I know I’m cutting it a bit fine with only three days to go until the end of Vintage Science Fiction Month, but here I am *waves*. I was really looking forward to this month, and while I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read or post loads, I definitely wanted to take part. And I wanted to read something awesome. So I picked 1972 Hugo Award winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go by a new-to-me-author and with a truly awful cover because if you’re going to do something it’s worth doing well …
What happened next went a little something like this:
Settling down to read: “Ho ho, what a cover! I’m in for a treat.”
Upon reaching chapter five: “Erm, this seems mighty sexist, but hey, it won the Hugo, it’ll be worth it …”
By chapter nine: “Burton is an arsehole! … Farmer is an arsehole!”
… increasingly disgruntled silence until …
Chapter fifteen: “Hermann Göring?!! You’re kidding me!”
… more silence occasionally punctuated with expletives until the end when …
“There’s going to be more of this crap?! No, absolutely not! No fricking way!” *throws book across room*
(Well, ok, I didn’t actually throw it, I’m not an arsehole, but I did scoot it forcefully across the floor).
That was nearly two weeks ago. Having collected my thoughts, I shall now deliver my considered opinion on To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It won’t take long.
First, let’s really appreciate that cover art in all its glory:
Isn’t it fabulous? I bought a nice little stack of older scifi while Thumbs and I were in Hay-on-Wye one weekend, merrily collecting up the most lurid book jackets I could find, and this is far and away my favourite.
So, Scattered Bodies won the Hugo Award. The other nominees were The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey, Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny and A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. Go figure. I think I need to go find out a bit more about how the Hugo works, who nominates and who votes and such like, because I can’t understand why Farmer’s book won.
The story is fairly straightforward. Richard Francis Burton (best known for translating One Thousand and One Nights in 1885), wakes after his death on the planet that comes to be known as Riverworld along with every other person who ever lived on earth (plus the alien Monat Grrautut). It is a seeming paradise, temperate and unspoiled, in which most of humanity’s needs are met. Humanity therefore proceeds to ruin this second chance by fighting, enslaving and discriminating against one another. A number of historic personages make cameo appearances, including Hermann Göring who gets a repeat performance. Burton decides to find the source of the great River and learn the reason for humanity’s mass resurrection.
I grew up with books like The Swiss Family Robinson and The Coral Island, and later Walkabout and The Lord of the Flies, and I used to make my own spears and stone knives and build dens out in the woods in the belief that disaster was definitely headed my way and I was going to need to know how to look after myself. By the time I was a teenager I had an emergency bag hung by my bed filled with fire-starting paraphernalia, a decent knife and whet stone, and some basic first aid equipment because the nuclear holocaust seemed very real and extremely likely. I always had a plan for how to get out of the house in case of fire or break-in, which I would run over in my mind before going to sleep each night. I was a tense kid. And while I’m way more relaxed now, I do still love stories of survival and ingenuity in a challenging environment.
This is the only reason I can think of for why I read through to the end of Scattered Bodies. I enjoyed the stone knapping at the beginning, and the hut making, and I liked the Neanderthal Kazz. I even enjoyed the boat building. Burton is an arsehole from beginning to end with no saving grace, but some of the survival elements of the story were interesting and the mystery of why everyone is on Riverworld was compelling. In a parallel universe Tim Powers has written this book and I love it. Ooo, in another Farmer has written it from Kazz’s POV, and I love that too.
However, in this universe I was too frustrated by other elements of the book to really appreciate it. I’ve mentioned the sexism already. There’s a lot of info-dumping, time expands and contracts annoyingly, most of the characters are flat and the ending didn’t feel like a satisfying payoff after all the travelling and dying that goes on. And if you’ve given yourself the whole of humanity as your cast you could surely dig up some more interesting and diverse characters than a handful of Victorians, a Nazi and a thinly veiled version of yourself (Peter Jairus Frigate? Really?). I know Farmer is a big name in Science Fiction. I can see that the idea behind Riverworld is really pretty cool, that bringing all of the different cultures and beliefs of humanity into direct contact should make for a fascinating story. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it fascinating. This just wasn’t a book written for me.
Therefore, this was both my first and probably my last Philip José Farmer novel. I mean, I’m not saying I’ll never read another, but it’s going to take a compelling and well-argued case and a PowerPoint presentation to get me to read something else by him. Ha! And I’m looking forward to that presentation!