Book Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Introduction

I maintain this blog largely because I enjoy writing, and because pursuing the hobby helps me consider things, form my views, vent, document, etc. Obviously one can apply such a technique to many different aspects of life, and indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realise I write about a lot of things, or at least want to (I am not always able). I thought I’d expand a little into criticism, literary and cinematic, and that I should start with the B.B.C.’s recent drama, King Charles III. Sadly I cannot find it to re-watch, which leaves me a bit stumped. I don’t ever want to be a drivelling hack the likes of which are employed in newspapers, who to put bread on his table must stretch his brain and dream up 500 words about one third-rate crime novel or another, when the only honest thing he really could write would be, “This book aroused in me no thoughts or feelings worth sharing”. I want food for thought, not pot noodles.

However, I have managed to find my old review of Phillip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first entry in his award-winning Riverworld saga, which I posted to the Internet (I had to hunt for it) almost a year ago. I’m unsure how I feel about it but have resisted the urge to overhaul the entire style, which strikes me as too casual,  and consigned myself to correcting only a few mistakes and format-change mess-ups, along with wiping out a handful of truly awful passages. It survives fundamentally unchanged.

Anyway, there is no doubt the book itself was well worth reviewing, however much competency I had doing it. It’s one of the more unique sci-fi adventures to come out in what I am convinced is the golden age of the genre from 1970 to 2000, and has a cult following up there with Dune, which I also hope to get round to at some point If I can be bothered to go through it again.


Review

Nineteenth Century explorer Sir Francis Richard Burton lies dying in his home. In a great deal of pain, and bordering on delirium, the scandalous elderly adventurer expires quietly and dramatically next to his wife.

An early atheist, he is a little surprised when he awakens suspended in a mysterious chamber, spinning slowly and surrounded by countless others. He is even more shocked when, upon falling unconscious again, he finds himself naked, hairless and sterile, returned to the fitter, healthier body of his youth, in a never-ending river-valley a few miles wide on either bank — along with every other human over the age of five that has ever lived.

This interesting little bit of sci-fi/fantasy, the first in a series of similar books in which this is the strongest, controversially bagged the 1973 Hugo Award, with some hailing it as a revolutionary work on par with Ringworld and War of the Worlds, and others saying it was utter crap and shouldn’t even have been published. As usual, the truth is somewhere in-between.

Staring with the good, it’s a very interesting concept, and it only gets more enticing when one thinks of all the possible interactions between historical characters, as they awaken, meet, talk, befriend and fight one another, all in the shadow of this great mystery of resurrection, wandering what to do with their unexpected extra time.

It was shortly discovered that everybody had been resurrected with a cylindrical canister which, when inserted at certain times into “grails” standing periodically along the banks, would yield food, drink, clothes, cigarettes, and a few other creature comforts. Upon “death,” one would simply re-appear at a different grail along a different part of the endless valley.

Some are content to simply thank whatever gods may be for their second chance and live their new lives in peace; some, like one Hermann Göring, seek to re-establish the vast fortunes of their previous lives, and try again at the ambitious projects that killed them; some, like our hero Richard Burton, just want to find out what the hell is going on.

If you know anything about this man, you know he is the ideal protagonist for such a scenario. A leader, warrior, lover and scholar all, Burton spoke close to thirty languages, which makes him convenient in a world of clashing times and cultures. He was very much a real-life action hero, as much tempered by his flaws (he was far from perfect, an anti-semite and a bit of a misogynist) as propelled by his successes (he nearly discovered the source of the Nile, and translated the Arabian Nights), Burton caught a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes as he prematurely awoke in the great chamber, and, refusing to believe in an occult or divine explanation, is now determined to travel to the source of the River (it quickly became capitalized) and find out who had masterminded this great and unexpected afterlife.

It’s a concept that will get anyone with an imagination ejaculating profusely, but, unfortunately, along with a well thought-out mystery story I won’t spoil, that is the only good card Farmer has in his deck. The man is not a strong writer.

