Saturday, September 12, 2020

To Your Scattered Bodies Go - Philip Jose Farmer

All of us, I think, can recall a handful of books that to this day seem to mark a particular period in our lives. Often, as the decades go by, we find ourselves taking those books with us as we move from place to place. For instance, I still have the paperback copy of Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle that I paid sixty cents for in a Nashville bus station during my Army basic training in nearby Ft. Campbell, KY, in early 1968. Its pages are brown and a little brittle now, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. 

Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is another of those books for me. I did not discover this 1971 novel (and Philip Jose Farmer) until 1983 when I paid $2.95 for a twenty-third printing of the paperback version of the novel. As you can see, the price of a relatively thin paperback had gone up considerably in the fifteen years separating publication of these two books. I’ve read each of them at least three times now, so I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of them. 

The main character in To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton, a man who one morning wakes up naked on the banks of a river he has never before seen. Burton, though, is not the only confused person waking up in that same condition:

“Everywhere on the plain were unclothed bald-headed human beings, spaced about six feet apart. Most were still on their backs and gazing into the sky. Others were beginning to stir, to look around, or even sitting up.” 

 That quote, from page 13 of the novel, hooked me, and it was off to the races when I learned that To Your Scattered Bodies Go was just the first book in Farmer’s “Riverworld novels.” Perhaps the best thing about coming to a series as late as I came to this one is not having to wait at least a year between new books, and I took full advantage of my tardiness. 

This first book in the series sees Burton aligning himself with men and women he feels he can trust to travel with him up and down the river while he tries to figure out why every human being who has ever lived has been resurrected at the same time somewhere along the banks of this ten-million-mile-long nameless river. One of the first to join Burton’s new “family” is Alice Hargreaves, who in her first life was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Among others taken in by Burton are a primitive cave man and an alien who died on Earth while in the processing of killing off the entire human race. 

After Burton discovers a group of “Ethicals” who seem to be responsible for this unexpected afterlife, he wants answers. If they are not gods, how did they manage to resurrect everyone? Is the human race being given a second chance to find heaven? Or is this all just an experiment run by the Ethicals to record the history and customs of the entire human race? Are the Ethicals amused at how humans are reacting to their resurrection? Whatever they are up to, Burton wants some answers – and he is determined to get them no matter how many times he has to kill his new arch-enemy Herman Goring. 

Bottom Line: To Your Scattered Bodies Go beautifully sets up the rest of the Riverworld books. As the book ends, Burton understands just enough about his situation to get himself into even more trouble by trying to find the river’s source – where he believes he will find the home-base of the Ethicals themselves and all the answers he so desperately wants. And, in book two, The Fabulous Riverboat, Burton teams up with just the man to get him further up the river: the resurrected young Mark Twain. Let the fun begin.

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009)


  1. Well, I've heard of Philip Jose Farmer of course but he's one of the science fiction authors I've never read. I don't know why, suspect there were none of his books in Penzance library in the 1960s so he passed me by. This book sounds amazing so will look it up and see if I can find a copy.

    1. Cath, it's short (less than 250 pages) but it introduces the premise of the four books that follow. In a way, it's a shame that the other books in the series are not about this length, too, because sometimes Farmer tended to get to involved in the fighting instead of moving the plot forward. I still love this first one, though.

  2. I, too, have heard of Philip Jose Farmer, but have never read anything by him. I'm so curious about what happened and about what happens next.

  3. I've only ever read his Riverworld books for some reason, but I'm curious about his other work. Maybe someday...

    I couldn't find my copy of book two, and the library doesn't even have one apparently, so I'm just starting to listen to book two's audiobook version. Three chapters in, and I'm finally getting used to the narrator. The Sam Clemens character is a hoot.