stretching even the limits of their technology as the average body only had so many resurrections, and he was approaching his own floating limit. They revealed nothing, but told him that they would wipe his mind and send him back to his original party. They sent him back to Alice and the others, but when he arrived his memory was unaffected. Burton was convinced that The Stranger was one of the Council of Twelve, and had saved his memory. His determination (again) renewed, Burton planned his next move, as Farmer ended the story.

Starting out life in the early 1950s as a single story called I Owe For the Flesh that won a cash prize and a publishing contract in a Shasta Publications contest (neither of which were ever delivered to Farmer), the story was rewritten and broken up for serial publication in Galaxy at the request of Pohl fifteen or so years later. Upon novel publication the serial stories were collected as this novel and its sequel, called The Fabulous Riverboat. Farmer published other stories before he died in 2009, and there is one, possibly two franchise volumes out there. From a literary standpoint both this volume and the entire Riverworld series (well, at least the first four volumes of it) are fantastic finds. They have incredibly rich and lush settings, fully fleshed-out characters with individual, believable motivations who grow and mature, and fantastic, rollicking plots that never get repetitive or tedious. Even If you consider this an adventure book above everything else, and you probably should, it is also true to its thematic vision and premises. The only real criticism that I have is that in places the writing is a bit dated; it really was originally conceived and written as a early 50s adventure tale, and in small, widely spaced parts it reveals that heritage in slightly ostentatious and bold language. On the whole however it really is an amazing find. Even after rereading it, however, I am still a bit puzzled why that is the case. I did a pretty thorough job of deconstructing this book this time around so that I could write an informed review of it. Let's take a look at what this book is not before we look at what it really is.

For me there is no question that To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a science/fantasy piece that is actually much heavier on the science than the fantasy. I say this not because the curtain is pulled back to reveal a computer instead of a magician, but because the hint is given time and again that the Ethicals are an advanced race, probably human, who use advanced technology to perpetrate the "magic" of Riverworld upon its unwilling and ignorant citizens. But because of that there is virtually no basis for an analysis of scientific realism, or adherence to scientific theory. Personally I find it interesting to think how different this book would have been without that one little revelation at the beginning. Without having given Burton a glance of the stockroom that everyone was in before they were put on the Riverworld, this would have been pure fantasy. There is also virtually no scientific speculation presented in the story at all; there is a basis for observation, but none of the characters (only two of which were from contemporary society) engage in an analysis of what was happening to them other then the type that occurs when one raises one's gaze skyward and stares at the sparkling manifestations of the overlords with slack-jawed wonder.

Moreover this is an adventure tale that stands out in that sub-genre. Adventure fiction still sells lots of books, but it's hey-day was over several decades ago, and not many, I think, would bother putting a pure adventure story up on the lofty level that this work occupies in the minds of many, many fans. There is also some pretty strong recursive elements in To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but again, who really gives a damn? If you want my two cents tracking recursiveness in fiction is about the most useless, pointless exercise there is, and I have never been able to figure out why it gets so much attention. There is a strong psychological element to this story too, that come out in character. Every character has different motivations, hang-ups and psychological issues, and behaves as a fully-fledged human would. As the main character Burton dealt with the consequences of his own life, including his anti-Semitism, his venereal diseases, the way he treated his wife and lovers, and his pride and regrets, others in his party did the same too, though their problems were wildly different. For example, Kazz dealt with his pre-agricultural brutality and cannibalism while Alice dealt with her repressed Victorian outlook and priggishness. The funny thing is that Farmer makes these clashing anachronisms work. But again, there is much more to this book then psychological musing and soft-science speculation.

What this book is, is a conglomeration of all of the above that flows through the mind like greased thought, and not the angled, clunky beast that it appears to be upon deconstruction. I find it impossible to weigh these factors against one another mainly because I really don't think that is what Farmer wanted the reader to do. This is a true Renaissance book; it tries and succeeds in being everything at once while losing none of the impact of its parts. Full of mystery, suspense and action, it is also synergistic and whole, and larger and grander then the ideas Farmer put into it.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)

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