The first novel of Riverworld covers deep waters, but it's a rough ride

There's a lot going on in 1972's Hugo-winning novel, Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go. But in this introduction to his legendary Riverworld, the waters can get a bit choppy and muddy.

Scattered Bodies' story in a nutshell is that every single person who's ever lived on Earth, from prehistoric times up through the year 2008, when most of humanity was wiped out, awakens, naked and hairless and in a youthful body, along a river millions of miles long. The river valley is bounded by high mountains. All the men are circumcised and all the women's hymens are intact. All they have with them are metal canisters — they call them grails. The grails, they soon discover, will provide them with food, drink, and other sundry goods periodically throughout the day, when the canisters are inserted into mushroom-like stone structures they call grailstones.

No one can remember anything between dying and awakening on the Riverworld, except for our protagonist, 19th-century British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton. After dying in his wife's arms, Burton opened his eyes to find himself floating amid endless stacks of other naked bodies in a vast space. Upon trying to escape, he was stopped by two men of indiscriminate heritage — and then, like everyone else, woke up next to the River.

What happens from there, basically, is: Burton meets the others who've woken up near him, they figure out the basics of survival on the Riverworld, and he convinces them to help build a boat and join him on a journey to the end of the River, in the hope that whoever brought them there will have an explanation for doing so.

The first novel of Riverworld covers deep waters, but it's a rough ride

The notable characters in his group are Peter Jairus Frigate, a 20th-century American and explicit stand-in for Farmer (note those initials, not to mention that allusive middle name); Alice Hargreaves, the woman who as a child inspired Charles Dodgson to invent Wonderland; Monat Grrautut, an alien from Tau Ceti who was visiting Earth and is actually responsible for the wholesale elimination of humankind (though he's really a pretty friendly guy); Lev Ruach, a modern atheist Jew; and Kazzintuitruaabemss, or just Kazz, a pre–Homo sapiens cannibal hominid (who also turns out to be pretty friendly).

At first, most of them wonder if they're in the afterlife; after they see someone die — and subsequently discover that death just means waking up some other place alongside the River — they guess they're probably not. Later, on their journey, they learn that they've been resurrected on the Riverworld by powerful beings they dub the Ethicals, who either want to give humans a chance to redeem themselves through repeated fresh starts on life, like in Groundhog Day, or who have a darker, secret master plan.

Now, Scattered Bodies' conceit is pretty ingenious. For one thing, it gave Farmer the chance to play around with historical figures as characters; he did something similar with his Wold Newton family stories, which brought famous fictional characters like Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes together and was a direct influence on Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The first novel of Riverworld covers deep waters, but it's a rough ride

And his choices here are clever. Burton is famous for a lot of things, but probably his best-known venture was a trek deep into the Congo to uncover the source of that other famous, more factual river, the Nile.* Alice's legend began when Dodgson spun a story for her and her sisters on a rowboat trip up the Thames, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland starts with the little girl falling asleep on a riverbank (and ends with her waking up on it). And after his real-life suicide, the book's eventual villain, Nazi leader Hermann Göring, had his ashes scattered in Germany's Isar River.

The novel itself, however, leaves more to be desired. I say that with a little trepidation — I know how much Riverworld means to a lot of readers, and it's pretty clear Farmer was doing something really innovative and remarkable in scope. He attracted attention in the SF community early on for being willing to write about sex and drugs maturely. He does that here (Alice and Burton enjoy a night of passion after chewing some "dreamgum" provided by the grails as a tool for self-discovery), and more to the point, he reaches for something even more existentially resonant.

And although my familiarity with his other work is limited to his Hugo-winning entry in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology, the novella "Riders on the Purple Wage," that story alone convinces me he was a skilled writer. So it's possible that if Scattered Bodies' prose isn't exactly artful, it was a choice — like, Farmer was deliberately trying to emulate a more plainspoken style from an earlier time. Or maybe some of the stiltedness is the result of the book being first a revamp of a novel he'd written in the 1950s (for which he won a contest that was supposed to net him $4,000 and a publishing contract; he got neither**), and then the combination of two novellas, "The Day of the Great Shout" and "The Suicide Express," which were published more than a year apart.