His prose is almost bewilderingly childish for the first quarter, and, although he seems to eventually remember how make a sentence longer than ten words, it’s never really a pleasure to read. Some people, I know, are intimidated by the gross walls of verbiage thrown up by the likes of Dickens, Herbert and Tolkien, and prefer the easier-going style of King and Rowling. I understand that; “accessible” is just about the only positive thing I can say about Chis Paolini’s stolen drab abortion of a fantasy series. But Farmer blends the worst of both worlds in a way I scarcely thought possible, combining language and syntax that wouldn’t be out of place in Cat in the Hat with terrifying monologues that span entire pages, droning on like an academic textbook about the minutiae of Burton’s life, or his findings about the order in which people were resurrected (roughly chronological, but with a few twentieth-century-ers in each bunch, along with a number of randoms. There, I did it in about one line; now read the book and see Farmer’s attempt).

The dialogue is actually worse. Take this extract from close to the start of the book. Remember, Burton has just woken up in a mysterious river-valley, naked and hairless, along with several hundred other people of all nationalities, and all ages both historical and chronological. He is shoving his way through the crowd to get away from the chaos: shouting, fighting, crying, praying, and whatever else humans would do in such a situation:

Another man was pointing at his genitals and saying in Slovenian, “They’ve made a Jew of me! A Jew! Do you think that . . .? No, it couldn’t be!”

Burton grinned savagely and said, “It doesn’t occur to him that maybe They [he capitalized it] have made a Mohammedan out of him or an Australian aborigine or an ancient Egyptian, all of whom practiced circumcision”.

Wow! Just, wow! Nobody speaks like that! Burton didn’t even have a reason to speak like that! What was he doing? Who was he talking to? Oh, that’s right: Farmer was establishing that he’s a polyglot. How could I have missed it?

A little later on there is a verbal account of events to Burton by another character that literally takes the form of a page and a half of unbroken speech. I understand that Farmer wanted the narrative to stay with Burton, and didn’t want to lift it to a Tolkien-esque overview of all events that only lingered loosely on the main character, or a switch of focus for a few paragraphs to somebody else; but what bugs me is that Farmer doesn’t even pretend that what he is writing is actually speech. He sticks in the marks, remembers to use different marks when people are talking, swaps to the first person, and then just continues on his merry way with his horrible style of prose, apparently expecting us to believe that the poor narrator remembered everything perfectly, and rehearsed her performance to Burton to deliver it without fillers.

These issues continue throughout the entire volume, but by far my biggest peeve is the criminal waste of characterisation. Think about it: Herman Göring coming face to face with a genuine neanderthal, or an American born after the crumbling of the Reich, or Richard fucking Burton! The possibilities were endless. Imagine the long, abstract conversations that could be had between modern and renaissance artists, writers or scientists; imagine the battles between the historical kings and emperors of Mesopotamia and Europe; imagine somebody sitting down with Burton to talk about his anti-semitism in frank terms. Farmer obviously sees the potential, and to his credit he tries, but it totally falls flat.

Everybody comes across as completely stale and two-dimensional. If I wasn’t reminded that Richard Burton was Richard Burton every few pages by a gigantic wall of text, because apparently he’s “remembering” something, I would have no reason to believe it was him at all. If I wasn’t informed in no uncertain terms that Herman Göring is Herman Göring, the only evidence that actually exists to anchor his identity is his nasty drug habit. When some Jews in Göring’s compound confront Burton about what he wrote, he simply replies, without any narrated insight, that he was “angry” when he wrote his book, and harbours the Jews no lasting resentment (?!?!?!?!?).

When we are introduced to a character, all of the development is got out of the way in a page or so, in one of those massive essays I keep mentioning. It’s as though Farmer was terrified of slowly progressing his character in a way that the audience could understand, learn and relate, and just decided to get it all out of the way quickly as soon as we meet them. Arthur C. Clarke was bad at characters, too: regardless of what the name of his protagonist was, it was actually just Arthur C. Clarke; even the women were Arthur C. Clarke. But I don’t think he ever tried to compensate for it by chucking life stories at the reader and hoping our sub-conconscious minds make the mental connection. It doesn’t work like that.

