What an awful cover.
Philip José Farmer, who recently passed away, created one of the most original science fiction series and worlds with Riverworld, which debuted in To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The novel won over the Hugo voters at World Con in ’72, but not the Locus voters or the Nebula’s Science Fiction Writers’ Association. Or me.
One day, every person who ever lived and died on the Earth wakes up reborn along a river that winds around a world. They are totally naked, and geographically and chronologically intermixed. There are no insects or animals to be found, but they do have cylinders that regularly provide them with food and drink, as well as alcohol, tobacco, and an opiate-like chewing gum. Most people assume that God or gods have resurrected them in some purgatory, though several rationalists come to believe some alien beings have resurrected them with technology as a social experiment.
Our point-of-view character is Sir Richard Burton, the famous nineteenth century explorer and linguist famous for his swashbuckling adventures and scholarship in the Middle East. He soon befriends a man named Frigate, who seems to be a stand in for Farmer himself (Farmer places Frigate's death in 2008 – killed by aliens – the real Farmer actually made it to 2009, probably due to the good fortune of aliens not landing earlier). The first half follows a few core characters as they try to figure out what’s happening to them and begin their efforts to survive and build a community for the first few years after their resurrection. The novel’s second half focuses on Burton’s obsession with uncovering the secrets of Riverworld.
It’s a fascinating set-up, and I enjoyed the first half. I did not like the second half as much, as Burton’s obsession pushes the rest of the characters to the side, and the answers he discovers are not nearly as interesting as the questions. There’s also a casual sexism here that bothered me a bit. The female characters (there’s really only one with a significant presence at all) don’t get a lot of face time or character development, and often find themselves victimized. They're sex objects. I’d say Farmer also misses the boat on a few anthropological and historical details (a passing mention of a Mohawk slave-raiding party seems to badly misunderstand their culture). This kind of thing was not uncommon in early science-fiction, but by 1972, Farmer really should know better. These problems bothered me enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the novel as it went on.
In other words: fascinating set-up, mediocre (and declining from there as the novel goes on) execution, problematic on race, and very problematic on gender. I am intrigued by the topic of the next novel though, and I might revisit Riverworld sometime down the road.