Whatever the reason, the book reads much less smoothly than any Hugo winner since Fritz Leiber's The Wanderer. Again, Farmer is clever — but sometimes in a too-cutesy way. He can get carried away revealing historical trivia about his characters at the expense of narrative flow. Frigate can be especially grating: A historian back in his life on Earth, he's constantly dropping knowledge about Burton's and other characters' lives in an overly personal, kinda fanboy-ish manner that is uncomfortable if not outright creepy. And so much exposition takes place by way of info-dump conversations, or is so blithely inserted into the narrative, that the book could be an author's primer on how to tell rather than show. Then, too, there's the abrupt way Alice simply announces one day that she's fallen in love with Burton, after long avoiding his affections — only to immediately disappear from the story thereafter. And Farmer's introduction of characters like Kazz the caveman feels like a missed opportunity, since they're acclimated to the modern Western culture that pervades the story with implausibly minimal hassle.

The clumsiness might not have been so bothersome when To Your Scattered Bodies Go was published, but it comes through now. That's too bad, because the strength of the ideas here is apparent.

The big question the book seems to ask is: Must death really be a life-changing experience? And the answer is: No, at least not if the afterlife looks just like life. What's stunning about the Riverworld is not just that billions of people find themselves given new life — nearly never-ending new life, including the basics they need for subsistence and pleasure — and then promptly return to the selfishness and power struggles that caused them so much hardship before they died. No, what's stunning is how absolutely the book takes that for granted, and how true it feels. Yeah, that's probably how it would go down.

Granted, the Riverworld isn't really an afterlife in an eschatological sense, but you'd like to think appearing in it would give most people pause for thought. And Burton does tell another character, "I think every man has been changed somewhat by his experience here. If he hasn't, he is incapable of change. He would be better off dead."

It might be telling that a few chapters later, he proceeds to commit suicide repeatedly, to evade capture by the Ethicals, who want him because he witnessed the interlude between death and waking up next to the River. Because for better or worse, Burton doesn't noticeably change. When the book starts, he's an adventurer, a fighter, a lover, and a fiercely independent soul, and he's just the same at the end.

The first novel of Riverworld covers deep waters, but it's a rough ride

On the other hand, Hermann Göring does change, after reverting in the Riverworld to the despot and then drug addict he was in life. It takes him almost as many suicides as Burton to do so, though, and the Nazi kills himself not out of practicality but self-hatred. It's pretty clear that the two characters are meant to be mirrors of each other in some fashion — they're positioned next to each other in the stacks of bodies when Burton wakes up, and for much of the latter part of the book, they continue to reappear in the same place together after dying. They both also have a history of anti-Semitism. But while Burton owns up to having written a book that maligned Jews (though he does defend his reasons for doing so), Göring can only admit that he didn't even authorize millions of deaths during the Holocaust out of principle — it was just good for his career. There's an odd contrast there: A principled bigot may not be appealing, but he's maybe better than one who doesn't even care.

I don't know. Farmer certainly seems to be getting at some deeper themes, but it's tough to parse them out very precisely. Burton's quest to find the Ethicals eventually morphs into a quest to stay away from them and make his way to a legendary huge grailstone, the Dark Tower. Farmer had an English degree, and this seems to be an allusion to poet Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came":

The poem is about a journey its main character Roland is unable to resist taking, just as his companions before him were all unable to resist it. He crosses a river and eventually ends up in a valley bounded by high mountains, where he finds the Dark Tower. And then the poem ends.

There is a brief italicized aside between when Burton wakes up amid the stacks of bodies and when he wakes up again on the side of the River. He has a dream in which God approaches him and demands payment of a debt. "You owe for the flesh," God says. "Not to mention the spirit. You owe for the flesh and the spirit, which are one and the same thing."

Burton sees that God looks just like him — is dressed in his clothes, wears his face and his scars and his long moustachios and forked beard. "You look like the Devil," Burton tells him.

The suggestion, I think, is that our whole life is a fight against our own selves — that we're thrown into this thing and believe it's so absolutely precious that we'll do anything to keep it, and at the same time resent being entrusted with something so valuable. Really, death both gives our lives that value and offers us a sense of relief.

So maybe the big question Scattered Bodies actually asks is: What does it mean to take away someone's death? Or maybe that's what it meant to ask — honestly, I don't know that there's any cohesive and specific takeaway. Or maybe we just don't know enough to judge, as it does end with the explicit promise of a sequel describing the adventures of another well-known denizen of a famous river, Huckleberry Finn author Samuel Clemens. Either way, the book is far from perfect. But despite the bumpy start, there's an interesting undercurrent here that signals something stronger.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov, from 1973.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.

*More or less. "[T]his was not an explicit aim" of the expedition, according to Wikipedia.

**Farmer takes his revenge in the book, when Frigate beats the shit out of "the crooked publisher that cheated [him] out of $4,000...and ruined [his] career for years."