Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Philip José Farmer
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The main character of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is Richard Burton (the 19th century adventurer, swordsman, and spy, not the 20th century actor who married Elizabeth Taylor twice). The book begins with Burton waking up – which is odd, because he could have sworn that he had died or was just about to die – in an enormous chamber filled with thousands of inert, floating, sleeping bodies arranged in a grid pattern in every direction as far as he can see. All of the bodies, including his, are naked, hairless, and slowly spinning around a central head-to-toe axis.

As soon as Burton wakes up he starts flailing around, attracting the attention of two guys who are apparently monitoring the sleeping bodies. They zip over to him in a sort of floating canoe and zap him with a device that renders him unconscious again.

The next time he wakes up, he is still naked and hairless, but lying on a grassy plain next to a river, and there are a lot of other people lying on the plain near him. They all gradually wake up and realize that (a) they all appear to have been resurrected from the dead; (b) they are all in their own bodies as they were when they were about 25 years old; (c) they are from all different parts of the world and from all different times in history. The largest component of their group comes from 1890 Trieste, but there are also a few people from Victorian England and random scatterings of other humans, including an australopithecine.

Sir Richard Burton
Burton, a natural leader, becomes the de facto head of the troupe as they put the pieces of a new life together and try to figure out why and where they are there.

The first thing they learn is that they are not the only ones there. The world they are in, which they name Riverworld, contains thousands, if not millions of people, all living up and down the banks of the river, which itself may be thousands, if not millions of miles long.

The next thing Burton begins to suspect (aided by his memory of the chamber of sleeping people) is that they are all part of a big experiment being run by Other Beings. And that these Others have developed a technology to record a soul (or something equivalent), and have done so for all humans who have ever existed, and have then created this world into which to bring them back to life for some nefarious purpose.

Burton, in his resurrected state as in life, tends to get stir-crazy staying in one place too long. He also really wants to find the beings that put them in this situation and give them what for. So he heads off on a long voyage upriver to find its source. He travels for hundreds of days and sees thousands of resurrected humans of different types.

Along the way he acquires a new human nemesis: a plump egomaniac who turns out to be Hermann Göring, who has formed an alliance with former Roman emperor Tullius Hostilius and is running their little troupe of resurrectees with an iron hand. He also attracts the attention of the mysterious Others, who begin sending agents out after him, so he has to spend a considerable portion of the second half of the book on the run.

This book is actually the first installment in Farmer’s Riverworld series. I didn’t realize that when I read it, so I have to admit I found the story, and particularly the ending, dissatisfying. Burton has a series of smallish adventures, but there is no major climactic showdown which resolves anything. The big issues – who the Others are, how Burton may be able to subvert it, and whether he should – are all left unanswered. And there is also a tantalizing note at the end saying that I would get to meet Samuel Clemens if I read the next installment, which is frustrating since I have no intention of reading the next installment right now.

But Burton is an excellent central character. He is charismatic and opinionated. And the skills he picked up in a lifetime of worldly adventure (espionage, hand-to-hand combat, and a knowledge of many languages, to name a few) serve him well in Riverworld.

And the book certainly creates a fun thought experiment. Riverworld is a uniquely controlled environment with strict parameters (much like Ringworld, although Riverworld is not as rich or as well-architected). Within that setting, Farmer can create weird juxtapositions of famous people from any time in history and explore how they will interact.


Lord John Whorfin said...

I remember reading this in my high school media center!

Usually I find the hallmark of a great book is if I can place exactly when and where I read it. But in this case, I think the concept was better than the actual novel. Though R. F. Burton was indeed an awesome protagonist. I remember Sam Clemens being in the first book, too, though obviously not.

It's a long series to get to the payout of how it all got set up, but I will spill the beans to you if you like when we're out to dinner.

Cthulhu, Destroyer of Worlds said...

Sounds like a plan, my dear Lord John.

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails