Reviews

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)

Creators

Philip José Farmer (writer).

Extent

Read in 2019.

I read the revised edition where the cutoff year for resurrection is 2008.

Subject

All people who have ever lived past early childhood, up to a certain cataclysmic event, live again on Riverworld. All at once, they wake up hairless and naked with their grails.

Commentary

As an experiment in theological science fantasy, or a piece of prose, it’s inferior to Lord of Light (1967), but there is something to it.

I was initially disappointed with the choice of making Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890) the protagonist, most closely supported by a stand-in for the author, a sexualized adult version of Alice Liddell (1852–1934) and a narrowly humanoid extraterrestrial, approximately in that order. Certainly, very few non-author non-celebrity Homo sapiens sapiens ever take on real significance to the narrative, which is inappropriate: It implies that humans are either chaff or wheat and were already sorted on Earth.

Fortunately, the premisses of resurrection and of Riverworld as an environment are worked out to a useful degree, they are applied consistently, and the choice of Burton turns out to be more than just the author’s fanboy relationship with the literate atheist adventurer. By the end, with the bizarre redemption of Göring and Burton boarding the Suicide Express to meet the false gods, Farmer realizes some of the mythopoeic potential of his idea and Burton develops as a character beyond adoration and historical origins, though he remains an alpha-male adventurer type throughout.

The offered explanation—i.e. the Ethical project to shepherd people toward “going on”—is an implementation of Buddhism rather than 2 Corinthians 5. Either mythology is inconsistent with the design of Riverworld, which is merely a level playing field without the need for agriculture and the possibility of industry. Obviously it still has Hobbesian traps and effortless worldly indulgences aplenty, so it isn’t clear how it’s supposed to help.

The real reason for Farmer’s design seems to be a need for control coupled with a facile biophilia, hence the great homogeneity and neutered ecology and climate. I would expect many of the people to find this sameness and artificiality frustrating rather than enlightening; perhaps this happens in the sequels, but I’d be surprised. Overlooking the details of the design, the novel can be read more broadly as a metaphorical treatment of the pointlessness of fearing death in our material universe. If you manage that, the premise is very good.

References here: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

fiction text

Adaptation:

Riverworld (2003) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2019.

Commentary

A cheap run-of-the-mill production for television, with everybody speaking the same language, Nero in place of Göring, a fictional US astronaut in place of Burton and Mark Twain as the captain of the boat. For some reason, Alice is left in place. Farmer’s better ideas are obscured by the lazy dramaturgy and low production values.

fiction moving picture