A fantastic mystery sandwiched in a riddle, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the debut novel in Philip José Farmer’s highly acclaimed Riverworld series. You may recognize that Farmer lifted the title from John Donne’s famous Holy Sonnet VII:
“At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;”
That aside, To Your Scattered Bodies Go became something of an overnight success soon after its initial release in 1971, perhaps riding the popularity craze of Riders of the Purple Wage (1968) and Behind the Walls of Terra (1970). It scooped the 1972 Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 30th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) which was held in Los Angeles, California. In the same year, it also won a Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
After the death of the famous English explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton on Earth, he’s resurrected in another strange world as a hairless, naked, and healthy newborn. This is only the beginning. Everyone who dies on Earth awakens on a grassy bank of a million-mile-long river that stretches the length of this unknown world, which appears to be an alien lab of some sort.
They’re confused but their every need is met. For instance, food is served every day in an almost miraculous way. Even though they don’t know how the new strange world works, everyone who has ever lived on the Earth – throughout the eons of human existences –must begin the cycle of life again. The former explorer would be the first person to witness the remarkable portal between the two worlds —the so-called way-station.
The accidental sight of the way-station would spark Francis Burton’s explorative instincts and inspire him to unearth the truth and secrets behind the new stranger afterlife. Together with a support group that includes a science fiction writer, an English-speaking Neanderthal, Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration behind Alice In Wonderland), and an intelligent extraterrestrial, the explorer embarks on a quest down the mighty river.
Top on their agenda is to discover the true purpose of the Riverworld, find out what happened to them, and perhaps confront the benefactors of their mysterious appearance in this new world. On their quest, they run into several enemies, including Nazi commander Hermann Göring, Third King of Rome Tullus Hostilius, and others. These run-ins are part of adventures that help them inch closer and closer to the dark, unsettling truths about humankind’s origins.
Delightfully adventurous, the most fascinating thing about To Your Scattered Bodies Go is its cynicism, the view that people are inherently bad and motivated by self-interest. When given a second chance at life, humans are quick to use the opportunity to bully one another and look out for themselves. Indeed, the first thing that the explorer did when he awakened was to find a club or a stick.
This book’s focus on human cynicism makes for thought-provoking, bracing, and interesting reading. Tastier still, this allows Farmer to thoroughly explore the idea of free will and what rebirth might mean for the human race. Such are the stems of the story.
Accordingly, he liberally packed the story with a wide berth of intriguing historical characters. The reader will appreciate the colorful cast of supporting characters that include Victorian-era industrialists, ancient Romans, cavemen, and a wise sci-fi writer. What makes this novel one of the digestible fantasy books is that it borders post-apocalyptic fiction without bombarding us with religious or philosophical mumbo jumbo.
In To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Farmer delivers his signature pulp style at its best. Instead of focusing on psychological and technical bits, he uses swift-paced writing and humor to provide some respite, all of which come together to make it one of the best science fiction novels. His depiction of the Nazi villain, for example, is cartoonish through and through, but does that matter? No, because we already have an idea what Hermann Göring is all about – murder, torture, and then some more murder.
This book showcases Farmer’s mastery of action at its best, as he keeps the prose gripping and the pace of writing brisk. Expect a chaotic bag of fistfights, raids, and escapes. The battles get even messier, more intense, and larger in later installations in the series, but they are still easy to keep track of.
Definitely one of the best reads, Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a great recommendation for fans of Larry Niven’s Moties series or Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat.