To Your Scattered Bodies Go

I’ve always thought of Philip Jose Farmer as a fantasy writer and, not being very much into fantasy, I’ve actively avoided him. But lately, I’ve been feeling the need to circle back to the books I skipped during my formative years for whatever reason and since I loved PJF’s take on Vonnegut’s fictional author Kilgore Trout in Venus on the Half Shell, I thought I’d try one of his more famous works.

And, frankly, the title kind of grabbed me.

I didn’t know anything about the Riverworld series so it was just a lucky shot that dropped me into the first book. For those of you who haven’t read the series, it’s about an Earth-like planet that has been terraformed to have its entire surface covered by one massive, winding river. The engineers who accomplished this miraculous feat then resurrected every sentient being who ever lived on Earth into the valley that follows it.

No one knows why they’ve been resurrected and there is precious little logic about how the various races/nations/languages are distributed along the shore. Whoever has done this has not given a reason or communicated with the resurrectees in any way. The only indication of their presence is the mushroom-shaped Grail Stones that provide food, drink, clothing and many luxury items one would not expect to find in Heaven.

PJF made an interesting choice for his protagonist by choosing a man from history who is arguably more interesting in his life than he possibly can be in this made up story. Richard Francis Burton is the epitome of British colonialism and overreach. A classic “explorer” who travels the world to put his lens on every culture and society he encounters.

I think that PJF probably felt differently about this kind of man in 1971 than we do now. Colonialism and Cultural Appropriation being pejorative terms now, I had a tendency to react negatively to information about Burton that PJF presented as bold or heroic. For instance, Burton infiltrated Mecca during Ramadan disguised as an Arab.

Regardless of his historical nature, Burton is presented much like Heinlein’s “competent man” for most of the story. His curiosity about the river valley drives him to relentlessly pursue answers even when the creatures running Riverworld actively try to stop him. He’s also a “competent man” character in the way he is presented with obstacles and consistently overcomes them with logic and level-headed thinking.

He’s not bloodless, though. Burton is presented as a passionate and prideful man whose love for a woman who will not have him is never fully resolved in this first book of the story. He also has a difficult relationship to the legacy he left on Earth, marred as it was by his wife who burned many of his journals and other writings after his death.

Having sort of chipped away at it, I really need to come back around and explain how much I enjoyed To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

PJF’s writing style is minimalist but not to the point of strangling his world building or his characterization. As such, it provides a fast narrative that quickly establishes the environment, introduces the characters, and charges into action. And while I prefer lots of action in the stories I read, I find the ones that consist only of action are boring. PJF avoids this problem by creating real emotional constructs for fully realized characters who expose their true selves through conflict.

An efficient but rich experience. One I plan to continue in the sequels where the mysteries of Riverworld will hopefully be solved.

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