Philip José Farmer’s 1971 To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the first volume in his Riverworld series. It won a best novel Hugo. Mysterious are the ways of Hugos.
Famed Victorian traveler Richard Burton caps off a life of adventure, exploration, and risqué translations by dying. The end.
After an enigmatic episode involving floating naked in a vast volume, surrounded by a myriad of other naked people, Burton recovers consciousness on the banks of a vast river (henceforth River). With him are a multitude of people, all naked and temporarily hairless, all twenty-five years old (or so) in appearance. Nearby naked beings of interest to the revived explorer:
- Kazz the caveman
- Englishwoman Alice Lidell, who inspired Alice in Wonderland
- American SF author Peter Frigate1
- Monat, an alien from Tau Ceti
There are no children under five and no people who died after 2008 (which just happens to be the year that Monat killed most of the human population on Earth). The revived people are effectively immortal: they can be killed, but they are then resurrected at an apparently random point on the River.
The land along the River seems to lack immediately useful resources, but the resurrectees won’t starve. They have been reborn with a container, a grail, that will supply clothing, food, and drugs. However, they do have to worry about other humans. There is no government. Only by banding together can the revived humans resist enslavement by gangs of thugs.
Burton and his companions seem to have been reborn on a peaceful stretch of the River. Had they stayed there, they would have had fewer unpleasant adventures. But Burton, as is his nature, is driven by curiosity. What was that vast space in which he found himself? Who and what have created the River and orchestrated the resurrections? He believes that the answer will be found at the headwaters of the River. He organizes an expedition to the source, not realizing that the River is millions of miles long.
Adventures ensue. They meet a gang of slavers. Cue massacre, nastiness, and rape. Burton and his remaining companions eventually escape. In the process, they acquire a new companion: a fellow named Spruce. Spruce drops an enigmatic hint that Riverworld was created to give humans a chance to redeem themselves. Spruce escapes further interrogation by killing himself. To be resurrected elsewhere, of course.
Once Burton realizes that suicide could be a faster way to travel, he starts killing himself. He does this 777 times by the end of the book, but without ever reaching his goal2.
What is the vast space? Who made Riverworld? What is its purpose? Why is it that a deranged Hermann Goering keeps getting resurrected near Burton? Only further volumes in the series can answer these pressing questions!
For many Disco Era readers this was the book that introduced them to the idea a book might not be complete in itself; it could simply be an enticement to purchase more books. As is all too common in such series, delays between subsequent volumes proved unpredictable.
- Less than a year after the first book was published the first sequel, The Fabulous Riverboat, came out.
- Six years after Riverboat, the third book, The Dark Design, came out.
- Three years after Dark Design, what was announced as last book in the series, The Magic Labyrinth, came out.
- Three years after Labyrinth, the fifth and even more final volume, Gods of Riverworld, came out.
Some of us had stopped reading way before that.
This series may have taught many readers about diminishing returns on investment. As so many creators have discovered, it is usually easier to set up intriguing mysteries than it is to come up with pleasing solutions. To Your Scattered Bodies Go may be meandering, episodic, and incomplete but at least it sets up a mystery whose resolution could in theory have been fascinating. Harrumph.
Advice to younger readers: read these books as long as you enjoy them (despite pulpish writing and paper-thin characters). When you stop enjoying them, set the series aside. Whatever solutions you might imagine to the worldbuilding mysteries will be better than the answers readers eventually got.
1: Peter Frigate, the character, is a thinly disguised Philip Jose Farmer. Frigate may be a rather unflattering self-portrait, but at least the character gets to punch Korshack of Shasta Books. Korshack was a man who had cheated Farmer back in the 1950s, when Farmer was writing the first version of this book.
2: Burton is within sight of his goal the first time he rides the Suicide Express, but he is killed almost immediately.