Visions of Paradise

Sunday, November 23, 2008

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Recently I was thinking about some of my favorite all-time sf series. My favorite is probably Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, but others include Jack Vance’s Galactic Cluster, Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, Alastair Reynolds’ Galactic North, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld.

The thought occurred to me that it might be nice to re-read one of those series from start to finish, seeing how I have not read most of them in several decades. I decided to do so with one of the older ones, thus eliminating McDevitt, Robinson, Simmons, and Reynolds, all of which I have read within the past decade or so. And Bradley, Vance and McCaffrey’s series are so long that each would be a multi-year project.

Which left Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, and that thought pleased me since in the 70s it was one of my favorite series. While it is not future history in the pure sense, it is a possible future scenario for the human race, and while it does have an sfnal foundation, it reads like fantasy as much as sf.

It is also a series with a long, almost convoluted history. It was originally written as a novel I Owe for the Flesh which won a contest and should have been published as such, but somehow the publisher rejected it as too risqué. While the current series is not the least bit offensive, Farmer does have a tendency to write stuff which pushes the boundaries of sf in the area of sexuality. Consider his breakthrough story “The Lovers,” such novels as A Feast Unknown and Blown, and his Hugo-winning story “Riders of the Purple Wage.” All were somewhere between erotic and outright pornographic. So perhaps the original version of his Riverworld series was a lot more sensual than his published version.

The Riverworld stories were originally published as a series of novellas in Worlds of Tomorrow magazine with titles “Day of the Great Shout,” “Riverworld,” and “The Suicide Express.” The sequel to those novellas became a serial “The Felled Star in Worlds of IF, and all those stories were eventually published as two novels in 1971, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat. The former won the Hugo Award as Best Novel–and was my own Book of the Year as well–while the latter showed very little letdown in quality, if any.

But, of course, I have not read either novel in 37 years, so there was always the chance my taste had changed and they would not hold up well at all, so I began rereading the first book with a bit of trepidation. I need not have worried, since it holds up extremely well. To Your Scattered Bodies Go sets up the foundation of the series in its examination of several aspects of human civilization and culture. The basic premise is that all people who ever lived on Earth, including Neanderthals, early humans and several alien visitors, have been resurrected on a world built around a long, virtually infinite river. People are born young, twenty-five physically, virginal, nude, hairless, and provided with only one artifact: a large grail-like object which, when placed in giant mushroom-like structures scattered every mile along the riverbank, are filled with food three times a day. Each group of people are resurrected around the mushrooms, and groups generally consist of about 60% of one type–such as Italians from the 19th century–30% from another group, and 10% random people.

The first fascinating aspect of the novel is the sociological one as Farmer examines strangers with different beliefs, backgrounds and traditions learning to form a mutually-compatible society. Some groups take to this new scenario easier than others, so we see democracies develop as well as brutal dictatorships. Farmer examines some of the higher tendencies of humans, such as cooperation, as well as the lower tendencies as slavery is almost immediately revived.

The book has its obvious theological implications since both atheists who denied any belief in an afterlife and devout believers have had their views shattered. While this aspect is not examined as much as the sociological ones, it is still a running thread through the novel.

Another aspect which I really enjoyed was the historical one. While Farmer is careful not to overload the book’s cast with too many familiar names, several historical people do show up and are examined in the light of how their real behavior and character affects their actions on the riverworld. Hermann Goring is a major character who forms a Nazi-like dictatorship complete with anti-Semitism and slavery, and the possibility of expanding his power into neighboring communities.

Farmer chooses wisely by making Richard Francis Burton–the adventurer, not the actor–his main character. Burton’s personality and leadership attract a group of followers very early in the book, and his adventurous nature is the impetus for his leading them on a sailing ship up the river, seeking the cause of the resurrection, while enabling them to explore other groups of resurrectees and their types of societies. While Farmer recognizes Burton’s strengths, he is not blind to his personality flaws which affect both his relationship with his fellows and his actions, and form a major focus of the book. A flawed hero who is still primarily heroic is often the most interesting lead character, and Farmer does a good job developing Burton and his relationship with other resurrectees.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go has its share of excitement as well, including a naval battle between Burton’s group and Goring’s followers, and there is mystery a-plenty in the quest to learn the truth behind the strange resurrection. This was a book which lived up to my prior memories of it, and upon completing it I immediately booked a ride on The Fabulous Riverboat.


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