Novel November

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

by Philip José Farmer


Reading Review by Michael Channing

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

What happens after we die? We've all thought about it. Maybe you're agnostic and all the possibilities offered by all the faiths of the world hold equal weight in your mind. Maybe you're religious and know for certain where you're headed after you kick the bucket, and where everyone else is going, too. Or maybe you're an atheist and just as sure where you're going when you die: into the ground. Turns out you're all wrong.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go offers one of the most imaginative worlds in all of science fiction. Everyone who ever lived, from the Stone Age to present, is resurrected along the bank of a River over a million miles long. The last memory anyone has is of their death. One second they're dying in a hospital, or in battle, or in childbirth, or however people die, and the next they are waking up among thousands of strangers, many speaking different languages, most from different periods in history. All of them are returned to peak physical health regardless of their age or condition when they passed from their first lives.

But is this heaven? Purgatory? Where is God or Jehovah or Allah or Jesus? Where is the reunion with family and friends? Why does no one age or get sick? Why are there no children or animals save for a few species of fish? The River winds back and forth across the hemispheres of the planet, always between sheer, unscalable mountains. Along the banks are what come to be known as grailstones, large constructs that, three times a day, replicate food, supplies, and assorted pleasures like liquor, cigarettes, and a mood-enhancing treat the people call dream gum. Each person was resurrected with a bucket-like container tied to their wrist, and it's through these receptacles that the grailstones provide the goods. So who sculpted the planet and built the grailstones? And if someone or something has the power to create an entire planet, what else can they do? What is their plan, assuming they have one?

The situation begs thousands of questions, but the novel doesn't get bogged down in philosophies or religious implications. It tells its story from the viewpoint of Sir Richard Burton, a real-life adventurer, historian, and author. He translated The Arabian Nights, was the first non-Muslim to enter Mecca (he did it in disguise), and was nearly the first person to discover the source of the Nile, a sticking point he bemoans a few times in the book. Burton is a true swashbuckler, exploring the new world and digging at its secrets with gusto.

One night, Burton is visited by a mysterious stranger who claims to be one of the beings who created this world. Mr. X tells him to seek the headwaters of the River and promises a revelation of all the world's secrets. Burton gathers an eclectic group (consisting in part of a neanderthal, an extraterrestrial, and Alice Liddell, for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland) and sails down river. They meet many communities along the way, often having to fight to keep control of their boat and to avoid having the women kidnapped. Eventually they are enslaved by former Nazi, Hermann Goring.

Farmer is a master of action, keeping the pace brisk and the descriptions gripping. There are raids, fist fights and escapes. Later in the series the wars get larger and more intense, but the action is always crystal clear and easy to follow.

More aspects of the Riverworld are revealed along Burton's journey. At one point a spy is detected, and when he is confronted he drops dead seemingly without reason. An autopsy reveals a black sphere in his brain, proving him to be an agent of the creators. Are the builders keeping watch over the humans? What interest do they have in Burton and his crew? Questions rear like hydra heads.

When anyone dies on this world, they are resurrected again at a random location along the River. On his first death after resurrection, Burton wakes up at the head of the River, and he sees a tower shrouded in mist. It's the destination the mysterious stranger told him about, the headquarters of those who constructed this world. Unfortunately, Burton is immediately killed again by a pair of battling giants, older than neanderthals but unknown to scientists.

The book wonders if death might work to reform the more negative aspects of the human race or if violence and power lust are wired into our core. As humanity begins to form states and governments, strong men declare themselves kings, and wise men declare themselves prophets. Grail slavery becomes common, where captives are forced to give up the food and luxury items from their grails. But a peace movement also arises to preach that this planet was provided for people to better themselves in preparation for moving on to the next world. When doubters attempt to shoot down the second chance theory, the devout only have to point to the world around them. If this world can exist after death, then so can others.

The novel leaves you tingling for more. Burton again sees his mysterious benefactor and learns there is a schism among the world builders, a race of beings powerful enough to resurrect billions but not advanced enough to quell their own infighting. There are eleven others chosen to reach the tower, the stranger tells Burton. They will find you, and you must find the tower. Here the book ends, but the story continues in four further installments. The Riverworld is well worth visiting for the adventure alone. Secret loyalties are revealed, backs stabbed, duels fought, enigmas uncovered then cloaked in darkness once again. One theme appears again and again: Can a person change? We meet several characters in the series that attempt to become something different than what they were back on Earth, to undo some of the evil they wrought there and on the Riverworld. But are they only paying lip service to the idea of atonement, or have they genuinely reformed? That's the ultimate question at the heart of this series. Given enough time, without the fear of death or aging, their basic needs met and all material responsibilities removed, can we as a race overcome our warmongering and truly learn to coexist? If we could, what would there be to write about?

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