After he died, the famous 19th century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wasn’t surprised to find that what the Christian priests had taught about the Resurrection wasn’t true. But he was totally bewildered by what actually happened. He woke up young, hairless, naked, and turning in midair (as if on a spit) in the middle of 37 billion other young, hairless, naked and rotating humans. Soon after waking, the bodies — all the people over the age of five who had ever lived — plunged to the ground and began their new lives together in a giant river valley… Is this Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or is it some huge social experiment being run by aliens?
Most of the humans, happy that their basic needs are being met, are content to just be living again. Some people see this as an opportunity to seize the power and wealth that they had, or never obtained, on Earth. But Sir Richard just wants to know what’s going on. He seems to be the only person who got a glimpse behind the scenes of their new home and, not only does he resent being manipulated, but his curiosity is insatiable. So, he and a few companions set out to explore the Riverworld and, they hope, to discover the source of the river and find some answers.
Richard Francis Burton, a fascinating and scandalous man in real life, is the perfect character to explore the Riverworld. Philip Jose Farmer’s depiction of Burton, and several other real historical figures, is superb, though occasionally teachy when Farmer periodically interjects an encyclopedic-sounding aside about a character’s life (this minor bit of clumsiness is the reason for my 4.5 instead of 5-star rating). I won’t tell you who else shows up in the Riverworld, because I’d spoil the fun, but I’ll say that it’s hilarious to watch Burton learn about 20th-century history and interact with some of its denizens.
The best aspect of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is its original premise — the idea of all of humanity spread out, generally in chronological order, along a giant river which can be traveled, like a human timeline. There is some “scattering” of bodies (hence the title) so that a 21st century American could end up in a tribe of Neanderthals. If someone dies in the Riverworld, they are resurrected at random somewhere along the river.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, written in 1971, is creative, exciting, fast-paced, and totally absorbing. I was completely enthralled from the first page to the last. I listened to Recorded Books’ version read by Paul Hecht and I had a hard time removing my earbuds for long enough to pay attention to my real-life duties. By the end of the story Burton has managed to get a few answers, but there are so many questions left and I can’t wait to learn more about Riverworld. Therefore, I’m already reading the next installment: The Fabulous Riverboat.
Riverworld — (1971-1983) Bangsian fantasy. Available in audio formats. Publisher: All those who ever lived on Earth have found themselves resurrected — healthy, young, and naked as newborns — on the grassy banks of a mighty river, in a world unknown. Miraculously provided with food, but with no clues to the meaning of their strange new afterlife, billions of people from every period of Earth’s history — and prehistory — must start again. Sir Richard Francis Burton would be the first to glimpse the incredible way-station, a link between worlds. This forbidden sight would spur the renowned 19th-century explorer to uncover the truth. Along with a remarkable group of compatriots, including Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the Victorian girl who was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland), an English-speaking Neanderthal, a WWII Holocaust survivor, and a wise extraterrestrial, Burton sets sail on the magnificent river. His mission: to confront humankind’s mysterious benefactors, and learn the true purpose — innocent or evil — of the Riverworld…