448 pages, Tor Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
There are some books that are so utterly unique, so totally unlike anything else, that you can't help but be bowled over by the sheer imaginative scope of the author. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings” and Frank Herbert's “Dune” are two works that instantly spring to mind as great examples of fantastic world-building and epic storytelling. Such books have grown so popular that they have outgrown their cult status and moved into the mainstream.
Philip José Farmer might not be a household name but his series of “Riverworld” novels are, for me, the epitome of cult science fiction. Conceptually, the setting of Riverworld is utterly bonkers. Every single person that has ever lived on Earth, all 37 billion of them, are simultaneously reincarnated on the banks of an enormous river. The River is an estimated 26 million miles long and is bordered on both sides of the river-valley by an impassable mountain range. The reincarnated humans wake up, naked and hairless and without the slightest idea of what is going on. Each person has a “grail”, a metallic container that, when placed on one of the massive mushroom-shaped “grailstones” that are found along the riverbank at intervals of a mile, provide the resurrectee with food, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and the hallucinogenic dreamgum. Regardless of how old the adult was when they died, all are resurrected aged twenty-five in perfect physical health. Those who died as children are resurrected as such, then age as normal until they reach twenty-five when the aging process halts. Women can no longer bear children, thus reducing sexual intercourse to a purely pleasurable, social activity. Death on Riverworld is not permanent. Those who die find themselves resurrected at a random location somewhere along the enormous river the next day.
With all of humanity at large on the banks of the River, Farmer is able to play with an eclectic cast of characters. There's Alice Liddell Hargreaves, a Victorian lady who was Lewis Carroll's inspiration for “Alice in Wonderland”; Kazz, a surprisingly amiable neanderthal; Monat Grrautut, an alien being who died on Earth in the early twenty-first century and was inadvertently responsible for the death of all living creatures on the planet; and Peter Jairus Frigate, a twentieth-century man who serves as an avatar for the author himself (just look at his initials!). The main protagonist is Victorian explorer and translator of “Arabian Nights”, Richard Francis Burton. His thirst for adventure has not diminished in his new life and Burton single-mindedly seeks the source of the River in the hope that it will lead him to the mysterious beings responsible for the vast sociological experiment that is Riverworld. Burton, you see, knows something that the other resurrectees don't... He woke up in the pre-resurrection phase and caught a glimpse of the vast otherworldly technology behind-the-scenes. This sneaky glimpse behind-the-curtain is not enough for a man like Burton. He demands to know who or what is behind Riverworld and why they have created it. The Ethicals, as the mysterious beings become known, are an elusive bunch and whilst Burton is occasionally aided by a secretive hooded figure, we learn very little of them in the course of the novel.
“To Your Scattered Bodies Go” is an audacious work of fiction. It is a great introduction to the strange new world but many will feel frustrated by the lack of resolution at the end of the novel. Far more questions are raised than are answered and whilst Burton makes a start on his journey to the source of the River, he doesn't get anywhere close to his destination. Being the first part in a series of books, it is clear that Farmer has something planned for later on in the series, but as a stand-alone novel, the book feels a little incomplete. Of course, Farmer's devotees will say that telling a complete story is not the author's intention. Rather, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” seeks to plunge the reader headlong into a strange, fantastic setting of seemingly limitless possibilities. The setting of Riverworld gives Farmer free reign to indulge his imagination. The main antagonist of the novel is dastardly Nazi war-criminal Hermann Göring and Farmer seems to take great pleasure in repeatedly killing and reincarnating the hapless villain. Similarly, Farmer uses the open-ended setting as a means to explore a huge number of different themes. Philosophy, primitivism, sex, politics, religion, race – it's hard to think of a theme that Farmer doesn't at least touch upon. Ultimately, “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” is about humanity's desire to answer the big question - “Why am I here?” Farmer might not provide his characters or the reader with an answer, but he will take them on a journey like no other in the process.
I will be returning to “Riverworld” very soon...
Hereward L.M. Proops