Down To The River   Leave a comment

Thoughts on To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1972

Science fiction is often said to be defined by the phrase “what if?” The genre is speculative by its nature, and to my mind, that’s its greatest strength, the reason it thrives to this day. The human imagination being the boundless thing it is, as long as we ask questions, as long as we speculate on what was and what might yet be, science fiction will have a place and a role to play. That’s as true now as it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when authors started reaching past bubble helmets and Flash Gordon to explore the possibilities of being human using the question “What if?”

Philip Jose Farmer’s novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go asks a big one. What if, in the future, someone found they had the capacity to restore to life every human being who had ever lived and died, over the entire course of history?

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is seen through the eyes of Sir Richard Francis Burton, starting with his death, and then his resurrection in the Riverworld, surrounded by billions of confused and terrified people from all the times of history. The world into which he has awakened is a strip of landscape bounded by impassible mountains and centered on an endless-seeming river. The story that unfolds along the banks of the Riverworld (another splendid example of a sci-fi “big, dumb object” or BDO), as these hordes of the recently revived cope with their sudden resurrection, is not flattering to the human species. People in general react badly, and in many cases violently, to the situation. No one has any idea why it’s all happening. The mysterious agency behind the event has taken pains (more or less) to provide food and supplies, but remains hidden, along with its motives. That these supplies include alcohol and narcotics doesn’t help the situation. Imagine millions of frightened people, with everything they’ve ever believed proven false and sure they have nothing to lose, with their inhibitions lowered or eliminated. It isn’t a pretty scene.

And centered in this is Burton, who I found to be one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction of any genre. I don’t know much about the actual historical character, but in this novel he is presented as self-absorbed, obsessive, and at times painfully lacking in empathy.  And as things go, Burton is one of the “good guys.” As years pass, his obsession with finding the source of the river, and an answer to the big question of why this is all happening, grows. Along the way, he and his allies uncover parts of the plot when they encounter agents of the race of beings responsible for the mass resurrection. From the hints and clues teased out in these scenes, the possible motives of the beings who have revived humanity and dumped it out into the Riverworld are glimpsed – and frankly, don’t make a great deal of sense. This was likely deliberate on the part of the author – keep in mind as you read this book, that it is the beginning of a series, and not everything is made clear in the end. However, for my tastes, the story arc of this first book needed to end less abruptly – or arbitrarily – to make this acceptable.

I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go back in the late ‘70s. At that time, I was writing fiction in earnest for the first time, and seeking a broader knowledge of my favorite genre. I gathered and read award-winning material, using the fact of awards as a filter of sorts. By the time I picked up this one as part of that earlier endeavor, I’d read all but three of the novels I’ve reviewed for this series of essays. And this one stands out from that time as the first dud. (This time around, Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer got the first mild-mannered thumbs down.) It’s well-written, with some interesting characters drawn from real history. The concept is simply fantastic – no other way to put it. In the realm of “big, dumb objects,” only Niven’s amazing Ringworld beats it.

And yet, reading this short novel became, for me, a bit of a chore. First time around, it just left me with a neutral opinion. It won an award, I’d read it, and it became a data point of sorts. This time around I found myself more critical of the book. Burton’s suicidal obsession with exposing the agency behind it all, while understandable, didn’t really carry the story for me on its own. He passes through a world of people who are trying to cope, without Burton himself taking more than a passing glance at what was fast becoming a very complicated world. And there’s a constant element of despair as people try to pull together and make something out of the mess, only to fail as the resurrected villains of history attempt (with appalling rates of success) to reassert themselves. This unrelieved chaos – and never mind that the author has probably hit the nail on the head for the most part – wore me out. Surely someone, somewhere, built something that worked? But through all Burton’s explorations, we see only violent territorialism, with an emphasis on the strange connection Burton makes (unwillingly) with the diseased mind of Hermann Göring. I got what the author was saying, but found it overstated. At times, the word “cynical” came to mind as I read the book. I was left with the distinct impression that the author didn’t have a high opinion of humankind.

I have no problem understanding how this book garnered enough votes to take top honors in 1972. It’s a hell of a tale, on the face of it. That it doesn’t currently suit my tastes tells you only what I thought of the story, and does not speak to its quality. The story is well-told in terms of prose and technique, and certainly had for me enough engaging elements to keep me reading. But in that ultimate test of how the first book in a series succeeds or fails for a given reader, I feel no inclination to carry on. One trip down to the river, for this reader, was quite enough.

Posted December 14, 2016 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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