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Good Read #2: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

September 20th, 2005

TysbgHmm. Can’t seem to locate my copy of Startide Rising, so for today I’ll blog on a different Good Read. This one is by a science fiction writer not too many have heard of: Philip José Farmer. The book: To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

The basic plot is a startling one: after dying, every human that ever lived awakens on the banks of a great river. Everyone who dies after the age of five is there. You’re there. But we don’t appear on the river chronologically, resurrected immediately after we perish on Earth. Instead, every human from every age, from the Neanderthals to the 21st century (supposedly the Earth is destroyed in 2008, so better get ready!) is resurrected upon the River at the same time. Everyone awakens unclothed, hairless, with perfectly-formed bodies at the peak of youth–with absolutely no clue as to what happened or why we are there. There are no buildings (at least at first), no signs of civilization except for two things: everyone has a large metal “grail” or closed container attached to their wrists by a transparent strap, and regularly spaced along the length of the river are 50-foot-wide, 5-foot-tall “grailstones,” mushroom-shaped constructs with holes along their tops. At any given location, there is a majority of people from one time and geographic location on Earth; a minority from another time and place; and a remainder of peoples from any number of times and places.

Naturally, as everyone awakens at once, having just died, most people completely freak out. Waking up young, nude and shorn on a riverbank is not what most people expected in an afterlife.

The story follows the perspective of Sir Francis Richard Burton (the British explorer, not the film star), from his death to his premature awakening in a preparation area, to his awakening on the river and his adventures thereafter. He quickly teams up with a Neanderthal named Kazz, a young American writer named Peter Frigate (who happens to be a Burton biographer, not to mention the avatar of author Farmer), a woman named Alice Hargreaves, who was the model for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and an alien calling himself Monat Grrautut from Tau Centauri, claiming to be the one who destroyed the Earth.

Soon, many facts about the River world become apparent: the River stretches from one pole of the world to another; there is a riverbank on each side a mile or two deep before unclimbable mountains bar one from traveling north or south. That’s all the world is, unending river valleys, spiraling and winding throughout the entire world; to go north or south, one must circumnavigate the globe along the valley to reach the next valley over. There are few if any natural resources.

There are also no farms, and aside from fish in the River, no natural source of food. The grails, however, when placed in depressions in the grailstones, are granted three meals a day; at set times, energy flares like lightning shoot up from the stones, and any grails set into them are suddenly filled with a meal and other treats (the first filling providing clothes and other amenities). Only the owner of a grail is able to open it. It soon becomes clear that the world is an artifact, constructed for the purpose of resurrecting all of humankind and keeping them alive–for a reason completely unknown. The makers, whoever they may be, do not show themselves or give any clue as to who they are or what they want.

But no one can escape one fact: they have been given a second chance at life. And a third, a fourth, and more: if a person is killed on the Riverworld, they are again resurrected the following morning–somewhere else along the River, at random.

Farmer takes this grand concept and uses it well; we meet a host of people, from ordinary to famed to pretenders to fame (if someone declares they are Jesus and no one knows them, who can dispute it?). Societies quickly form, miniature nations, often in line with the majority society resurrected at that point of the river. Naturally, many of them are brutal, and “grail slavery,” where one is held in bondage while masters hoard the lion’s share of your grail offerings, crops up almost everywhere. There is great suffering and chaos, wars and attempts at power and empire–and the ever-present question of, who created this place and why are they allowing this to happen?

Sir Richard Burton is determined to find out, and vows to travel to the head of the river at the pole of the world, a daunting task even if the world were not filled with territoriality, greed, and violence. And dogging him all the way is no one other than Hermann Göring, of all people. Along the way, we meet all kinds of people, in this book and the sequels, including King John of England, Cyrano de Bergerac, Odysseus, Tom Mix, Jack London, Ulysses S. Grant, and Baron Von Richtoven, among many others.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the first in a series of five novels by Farmer, and is followed by The Fabulous Riverboat, where Samuel Clemens is aided by a Mysterious Stranger to find the resources necessary to build a powerful steamship to ply the great river; The Dark Design, catching up with Burton and his accomplices; The Magic Labyrinth, a climax where the pole is reached and the answers to the Riverworld are discovered; and Gods of Riverworld, the post-climax novel (Farmer was probably as enticed by another assured paycheck as he was encouraged by the fans for this one) where Burton and company find themselves having everything they want, and discover that it’s not all they thought it would be.

The book series is a fascinating adventure into a variety of cultures, customs, philosophies and personalities. Unless you have a specific personal distaste for some element of the general storyline, the books are easy to get hooked on, prompting you to get your hands on the full set and see what happens and what it’s all about. It might reassure you to know that Farmer does in fact give you all the answers in the end; it’s not just some tease where the writer abandons you after you’ve committed yourself. You learn who built the world and why, and a lot more. It stands as one of my more unusual favorite book series.

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  1. ykw
    September 21st, 2005 at 05:29 | #1

    I read the first paragraph, found it interesting, and ordered this from amazon.com. I did not read further since I wanted the plot to be a surprise. If I read further, will that spill many beans?

  2. Luis
    September 21st, 2005 at 05:35 | #2

    It’ll spill the beans but only to a certain extent. It certainly does not tell the end of the story or give away the secrets. But it does cover many of the initial surprises in the first quarter or so of the first book. Later details are the same type as those on the book flaps. But if you’re going to buy them, then certainly don’t read on, allow yourself to be surprised.

    And thanks!

  3. September 21st, 2005 at 22:02 | #3

    Sounds like my kind of book. But, can you tell me is the ending be a philosophical thought-proking one or a “guess what, it was all a dream in some alien’s head” ending. If it’s the latter, I think I will pass.

  4. Luis
    September 21st, 2005 at 22:07 | #4

    It’s definitely not a “then the little boy woke up” ending, not at all. Some believe that the fifth book took it a bit farther than it should have gone, but it definitely all is a matter of discovery and of speculation on morality and philosophy. It explores what we truly are and gives one take on it, and what it means, possibly, to exist. But you go through a lot of adventures on the river before you find the real answers for most of it–but then, that’s where most of the fun is, anyway. Anything more detailed and I’d be giving away too much.

  5. September 22nd, 2005 at 09:19 | #5

    OK Luis, I’m sold..I’ll give it a read.

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