October Books 9) To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip José Farmer

I am always a bit nervous about returning to books I enjoyed when I was much younger. Will the magic survive? I had fond memories of Farmer’s four-part Riverboat series, despite the very unsatisfactory ending, and the peculiarly anal accuracy of some descriptions (“the mountains were seven miles or 11265 metres high”, if I remember correctly from one of the later books). There is a brilliant central sensawunda concept: all of humanity who ever lived (up to the year 2008, and who survived past the age of seven) are resurrected on the shores of a world-twisting river, apparently as some gigantic social anthropology experiment. Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) attempts to find out What Is Really Going On, aided in later volumes by Samuel Clemens / Mark Twain.

Coming back to the first book 25 years after I first read it, I am sorry to say that I found it pretty dire. Farmer is too dazzled by the audacious brilliance of his concept to actually write interesting characters or settings – one early warning is when he writes himself into the book, as Peter Joseph Frigate, to tell us just how interesting Burton is. There are numerous blunders of racial or gender sensitivity, of which the most boringly repetitive is a bizarre fixation with Hermann Göring. Extraordinarily, everyone in the world gets bacon and eggs for breakfast, steak for dinner, and marijuana to smoke in between. And yet nothing is actually resolved in plot terms in the book. I’m afraid that this goes right to the bottom of the Hugo winners on my list, keeping company with They’d Rather Be Right, Hominids, The Gods Themselves and Neuromancer.

(One problem I had with the book which I suspect is not Farmer’s fault – my memory of the original version of the erotic encounter between Burton and Alice Liddell in Chapter 8 was that they explicitly have drug-fuelled sex, but the relevant paragraphs seem to have been cut from my recently acquired 1998 Ballantine edition; is my memory of the 1971 original incorrect? Or is it a peculiar act of censorship by Ballantine/Del Rey?)

Other Hugo nominees that year were The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, Dragonquest by Anne McCaffrey, Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny, and that year’s Nebula winner, A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. I don’t think I have read the McCaffrey; the other three are all manifestly better novels than To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but I guess lacked the sensawunda that Hugo voters like.

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