Review of To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
To Your Scattered Bodies Go
by Philip José Farmer
When I first began reading To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I didn't give it enough credit. It has an amazing premise, and as a narrative it contains both the conflict and the thematic depth required to create a compelling science fiction story. And, I mean, it won the Hugo award—that can't be bad! So why was I so incredulous in the beginning? I'm not sure. It might have been the opening, which didn't draw me in like a book should. And it was difficult to connect to Burton as a character at first, although eventually I came to respect his adventurous, rebellious nature.
What first won me over was Burton's relentless rational approach to analyzing Riverworld. The majority of resurrected humans at first regarded their new life as a religious event (although obviously it didn't correspond to whatever religion they endorsed). Burton and many of his companions apply the scientific method to their observations, from the use of their grails and the operation of the grailstones to the way in which resurrection works. This approach to Riverworld is one reason Burton survives for so long and becomes a thorn in the side of Riverworld's operators (whoever They may be).
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is actually the combination of two stories: a look at what would happen to humanity if everyone was collectively resurrected in a massive river valley, and the story of one man's struggle to discover and thwart those who caused this resurrection.
The first story allows Farmer to ask the big questions. Are humans deserving of a second chance? Can they actually change their ways? Aren't we all curious about what really happened in past societies? Who wouldn't want a chance to see what Caesar was like or talk to Shakespeare? To his credit, however, Farmer sprinkles his story with famous personages and leaves it at that. He could easily have set up an all-star cast for little reason, but by limiting who we meet, he keeps the story focused and makes those people all the more interesting. By far, the famous person who gets the most pagetime is Hermann Göring. He starts out as the opportunistic conqueror he died as, but gradually he becomes a guilt-ridden madman and then the local leader of a post-Resurrection religion. Göring is Farmer's case study and a fascinating one.
The second story, however, provides the meat of the conflict. Burton discovers that whoever resurrected humanity has agents among them, watching them. Depending on who he asks, these entities either have an altruistic agenda or a sinister one. Either way, Burton plans to get to the bottom of the mystery by finding the source of the River. It's a common story: nearly powerless protagonist pitted against beings of immense power with his only weapon his will to survive and triumph. But set in the enchanting Riverworld, Burton's quest is part legendary—he rightly compares it to The Odyssey—and part necessary: he needs to rebel and explore, because he isn't content to stay home and help in the founding of a new civilization.
I would have liked to see Farmer develop some of the other characters in more interesting ways. Alice Hargreaves shows up, but her role is only as love interest and (sometime) warrior. Her relationship with Burton is superficial and tenuous at best. Farmer creates a small cast of characters, but then he leaves them behind as Burton begins venturing across Riverworld via "The Suicide Express" and we don't see them again until the end. I'm not satisfied with that . . . I would be more interested in learning what happened to them during the time Burton was away.
This book pleasantly surprised me. It's somewhat slow at the beginning, but the mystery of who resurrected humanity and why quickly becomes engrossing. To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a good science fiction exemplar, something one can hold up and say, "See? This makes you think. And it's fun to read too!"