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Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

Genre: Science Fiction
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: March 30, 2010
ISBN-10: 0765326523
ISBN-13: 978-0765326522
Author Website: Philip José Farmer

In this Hugo-award winning novel by Philip José Farmer, all of humanity from all of history wakes up on the Riverworld, at the same time. Every person that has ever lived, great or insignificant, inhabits twenty million miles of a narrow river valley that encompasses a planet. No one can escape further than a few miles from the river before encountering an escarpment too high to scale. Sir Richard Burton, famous nineteenth century explorer and writer, is one of the first to awaken on his section of river. It is he who posits that there must be a source and end to the river, and goes looking for the former, along with a band of adventurers, including a proto-human named Kazz, an alien named Monat, Victorian lady Alice Hargreaves née Liddell, and twentieth century anthropologist Peter Frigate. Setting sail in their bamboo boat, Burton and his crew encounter significant opposition in the form of Herman Goring, an opportunist Nazi. Meanwhile, there is the question of the creators of the Riverworld, and Burton’s quest to discover the purpose for their creation of this melting pot of humanity.

Farmer’s work is both intellectually stimulating and full of action-adventure. His scenes of derring-do are highly descriptive, making visualization of the action easy and complete. In the down times between action scenes, Farmer asks many anthropological questions. By mixing together people from different eras in this strange half-afterlife, Farmer churns up questions about society and cultural constructions like religious and political institutions. Disdaining easy answers, Farmer provokes only more questions. Since no one really dies in the Riverworld, but is only reincarnated elsewhere, questions about death, the soul, and cloning all become a part of the philosophical questions Farmer raises. The story seems at first to be a standard action-adventure tale, but the timeless questions it presents make it so much more.

The story is related entirely through the eyes of Richard Burton. Though Farmer is highly descriptive, he is not flowery in his language, and will skip months or years of time in just one short phrase. This only heightens the effect when he does use it. Nor does he have Burton give in to much introspection. The historical Burton was a man of action, and so too is Famer’s fictional version. The lack of flowery language and an active character makes for tight, simply constructed but highly engaging storytelling. To Your Scattered Bodies Go has a pulp literature style with the heart of a philosopher.

Farmer does do one odd thing, at least for the first half of the book. As the story progresses, he will have the timeline jump forward. Then he will relate the key events that happened in that span of time, after the fact. The result is a sort of past tense storytelling which just struck me as odd, though intriguing. Fortunately, the entire novel is not written this way, and the action sequences are solidly written in the present.

The tales does end on a cliffhanger, so it is impossible to read without reading its sequels. Fortunately, Tor is re-releasing the entire series in very nice paperback editions, with the first two novels To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat (review forthcoming) in one volume.

To Your Scattered Bodies was a groundbreaking novel in 1971, and is still a thought-provoking one today. It has withstood the test of time and should be considered both an SF classic. Readers of Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Ian M. Banks, Robert Heinlein or Kristine Kathryn Rusch will enjoy this novel. I think that any student of the genre, fan, or even dabbler in science fiction should be able to say they have read this work.