Friday, September 3, 2010

Forgotten Books: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

The Riverworld series is hardly forgotten, but I’d forgotten it myself until I came across a made-for-SciFi Channel movie at the library. The movie, an unsuccessful series pilot from 2003, wasn’t bad, and reminded me of the fun I’d had reading the series.

So I hauled out this first book (first published in 1971) and gave it another go. Farmer’s concept here was a masterstroke - the idea that every person who has ever lived is reborn with 25-year old bodies and a lifetime of memories, on the banks of an endless river. Dang! I wish I’d thought of it.

This premise gave Farmer unlimited possibilities to play with historical characters and cultures, and its obvious he had a swell time with it. His choice for the hero of this first book was 19th Century explorer Richard Francis Burton, I guy I knew next to nothing about. So I learned stuff, and it made me want to learn more. The supporting cast includes Alice Lidell Hargreaves (the inspiration for the character Alice in Wonderland), Herman Goering and Farmer himself, here bearing the name Peter Jarius Frigate.

It’s great adventure, with splashes of historical detail and plenty of imagination. Because I was trapped on an airplane at the time, I finished the book in one sitting, and it was pretty much a thrill ride. But on reflection I found myself wanting something more (and I don’t mean simply a sequel, of which there are four).

The thing is, Farmer’s plots and action carry me along so fast that it takes awhile to realize I didn’t really connect with the characters. His heroes are passionate about such heroic stuff as courage, determination, imagination, revenge and a need to know, but fall a bit short on what I can only call heart. Beyond the qualities mentioned, I have a tough time connecting with them on an emotional level.

This is not a criticism so much as an observation. It’s the way Farmer wrote, and pretty much the way his literary heroes Edgar Rice Burroughs and “Kenneth Robeson” did too. The mission statement for them all might be  To Hell with Sentiment, on with the Action. And to that end, To Your Scattered Bodies Go certainly achieves its goal.

Check out the usual line-up of fabulous Forgotten Books at the always-cool blog of Mr. George Kelley.

12 comments:

Todd Mason said...

It's George Kelley rounding 'em up this week, Evan. Amusingly, I have an offhand reference to ALICE in my entry, too.

He did tend to hold his characters at a thoughtful distance...something he shared with James Blish, another writer who isn't often cited with Farmer, except when good and ambitious fantastic-fiction writers are mentioned (though Blish was more meticulous, less freewheeling than Farmer often was).

I do have to wonder how much of a nudge SILVERLOCK by John Myers Myers was to this novel's concept, and its sequels'.

Deka Black said...

Wait, wait. I fear i must disagree. With you. The movie, as a movie, wasn't bad. but is a total lack of respect for the work of Farmer. is.. is.. one word: "arg!"

I readed the entire series. I love it. And my favourite character is without doubt, Mark Twain. And this humongous dude belonging to a pre-human race.

I love the series. Was my first contact with Farmer, and the best since then.

David Cranmer said...

That is a marvelous premise for a novel.

Randy Johnson said...

One of my favorite of his books. You do know SyFy(hate that name) tried again on Riverworld. i posted a short review here:

http://randall120.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/riverworld-a-review

George said...

Wow! I remember reading TO YOUR SCATTERED BODIES GO as a teenager. I think I walked around for a week...stunned. Farmer had the power to mess with your mind. His later books grew bloated, but the ideas were still there.

Bill Crider said...

I read this one when it first came out in paper, and I loved it. I grew less enchanted with the series as it went on, but still enjoyed the books.

Todd, SILVERLOCK is a huge favorite of mine. And to connect it even more with Evan, Myers also wrote an Alamo book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Another book I'm ashamed not to have read yet. and I've had a copy for years!

Deka Black said...

Charles, now you know what to read next. And is a entire series. Luckyly, the entire saga has benne dited in Spain. The second is the debut of mr. Twain. Or, as i call him "Mr. Riverboat".

Anonymous said...

I loved the premise but I found the ending to be just awful. About the time the Sci Fi writer became part of the cast (and had so many answers to so many problems) it was obvious to me that Farmer never had a clue where he was going with this. It's too bad, the first two books were really engaging.

Dan Luft

Richard Robinson said...

Well, I guess everyone is getting used to me being the - occasional - wet blanket on these things. I guess it was about 1978 I read this and the next two of the books, or at least I tried to read them.

I was home form work, sick as a dog with some nasty flu virus, and decided to read something which would take my mind off my misery. Perhaps it was the circumstances, but I began reading with great hopes which slowly faded as I continued through the first book, then ebbed to just a trickle - like my nose at the time - then nothing. After a while I started asking my self why Farmer had written the books, where was he trying to go, what was the over-all plot (none, as far as I could see) and why should I care.

I didn't finish the second book, never started the third, and, as soon as I was back on my feet, turned the books in at a local used book store for credit to get something enjoyable to read.

Sure, it's a fun premise, but a writer of Farmer's (supposed) skill should have been able to do more than make the reader wade through a character-laden existential swamp of "look at all the cool people, who will meet whom next?".

Given the choice, I'd read Steve Allen's Meeting of the Minds books instead. I certainly never touched another book with Farmer's name on it, nor do I intend to.

Jerry House said...

The more I read of Farmer, the more impressed I am. Original, daring, pulpish, literate, outspoken, pornographic, though-provoking, juvenile, and mature -- behind all his work was a wonderful mind that refused to take prisoners. If Farmer is an acquired taste, it is a taste worth acquiring.

Richard, you really should give Farmer another chance. Perhaps his World of Tiers series or his Dayworld series.

Dan, the Riverworld series was based on an unpublished (until recently) prize-winning novel that Farmer wrote early in his career.

Todd, Myers wrote some great stuff, most of it about the Old West, and all of which should be of great interest to Evan and his blog readers. In addition to The Alamo, he wrote two Westerns, a book of Western poetry, and at least six non-fiction books about the Old West. My favorite has to be Print in the Wild Land, which deals with the amazing history of newspapers in the Old West.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I loved the first, found the second less enchanting, and never read another. I seem to recall there being a long gap between numbers 2 and 3, which is why I gave up on the series.