Black Hole Reads: To Your Scattered Bodies Go


black hole reads

Dear Extraterrestrial,

why are you abducting so many people and not me? I’m really bored, and although I’m not sure I’d like your food and I do realize there might not be a proper hairdresser where you’ll be taking me, at least I can be sure there is no Facebook over there. Or, is there? In the meantime, all I can do to fight this misery is reading and reviewing some SF novels I’ve been recommended by other…let’s say…”fans” of yours.

Review: To your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

British explorer Richard Francis Burton gets killed in 1890. He wakes up on the banks of a river, naked and rejuvenated. He’s not alone: thousands of people from every historical period are being raised from the dead at the same time. They soon realise their surroundings have little to do with the Christian heaven or the hereafter described by any other religion on Earth. They have in fact been translated to a strange planet crossed by a gigantic river.

Who placed them on this planet? God? The aliens? The deities of a religion previously unknown to men? Why were they revived? Is this hell? Were they offered a second chance? Is it a scientific or anthropological experiment? Are they part of a vicious game?

No one shows up to answer their questions, but Burton has reason to believe their resurrection was not attained through supernatural means. Before his proper awakening, he accidentally came round and saw something he was not supposed to see.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is part of the Riverworld series. Having read this book right after finishing The Gunslinger by Stephen King, my latest Tome of the Month, I was quite surprised to find some affinity between the two novels. The coincidence was striking, since my choice of reading them in succession was totally accidental. I read King’s novel after I had my non-bookish husband pick any title in my e-book library by pointing a finger on a random icon. I accepted the draw: after all, I had never read anything by that author and I had to start somewhere. The Riverworld saga instead was suggested to me by a fellow blogger who commented on my post on sci-fi favourites. So, you see, the reading sequence was unintentional.

However, the two novels have three things in common:

  • In both books the deceased wake again on another world, endure multiple deaths and there is no explanation;
  • Both heroes are practical and though men;
  • Both are looking for a Dark Tower.

After noticing these similarities I can’t avoid comparing the two novels.

While in King’s story the main character swore to go on a quest from the beginning, Burton here is first of all concentrating on survival and adapting to the new environment, like a castaway. He has an ability to think ahead, and unlike the minor characters he wastes no time in recollections or speculations, saving them for later when he’ll have secured at least basic life support and safety.

Only halfway through the book, when his situation is more stable and information has become more substantial, he starts to actively investigate what’s really going on. Along with him we gradually discover hints and this makes him a character who is easier to identify with than Roland Deschain.

Then again, the book has its flaws. There are too many digressions on political and historical issues. The characters bring on an endless debate on forms of society and human habits. All these dissertations make the book hard to digest and make it look like an essay in dialogue form. Luckily, the plot is engaging, imaginative and rich in events, and although the reader might be tempted to skip a page now and then, the story never gets stuck and at least it’s not confusing like the constant flow of occult references in The Gunslinger.

Several factors put the basis for an interesting story: the mix of people from different ages and lands; the presence of fictional characters along with historical figures; the shortage of things that were taken for granted in everyday life on Earth, which prompts Burton’s crew to find creative solutions to their practical problems.

On the other hand, nationalities are a bit too stereotyped: the snobbish upper-class Victorian lady, the loud and hormone-driven Italians, the nazi Germans, the eternally sad Jew.

While The Gunslinger is essentially epic, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a dystopic novel. What’s unusual for a dystopia, though, is that the main character is very quick to understand that this apparently perfect world is destined to failure, because men are no better than they were on Earth. While others are still busy recovering from the shock, he acts fast because he expects the usual human abuse instinct to break out very soon, followed by anarchy and the rise of natural leaders like himself.

Will he succeed in solving the afterlife enigma? Maybe I’ll find it out reading the following book in the Riverworld series.


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