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"
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
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery
& suspense

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
To purchase, click on image
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other