Nobody acts like a normal human. In a normal story of this type I wouldn’t mind, because Aragorn, Han Solo and the like are supposed to be larger than life, but To Your Scattered Bodies Go is allegedly grounded in reality, with actual historical figures running about on Riverworld punching each other and building ships to sail. Burton is about as close to a hero as we can get in documented history, but he doesn’t even really act like one of those. His quest to solve the mystery of the Resurrection is pretty commendable, but, besides showing off his martial prowess kicking the shit out of Nazis (yep) and speaking scores of languages, he hardly does anything except A. drone on like a textbook, B. treat everyone around him like dirt and C. pursue his goal of reaching the source of the River with suicidal single-mindedness. To an extent this is probably an effort at characterization, but even if so it hardly reads like it. Proper characterization would have involved a little more actual insight and reflection, as opposed to just quoting the history books and listing off events past and present (I exaggerate slightly, but not as much as you may think, or I would have liked).

Time for another extract to prove my point — this time even earlier than the previous one, taking place a few precious minutes after the Resurrection:

There were a number of children in the great crowd. Not one was under five years of age, however. Like their elders, their heads were hairless. [Do you see what I mean with the ludicrously short sentences?]. Half of them were weeping, rooted to one spot. Others, also crying out, were running back and forth, looking into the faces above them, obviously seeking their parents.

He was beginning to breath more easily. He stood up and turned around. The tree under which he was standing was a red pine (sometimes wrongly called a Norway pine) about two hundred feet tall.

So, Richard Burton has awoken, quickly recovered from his (understandable) fit of despair and terror, and regained his senses faster than most of the other people resurrected with him; I remind you of the chaos reigning everywhere as these nude undead come to terms with their new life. What does he do now? Does he look among the crowd for people he knows? Does he make his way over to the vulnerable, the children and those having physical panic attacks, to protect them from the dangerous, loud, unknown environment they have just appeared in, naked and distraught? Does he take a defensive stance? Does he search for other calm people to band together with? Nope! He jogs over to a tree and remarks how people often miss-label it.

Once there, he has a brief look at the canister he appeared with, decides to use it as a weapon, reasons he will eventually have to go down to the River for water, and then somebody else comes and talks to him.

If our first taste of the protagonist had been him leaping into action to collect up the defenceless youths and take them to safety, or call for order among the crowd, or look for some other people, then his competence would have been established early and the readers would have some credibility to get behind. As it stands, he got his faculties back nonsensically quickly, noted how hardly anyone knows the proper name for a tree, and casually waited for someone to approach him. Farmer tells us that he is still “shaken,” and wondering what is going on, and I’m glad for that, because the only evidence I have is Farmer telling me. He certainly doesn’t appear shaken as he observes everything going on around him, and serenely tests his canister out as a weapon. Maybe he could have put his impressive control under pressure to better use? I’m not saying I would have done any of those things, though I would like to say so — I would probably just be ranting and raving and screaming like the majority — but Burton doesn’t do that either, so he doesn’t act either virtuously or realistically, let alone a combination of both like a relatable hero — especially a historical one — should.

This theme of acting totally collected, unlike a normal human ever would, continues as well. A few hours after the Resurrection, having got his little band together, Burton decides that he will teach them all Esperanto to solve the language barrier issue, and has already set his “shaken” mind to the construction of tools, and the exploration of the river-valley. He even works out pretty early that their stay is going to be permanent, and decides that huts and villages will be springing up within a few days — which they somehow do. Within a few months he has already built a boat to go and find the source of the River. My God does that man move fast! Do you really believe that that is how things would play out if all humanity was really resurrected along a huge river-valley? Really? No, there would be more panic, more killing and more zealous religious praise. Communities would take ages to form, not even counting the cultural and language barriers.

Farmer’s prediction of human action and reaction is horrible, which sucks because it was one of the main themes of his book: humans will be humans wherever and whenever we are, doing what humans do. Well, this human is going to give To Your Scattered Bodies Go three stars for an intriguing concept and what was obviously a copious amount of historical research, and knock off two for the terrible execution.

THE END

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