Vintage Science Fiction Month: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss "older than I am" Science Fiction in the month of January.

This time around, we have another Hugo winner, Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go. Famed 19th century British adventurer Richard Francis Burton dies and eventually finds himself resurrected into a naked, hairless 25 year old body. He's attached to an indestructible container (later nicknamed a "grail") and discovers that the world consists of a long river-valley that snakes across the entire planet. The grail can be charged three times a day with food and other supplies by taking it to a "grailstone", a series of devices located at intervals around the river. Burton quickly attracts a group of companions, each in the same situation.

It becomes apparent that every human who has ever lived, dating back to the earliest Neanderthals and proceeding up through alien life forms that visited Earth and died there, has been resurrected along the banks of this river. Burton and company set off to find the river's headwaters, in search of the beings who they surmise have set up this bizarre afterlife. Along the way they get into various adventures, at one point even being enslaved by a faction led by Hermann Göring, who has reverted to his Nazi tactics, enslaving weaker folks and stealing their grail spoils. Will they escape Göring's clutches, get to the headwaters, and discover why they've been reincarnated?

Spoilers: Not exactly. It turns out that this is the first in a long series of novels, and while some things are revealed, there's plenty left to be explored. It's certainly got a neat central idea, and there's lots of interesting logistical and sociological bits in this portrayal of afterlife, but despite predating the TV show Lost by several decades, I get the feeling that it suffers from the same sort of "Mystery Box" issues. I suspect that no matter what explanation is given for this whole resurrection scheme, it won't be as satisfying as expected.

To be sure, I enjoyed this novel greatly, and the various episodic adventures all work well together. It does get a bit weirder after the initial Hermann Göring section, as Burton gets separated from the rest of his crew (who we've also come to know pretty well) and eventually manages to confront the "ethicals" (his name for the folks who created this Riverworld and resurrected the whole of humanity). We get an explanation of sorts, but it still feels like there's a lot of open questions here.

The premise creates lots of opportunities to explore group dynamics, small and large, and the idea of resurrection (with a sorta sciency backing) creates some interesting ethical quandries. For instance, we learn that on this new Riverworld, if you die, you will simply be resurrected again, somewhere else along the river. There's lots of implications here, and while Farmer doesn't shy away from the more cynical or downbeat tendencies of humanity, he's not a total nihilist either and most of our band of protagonists are reasonably honorable folk. We're treated to a number of historical figures interacting in interesting ways, and I must admit that the choice to make the two main characters Richard Burton and Hermann Göring is a distinctive and unexpected one that generally works. The idea that Göring would evolve from Nazi to tormented drug addict to missionary of the Church of the Second Chance (a peaceful religion that arises out of the realities of the Riverworld) is a bold choice that wrestles with the ideas of repentance and forgiveness, something that seems particularly relevant in today's world. On the other hand, I feel like this aspect of the book would enrage a subset of readers sensitive to certain issues. I was certainly wary of Göring in the later chapters, even when he became more pitiable than straight evil.

Ultimately it's a fun idea with some good adventure that is only really marred by "first novel in a series" syndrome. To be fair, it is far from the worst when it comes to that sort of thing, but it's something I've never been particularly in love with, and my patience for this is not what it used to be. I don't mind series, to be sure, but I like it when there's some sort of closure at the end of each installment, and here there's just promise of more adventures. That's not the worst way to end it and I could see this making for a good TV series, but again, this is not my favorite approach. As mentioned above, this won the Hugo award in 1972, beating out novels from Anne McCaffrey (a book from the more famous Pern series), Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny. I haven't read any of the other nominated novels, but I recognize all the names; they were all mainstays in the Hugos of the time. Farmer was not exactly a stranger to the Hugos either, though he had gone through a 14 year drought after writing a novel that won a publisher's contest, but failed to ever get published (it turns out that literary success didn't translate to financial security, even back then). Indeed, that novel (titled "Owe for the Flesh") apparently contained the germ of the Riverworld stories, and To Your Scattered Bodies Go was a reworking of those ideas, published some 15 years later. I'm glad I read it, but probably won't be revisiting the series.

I have one more vintage SF novel that I started reading in January, but I probably won't be finishing it until February. It's an interesting one though, so I'll probably write it up (possibly as soon as next week). In the meantime, we might get to the Top 10 movies of 2018, if I finish in time. Stay tuned!