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 Bodies 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.