Imagine waking up on the banks of a world encircling river. Everyone who ever lived1 has also appeared simultaneously with you. What would you do upon awakening? Once you realize what’s happened, is there anyone in particular you’d like to meet? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and this is Phillip Jose Farmer’s take on how he’d answer those two questions; as a decent writer, he’s come up with a story that’s at least readable.
The basic conceit of the Riverworld series is: All of humanity is simultaneously resurrected, naked, hairless and in the prime of life regardless of age at death, along the banks of an unimaginably long river. People are grouped roughly by country, culture and time of origin, 70% group A, 25% group B and a smattering of other cultures/times. As people die (and people do die through violence or accident), they are resurrected randomly elsewhere along the river, and so, as time goes by, the original groupings become dispersed and the cultural assumptions diluted.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go concentrates on Richard Burton, the nineteenth century explorer and translator of The 1,001 Nights among other things. He awoke while the current residents of the Riverworld were still in process, so to speak, and is therefore in a unique position to grasp the underlying truth: this “afterlife” is an artificial creation of a species more technologically advanced than humanity for reasons that he and the other human residents of the Riverworld cannot know. He resolves to explore the world, as best he can, by repeatedly committing suicide in the hopes that in the roulette of Resurrection he will land at the upper end of the river near enough to the Tower from which the river and the controlling race both originate. As the book ends, one of the “Ethicals”, the creators of Riverworld, catches up with him to warn him that there is a limit to how many times one may be resurrected, and Burton is approaching that limit.
The Fabulous Riverboat introduces a new group of characters, centering on Sam Clemens and his desire to create a Mississippi-style paddlewheeler capable of travelling upstream to the head of the River for which this new world was named. Clemens has also been visited by one of the Ethicals, whom he nicknames “X”, and therefore also knows that this isn’t the promised afterlife but an experiment of sorts, though neither he nor Burton understand fully what’s going on. The lack of metals, not to mention mining equipment, on this created world is a considerable drawback, but X informs Clemens that a meteorite of sufficient size to provide construction materials for his riverboat fell to the planet’s surface. Unfortunately, there is someone else racing for the precious meteorite: John Lackland, the king of England so reviled that no subsequent king bore his name2.
The third through fifth books, The Dark Design, The Magic Labyrinth and Gods of Riverworld, trace the various expeditions’ efforts to reach the source of the River. Specific members of individual groups shift between allegiances as they find out more about their compatriots, and as those groups have varying degrees of success. Keep in mind that #3 and #4 were intended to be one book, but the publisher split it into two parts as the length would have made publishing a sound book difficult; not surprisingly, The Dark Design ends on an unsatisfactory note…as that was never intended as an ending, any more than the ending of The Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers were intended to be thus.
While I still enjoy reading the books, 30-40 years after their original publication, I have to agree with other reviewers who think that Farmer bit off a bit more than he could chew completely when he decided to (at least nominally) include everyone who ever lived. On the plus side, it allowed him to pick the cream of the crop in terms of adventurers who’d be most likely to attempt travelling the length of the river—the only way you could showcase all those cultures through time. On the minus, the books don’t distinguish clearly between the different characters; they all come out sounding kind of like the same person, a Gary Stuification of Farmer himself. I would, however, disagree in that I think that, even once people have had all their physical needs met–food and clothing and shelter—there will remain some few who are too restless to accept tranquility; they desire activity, challenge and stimulation whether physical or intellectual. If the environment does not provide the stimulation they need, they must create it for themselves.
Coming back to the books decades after I first read them, ruefully I have to admit that I can’t honestly recommend them to adults who want a bit of sophistication in their science fiction. It might do, as it did for me originally, for teens whose interest has outpaced their reading abilities, and in that sense it fits in perfectly with most of the modern YA science fiction I’ve read recently, and might even inspire the kids to find out something more about the various historical figures Farmer mentions. Great idea. Mediocre exposition. Stilted characterization at best, with generous amounts of the sexuality Farmer’s other books show, not to mention racial, cultural and sexual stereotyping that will certainly set the more sensitive readers’ teeth on edge. Not much in the way of plot resolution or motivation for the Ethicals; frankly I’m still not entirely convinced of their motivations for creating the world and resurrecting the entirety of humanity. Still, it’s an entertaining and amusing read if you can ignore the flaws.
1well, mostly: children under the age of five and the mentally disabled aren’t so resurrected
2or that’s the story anyway