To Your Scattered Bodies Go

by Philip José Farmer

Cover image

Series: Riverworld #1
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: 1971
Printing: September 1971
Format: Mass market
Pages: 222

Buy at Powell's Books

The problem with finishing the remaining Hugo winners I've not read is that there is generally some reason why I've not already read them. With To Your Scattered Bodies Go, it was just a bad feeling. Often those feelings are wrong. This time, it wasn't.

This is the first book of the Riverworld series, which is one of those great, memorable ideas that people talk about and refer to when reading other books. Everyone who has ever lived is resurrected on the banks of a huge river, all at the same time, naked and with their own personal magic devices that give them food and other basic necessities. It's a great hook, giving the author a chance to not only play with historic figures but look at culture clashes (and strange alliances) between human cultures that otherwise never could have met.

Farmer sucks all of the sense of wonder out of the idea in the first twenty pages and then uses the setting for an obnoxious, pointless, unemotional adventure story with no ending. Add to that clunky writing, halting narrative flow, rampant sexism, and an overly-simplified world, and you get one of the worst Hugo winners I've dragged myself through.

I'm not particularly fond of the pulp writing style, but I can still get pulled into the story if it's told with enough emotional energy and enough action. Farmer, though, falls quickly into the trap of describing everything in great detail, whether the reader cares about its exact appearance or not, while giving short shrift to character development and treating emotions as scientific observations. It's a horrible example of telling rather than showing. By the time he finished boring me with the world introduction, describing the construction of a settlement, walking through the investigations of the few artifacts around, and getting the characters into a position to do something, half the book was gone and I no longer cared about anyone in it.

The main protagonist is adventurer Richard Burton, a British explorer who, despite having a real history to use as material, rarely manages to be more than the uber-competent warrior and natural leader who features in so much pulp SF of this type. Alice Liddell, of Alice in Wonderland fame, is introduced as the Victorian prude and love interest (thankfully fully grown), one of several places where I decided I wasn't going to think deeply about authorial motives. The men, of course, do all the adventuring and exploring; the women are just there to be conversational companions and sex toys, the latter aided at first by the general lack of clothing. Throw in widespread rape and abuse, particularly early on, that the protagonists only rarely bother decrying, and the world starts feeling more creepy and disgusting than intriguing. Farmer doesn't have a high opinion of humanity, and while he may be right, I wish he'd pick better examples at least for his protagonists.

The world itself, after its initial splash, is simplistic and uninteresting. There are no insects or animals other than fish, only a few types of plants, only one type of artifact that does nothing but fill their magic provision buckets, and essentially no landscape besides the river. Even if they wanted to explore, all of the characters are kept next to the river since the provision artifacts are only found there and there is no other way to get food. The protagonists predictably end up exploring along the river, since there's nowhere else for them to go. For all his detailed descriptions, Farmer either didn't have the imagination or didn't have the interest in building a full world, only the barely necessary backdrop to support people. As a result, the world can't save the story from the lifeless characters.

Farmer does avoid making everyone encountered someone famous, thankfully, but the villains of the piece (once we finally get around to meeting them) are Nazis. I really wouldn't mind if I never saw transplanted famous Nazis as villains again. It's just too easy and too simple, and the built-in reader reactions and expectations are so strong that the author has little to work with. Farmer also constantly talks about Jews, never lets the reader forget which characters are Jewish, and seems oddly fascinated by them, even before the Nazis show up. It's not anti-Semitic, at least that I noticed, but the tone was again rather odd. The other characters are remarkably unmemorable; I finished this book only a few days ago, and the only other ones I remember are Farmer's self-insertion character (thankfully not too annoying), a caveman who is taught idiomatic English rather too easily, and an alien who was almost interesting until his horribly simple story was told.

The best part of the book are the occasional hints at what might really be going on, hints at the motives of the creators of this world and their abilities. If the whole story had dealt with this, the book might have been salvagable. But, of course, this is only book one of an ongoing series, so there's no resolution and no believable explanation of the frustrating clues. One is left with a completely pointless story.

There is apparently a much tighter and more satisfying novella entitled "Riverworld" that's better than this mess. If you care about the original idea, you might want to read that. The only reason to read this book is to be completist, and it's probably the last Farmer novel that I'll ever read.

Followed by The Fabulous Riverboat.

Rating: 2 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-08-07

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