I didn't expect to encounter fellow Trinity College, Oxford alum,
the Victorian era explorer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), as
the hero of a science fiction novel set thousands of years in the
future. Even stranger, Burton dies in the second sentence of the
novel. Stranger still, he dies several hundred additional times
during the course of the book.

I have to give credit to Philip José Farmer for
thinking outside the box. And thinking outside
the galaxy. And thinking beyond traditional life
and death constructs. Heck, just imagining life
and death as
constructs is…well, as Dino
might have said:
Ain’t that a kick in the pants?

As you may have guessed by now, To Your
Scattered Bod
ies Go starts where the happily-
ever-after story must, by definition, come to
an end. Farmer's novel explores the afterlife,
and if his tale takes place in heaven, it is a
heaven unlike any envisioned by the world's
various sects and creeds. Everybody who
ever lived simply wakes up, naked and hairless
and restored to the body they had when they were younger.
Relocated to a pastoral valley alongside an immensely long
river, Sumerians rub shoulders with Mayans, and Nazis get
neighborly with ancient Romans. Everyone has been given a
large empty container, which they come to call grails, that
magically gets replenished on a regular basis with food and
drink, as well as cigarettes, pot and a hallucinogenic gum. Maybe
God did all this—who else would mount such a full-scale
resurrection?—but if so, He isn't showing His face.

Although much has changed in the afterlife, a few things remain
constant. Skeptics are still skeptical, and believers still believe.
Some suspect that a scientific explanation can account for
this resurrection of the flesh, while others join up with the Church
of the Second Chance, which proclaims that new life has been
granted fallible humans so that they can make an improvement
over their flawed first existence. But one thing is certain: there
is no opting out of this new scheme. Anyone who dies in the
afterlife—and many are, given the inevitable rivalries and
confrontations of a nascent society—is simply resurrected
again, although in a far distant locale along the river bank.  
Think of it as a kind of Witness Protection Program for the
born again.

Burton, however, is more suspicious than his fellow re-animated
neighbors. He had a brief glimpse of an intermediary stage
between death and rebirth, and saw a body holding zone and
the people running it. Other bits and pieces of evidence convince
him that his new home isn't heaven; rather, he has been enlisted,
along with billions of others, in some grand if mysterious social
engineering experiment.

Burton decides that he wants to find and confront the people
running the experiment. The facts at his disposal suggest that
Ethicals (his name for the hidden agents operating the 'heaven'
simulation) live at the source of the enormous river that spans
this brave, new world. Meanwhile, the Ethicals appear curious
about Burton, and send out disguised agents, who can blend
in with the resurrected population, to track him down.

The premise of
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is ingenious, and
in the early stages of the novel, Farmer captivates his readers
with a story that is both mysterious and surprising, and possibly
even profound. How many genre stories tackle big questions
about the meaning of life, and still have time for chase scenes
and hand-to-hand combat? Farmer entertains with the non-stop
action, even as he delights with his grasp of how humans from
different eras and backgrounds might react to a sudden second
chance at life. For the first 100 pages or so, he seems poised to
deliver a different kind of sci-fi novel, a book of ideas as well
as adventure.

Yet by the midpoint of the novel, Farmer has mostly abandoned
the ideas. Readers now understand why our author selected a
famous historical explorer as his protagonist.
To Your Scattered
Bodies Go
has turned into a swashbuckling travel story. It's
successful on that level, but fails to deliver on the promises of
the high-powered concepts that made the opening pages so
capitvating. Farmer has a chance to rectify this at the conclusion,
but opts for the most crass commercial choice of them all—namely
to use the final section of his novel to build up the reader’s interest
in a sequel rather than offer a resolution to the plots he has set in
motion. As it turned out, he was able to milk this premise for another
four novels, not to mention assorted short stories—and even
managed to convince other authors to create 'Riverworld' tales
of their own.  

So I give Philip José Farmer credit for establishing a lucrative
franchise. Later came the TV miniseries, the video game and
other merchandising deals. But I would have been more pleased
if Mr. Farmer had narrowed his scope and delivered a solid and
coherent novel.  This didn't prevent him from winning a Hugo for
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but I can’t help lament the career
arc of this talented writer, who stood out at mid-career for his
Joycean ambitions (see his novella "Riders of the Purple Wage"
in
Dangerous Visions—it’s one of the boldest sci-fi works of the
1960s), but eventually opted to churn out retread stories about
Tarzan, Doc Savage, Oz and any other pulp idea he could beg,
borrow or steal.

So if there really is a Church of the Second Chance, as Farmer
postulates in his
Riverworld books, and people actually get an
opportunity to rectify the mistakes of their previous existence, I
hope that our writer will aim a little higher the next time around.
I can’t deny it: Philip José Farmer was one of the most talented
science fiction authors of his generation, and when he put his
mind to it, he could achieve stunning effects. In fact, he does
that for long spells in this novel. But
Riverworld is perhaps best
read as a cautionary tale for other authors, who would serve
their readers better by worrying more about the book at hand
and not the possible spin-offs.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


Publication Date: September 17, 2014
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

by Philip José Farmer

Essay by Ted Gioia
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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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A Clockwork Orange

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

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A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Little, Big

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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VALIS

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Camp Concentration

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

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The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Aura

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American Gods

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Neverwhere

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Burning Chrome

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Neuromancer

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Time Enough for Love

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Dune

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Some of Your Blood

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Lord of Light

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