Philip Jose Farmer

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

TYSBGTo Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is the first in the author’s Riverworld series of novels.  This novel was first published in 1971 and won the Hugo Award in 1972.   The book’s title is from the seventh of the “Holy Sonnets” by English poet John Donne.

To be completely honest, I am not sure if I want to give this book two or three stars.  I feel that three is more accurate, but I feel that is just one star too many.  Hopefully, I can explain my reasons in this review.  Sir Richard Burton “wakes up” alongside a very large river along with roughly 36,006,009,637 other people.  Everyone that appears with Burton there has already died (on earth) and is resurrected naked with a canister of sorts in their hands.   As to be expected, not everyone who “wakes up” is from the same time (on earth), speaks the same language, or comes from the same location.  For the most part, people wander around dazed, upset, and unsteady.  Right from the start, however, our main character Richard Burton has a keen and survivalist mind.

Luckily the author gives us Burton as a main character.  Historical Burton was a well-traveled, hearty fellow adept at sociology, anthropology, and languages.  The character Burton maintains these skills and the knowledge with them so is able to adapt and function exponentially better than any of the fellow lazari.  For the first quarter of the book, Burton gathers a group around him of people from various societies, but who recognize the need to survive as a group.  One of the most interesting characters in the novel is actually a “subhuman” – a primitive man who is named Kazz.  Kazz is the most happy-go-lucky of the group and is also the muscle of the group.  He immediately gives his loyalty to Burton, whom he recognizes as a type of “chief” or leader.

Another member of the group is Alice Hargreaves. Alice Hargreaves is actually the historical Alice Liddell, the girl whom inspired the story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  She’s a unique character, the only female character that the author even pretends to develop or give a personality to.  Not that she is very likeable.  Alice disapproves of the nudity of the lazari and rebuffs every (constant) attempt by Burton to engage in sexual conduct.  This frustrates Burton, but he is also attracted to her staunch moral code, as well.  The friction between the two of these characters continues well into half of the book, but thankfully the storyline separates the two and the reader does not have to deal with this annoying scenario any further.

I got the feeling that the author came up with a neat idea and then was unsure how to make a story around it.  The story seems to get lost and it feels like Farmer is “making it up as he goes along.”  The first quarter of the book made it seem like the nudity and sex among the lazari were going to drive the plot – the moralizing and the relationships developing around the scenario.  But then, halfway into the book, the focus changes to exploration and suddenly Burton does not simply want to survive – but has this self-imposed quest.  There is a whole chunk of story wherein we meet Hermann Göring, who has captured Burton’s little group and has made them slaves in his pseudo-dictatorship society.  The author seems to want to moralize about the problem of Jews vs. Nazis and the repercussions of WWII, but it gets a bit boring, and I am not sure (after all the chapters) what the reader should take away from the event.  And then Burton realizes he must get away from everyone – because he is, presumably, endangering them because he alone wants to find out the truth behind the Riverworld.

The whole Hermann Göring thing is weird.  It’s like the author just includes him for the sake of torturing the crap out of him and showing us he is a madman.  Burton and Göring spend much of the rest of the novel meeting again and again, fighting, debating, and so forth.  It gets comical eventually. Anyway, by the end of the book, Burton knows a little more than he knew to start, but once again (after eleven years after the original resurrection) is reunited with some of his original groupies.  The novel is peppered with random discussions on government, religion, and culture – but these discussions are so scattered and not well formed that it just seems tedious.  The idea behind the novel is a good one, but it’s presentation is not very good.  Even if Farmer wanted to make a ponderous, philosophizing novel – I still think he could have included some of the wonder and marvel that would be present in a resurrection of all these diverse humans/cultures.

Frankly, the book is bleak and dark.  There is little optimism in this story.  I do not even think any of the characters are particularly likeable.  Mainly, it gives the feeling that humans are a real disagreeable lot, prone to conflict and greed.  On page nine I did read a phrase that was short and full of imagery: “a cataract of flesh” – Burton has some experience of prior to being resurrected on the beach.  I have never read the words cataract of flesh, but it certainly was remarkable to do so.  Anyway, as much as I did not like this novel, I actually find myself wanting to read the next book.  Not, of course, because I expect something great, but just because I have been drawn in and want more closure to the story than this novel provided.

3 stars