A few months ago, I received three omnibus books collecting Philip José Farmer’s award winning Riverworld series from the nice folks at Tor books. Somehow, though Farmer’s name has come up repeatedly during the last three plus decades I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy, I managed to miss these books. Courtesy of these collections, I no longer have any excuse but to dive into the River with the rest of humanity.
The first omnibus, called simply Riverworld collects the first two of these classics — To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat. As I’m new to the series, I thought it would only be fitting if I wrote about each of the collected novels individually instead of as a collection.
If you’ve not heard of the Riverworld series, the basic concept is simple until you start considering the scope. Imagine if everybody who ever lived on Earth (emphasis on “ever”) was resurrected on the banks of a seemingly endless river on some alien world. Though healthy and young again, each individual awakens naked with others. Each has a container tied to their wrist (called a “grail”) that, when inserted into a strange mushroom-shaped stone, becomes populated with food, drink, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and other assorted items. It’s up to each resurrectee to determine what to do with their new lives.
But the scope itself is huge. Billions and billions of people are reborn and must find ways to live on or give up. What’s interesting is that suicide simply gets you resurrected again somewhere else along the river. If you don’t have the will to live, can you somehow find the will to end it all again and again?
This is how we’re introduced to various figures from prehistory, history, and future history. In To Your Scattered Bodies Go, we’re introduced to Sir Richard Francis Burton, an adventurer and veritable Renaissance man with diverse knowledge of cultures, languages, philosophies, literature, and who knows what else. He wasn’t without his fair share of scandals however, considering his interest in the sexual practices of other cultures. Also introduced is the infamous Hermann Göring, one of the leaders of the Nazi Party and Luftwaffe commander.
Like much of the science fiction literature of the era, there is a great deal of philosophy in the story. From the concept of being resurrected to the eventual creation of the “Church of the Second Chance,” much is discussed as far as how much of our old self exists in the new body. Are you the same as before? Will you make the same mistakes or can you change given enough time, effort, and reason?
After seeing the Riverworld miniseries on Syfy last year starring Battlestar Galactica‘s Tamoh Penikett as Matt Ellman, Mark Deklin as Sam Clemens, and Peter Wingfield as Richard Burton, I was curious to see what the book series was actually like. I enjoyed the television series, but it presented a view of the Riverworld as much more sanitized than did Farmer in the original books.
I was a little disappointed not to find Samuel Clemens in To Your Scattered Bodies Go, but suspect that The Fabulous Riverboat holds Twain’s secrets for me next. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in Farmer’s world, I’d encourage you to pick up the first omnibus Riverworld from Tor at your local bookstore.
Next chance I get, I shall continue my journey up the River and report on my findings again!