One of the great aspects of video games is the reset button. A person may get mad when their brother pushes it in the middle of game play, but generally it is a positive option. Worked yourself into a corner: push reset. Technical glitch: push reset. Need a quick path to the start menu: push reset. Can’t figure out what to do next: push reset. Need the default settings: push reset. Humanity in the middle of a great game (please suspend your groaning; I know the metaphor’s bad, but you’ll see it fits the book), no reset button exists for us, unfortunately. There is no stopping Hitler in the middle of what he did, just as there’s no getting back many of the natural resources we’re bleeding the planet dry of. Such situations only able to be manifested in speculative fiction, in 1971 Philip Jose Farmer hit the reset button. To Your Scattered Bodies Go is the start menu, and depending on genre perspective, you may wish to push the reset button on the novel upon completion.
A man awakens in an immense zero g cavern, floating amongst a seemingly infinite flotilla of nude, hairless bodies. Gradually gaining perspective, before him appears a vision. He realizes it is his old self, as he appeared in real life, and he is the explorer Richard Burton. Like billions of raindrops, the bodies begin falling, and before Burton knows it, he lies in a field, other bodies scattered around him. Still entirely nude, he has only a metal canister with him. Behind him rise mountains, and before him a wide river. To either side he sees nothing but trees, fields, and bodies. Each person slowly awakening, they discover cultural and language barriers. Not everybody is from the same place, era, even planet. A Tau Cetan named Monat amongst the humans, Burton makes friends with a 20th century American man named Frigate, a British woman Alice, a caveman Kazz, and others. Coming across strange metal mushrooms that erratically shoot blue flames, they discover that by placing the canisters in special indentations on the surface at certain times they are provided food and drink, cigarettes and alcohol, even pleasure drugs. Building a solid group, Burton eventually does what he was born to do: explore. Building a sailing vessel with the others, they set out upriver to investigate their strange river world.
Bizarre alien experiment? Heaven? Return to Eden? An infinite dream? Why has the reset button been pushed on humanity, everyone placed on equal footing? None of the characters in To Your Scattered Bodies Go are sure of the reasons behind their resurrection in the riverworld. Death only resurrecting a person at another, random point along the river, each struggles to make sense of their existence. Burton one of the few who looks beyond the end of his nose to seek out the source of their situation, what he finds only begins to explain matters.
But how the people around Burton react is likewise key to the import of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. The provision of free food, shelter, and pleasure still not enough, war, torture, slavery, and the other unfortunate realities of humanity on Earth arise in Riverworld, as well. Hermann Goering one of the significant secondary characters—doing what he did best in WWII, the evolution of his character provides an interesting overlay to the activity of humanity at large. Thus on the surface it’s easy to identify the novel’s ideology as falling in the Conan vein (i.e. humans will never be able to escape their barbarousness), the conclusion, as well as the fact four books follow in the series, give rise to the idea Farmer was aiming at something different, To Your Scattered Bodies Go only a stage setting.
But for all of the comparisons and contrasts on lifestyle, the availability of any character from history, and the fresh perspectives on human existence, Farmer does not fully realize the premise’s aptitude. Descending into outdated views on women—even outright sexism, some pulpy action, and a generally mediocre style of writing, at no time is the reader truly gripped by the story, save the opening, and is stimulated by the ideas only by fits and turns, never in holistically satisfying fashion. Everything presented in simplistic terms that only brush the surface of human complexity, a more subtle hand could have delivered the story with greater impact and philosophical depth—fully realizing the premise’s potential, as it were. (For a much deeper look at the sexism inherent to the novel, see From Couch to Moon’s dissection here.)
In the end, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a social experiment grand in premise (the entirety of humanity, living and dead, has the reset button pushed) but less grand in execution. Everyone put on equal terms in a healthy twenty-five year’s old’s body and provided food, water, and nice weather, each must come to terms with the situation and find a way to live with purpose. The narrative helping as much as hindering itself, the imaginative premise scratches at the underlying fabric of humanity, the restless, polyglot explorer Richard Burton at the helm, but rarely achieves points of significant depth, nor does anything to advance gender presentation in fiction—a surprise given the era the novel was published. The random historical info dumps, pulp action, juvenile sexual commentary, and less than inspiring prose overtly mellow what otherwise is a truly great science fictional foundation for a story.