Sir Richard Francis Burton dies, only to wake among rows and columns of naked sleeping bodies. Every intelligent being who has ever lived on Earth has been resurrected and placed in the Riverworld. Burton is unique among the billions of bodies in that he awakes before the resurrection is complete, witnessing it in process.
He awakes a second time on a plain, surrounded by naked humans. On three sides of the plain are impassable mountains which drop down into a valley, leading to a river. Each person has a cylinder tied to their hand. That cylinder fits into grooves on mushroom shaped structures - “grailstones” - spaced about a mile apart against the river bank. When placed on the structure the cylinders fill up with a variety of food and recreational drugs.
The valley is one of millions in the world. The river starts at the north pole and zig-zags to the southern pole, the entire world covered with this pattern. People are grouped by the time and place they died. Each river valley is 60% one group, 30% another, and 10% random individuals. On the other side of the river is another group comprised of a different mixture. Though these groups are blocked off from adjacent valleys, the river passes through a canyon to the next valleys. Some people brave the rapids to explore up and down the river.
We learn later that the Riverworld is a massive scientific experiment run by immortal beings dubbed the “Ethicals”. Burton was intentionally awoken early by a rebel amongst them who disagreed with the experiment. He was chosen for the probing, rebellious nature he exhibited in life. He does not disappoint. Not wasting any time, he quickly organizes a party - with Peter Frigate, a 21st century American; Monat, an alien who died at the end of the world; Kaz, an intelligent Neanderthal; Alice, a Victorian-era brit; and some others - to explore the Riverworld. At some point he is tipped off by his benefactor. Eventually he finds an Ethical observer and extracts more information about the experiment. This information sets him on a quest to find the river’s source. He is determined enough to commit suicide numerous times hoping to be resurrected (as all humans in Riverworld are) in a valley closer to the source.
Burton is a real person, as his Hermann Goering and a few others. The latter was an interesting choice for Farmer. Goering starts where he left off on Earth, enslaving his fellow man. He’s a mess though, getting himself addicted to a mysterious drug that each human has in his or her cannister. Goering dies several times, and is curiously resurrected next to Burton several times. He comes off as a pathetic, rather than evil, character, which is a risky way to portray one of 20th century’s greatest monsters.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go reminded me of Red Mars in a way. Mars before human exploration was a virgin world, possibly a place for humanity to start over as Earth spirals into war and environmental destruction. In the most optimistic of situations, scientists from around the world are sent to create a base of operations for human colonization. Similarly, Riverworld had no organization, no industry, not even any clothes. The societies these people came from, and the conflicts in them, ceased to exist. Both were experiments in a sense. Riverworld was created by all-powerful beings as a way study its inhabitants. The scientists who landed on Mars were meant to study the planet, but those scientists were unwittingly in an unintentional version of the same experiment. In both cases, human instinct took over. As soon as the scientists in Red Mars escaped Earth’s atmosphere they began plotting how to run the world their way. In the Riverworld violence erupted on the first night. People dominated the weak at first chance. The scientists on Mars waged a more “civilized” battle, but with civilization came better weapons, so when it devolved it was much worse.
It is the story of human civilization. There are always those who wish to control the world. Certainly not everyone is evil, but if one group is being aggressive, all must take prepare. Hiding out is only an option for so long even hidden in Martian caves or blocked by large Riverworld mountains. Hoping to be left alone is not an option. In a virgin world like Mars or Riverworld, there is a power void that ambition rushes to fill. The lesson of both is that there is no reason a fresh start will change human group dynamics.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go fell short for me and I’m not sure why. The science fiction concept was fascinating. Farmer created a world with a grand and unique geography. The scale of the sociological aspect - with disparate cultures from every time in the history of the world possibly interacting - was even greater. The concepts weren’t explored far enough though. There was little explanation as to how the world was created. The interactions between different cultures felt too stereotyped, with non-European cultures being explored little and mostly coming off as savage. Given the ending, the novel was obviously set up as part of a series. Farmer has time to expound on the world he has created, and the people he settled in it, but if you haven’t committed to read the series you’re left without a lot of detail.
The characters were interesting but Burton’s passion overshadowed them all. And when he goes off on his quest to find the source of the river, they’re all lost anyway (probably to return in a later book).
Overall I was impressed by the ideas, but thought the execution could have been better.