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Take Me to the River

Book #13 (March 11, 2010): To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

Philip José Farmer, who died a little more than a year ago at the age of 91, was a science fiction writer notable for big, sweeping concepts. These concepts were often so big and sweeping that they couldn’t be contained in a single book and so Farmer would not only parlay them into multi-book series but would farm them out (no pun intended) to other writers so that they could play with the concepts too. His biggest and most popular idea was the Riverworld and this was the 1972 novel where he introduced it. On the Riverworld, everybody who ever lived, from dim prehistory to 2008 (when the world effectively ended), finds themselves resurrected along the banks of an immense river. Nobody knows how they got there or who was responsible for bringing them back to life.

The marvelous conceit of the Riverworld books is that anybody can be a character, from Jesus to Napoleon to, well, you and me. The hero of this book is Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century British polymath who explored Africa in search of the sources of the Nile and translated the Arabian Nights into English. Farmer even puts himself into the story as a writer named Peter Jarius Frigate. Frigate’s role is largely to serve as Burton’s interlocutor, squeezing out exposition for readers who may find him unfamiliar. Burton, who is rather pissed off about his unexpected second chance at life, decides to hunt down the unknown forces responsible for it and get some kind of explanation (and perhaps an apology) out of them, preferably using intruments of torture.

I first read To Your Scattered Bodies Go when I was just out of college. I reread it because I’d like to finally read the later books in the series and find out how it ends. The Riverworld books are a lot like the TV show Lost: A large cast of characters finds itself marooned in a desolate place where mysterious things are going on. (Not surprisingly, the SyFy Channel has a Riverworld miniseries in the works for later this year.) As on Lost, Farmer raises far more questions in the early novels than he answers. Supposedly the fourth book in the series, The Magic Labyrinth, finally offers explanations and after all these years I’d like to read it. Still, it can be heavy going. Farmer’s writing style, which is at best functional, doesn’t in itself provide a reason to keep reading and the characterization is the minimum necessary to put the story across. It’s those big, sweeping concepts that make his fiction work and I’m not sure I find the Riverworld as compelling as I did when I first discovered it. So instead of plunging immediately into the rest of the series I’m going to put it aside for a while. I may or may not come back to it later.

I still want to know how it ends, though. Damn it.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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