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12 August 2015
Some time ago, our good friends at SFX magazine were kind enough to give us permission to republish some of their SFX Book Club articles that covered Gollancz and Gateway titles. It’s been a while since we indulged ourselves with one of these, but with the Hugo Awards coming up in a week or so, it seemed a good time to re-visit a Hugo-winner from an earlier age. Our guide is none other than the bestselling writer of novels, comics and much more, Dan Abnett . . .
There are few concepts in mainstream SF as conceivably massive as Riverworld, and this Hugo-winning novel is where Farmer first presented it to his readers – though germs of the idea went back to a much earlier, unpublished novel, and to two novellas from the ‘60s.
I say “conceivably” because it’s a ridiculously giant idea, but you can still just get your head around it. Whereas some epic SF may use whole galaxies or, hey, universes, and thus erode the reader’s sense of proportion, Riverworld is a place that lets you retain some idea of scale. It still takes your breath away, though.
The clue is in the name. Riverworld is a world that’s just one giant river. Along its banks, in one almost Biblical flash, everyone who’s ever lived, from the Neolithic Era to the year 2008, is resurrected. Existential trauma soon gives way to the survival urge, and then to factionalisation. Basic nutrition is provided for, but other technological applications rely on the expertise and backgrounds of the resurrected. And if you’re killed on Riverworld, you wake up the next day somewhere else on the riverbanks.
Farmer’s chief protagonist is 19th century explorer, orientalist and translator of the Arabian Nights, Richard Burton. Burton sets out to find the headwaters of the River, and thus answer the great mysteries: who has resurrected mankind in its entirety? And for what purpose?
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is almost entirely pulp adventure of the best sort; a headlong adventure with a vigorous pace that’s packed with incident. Farmer’s style is curiously underwritten so that, depending on your taste, it could either be seen as a little empty and uninspired, or direct and dynamically understated. Reading the book for the first time as a teenager, I was of the latter opinion, and I stick by that. Into the simple clarity of the text, Farmer sometimes throws a single telling and hugely effective adjective. A simple word like “black” or “copper” can send ripples right through an entire paragraph.
The matter-of-fact precision of the narrative keeps the yarn rattling along. It has the feel of an old-fashioned account where details are sometimes enumerated rather than described. If the book was written today, it would undoubtedly have three or four times the word count.
It’s a book of its time, in that it captures the spirit of ’60s counter-culture, and seems redolent of that particular style of SF paperback cover artwork from the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s dated, but only in the sense of being attractively nostalgic. When less-than-politically-correct themes rear up (and they do), it’s mostly in the context of the mix of cultural references represented by the resurrected. Besides, Farmer was often gleefully and defiantly un-PC throughout his career.
Probably the most enjoyable aspect is the fact that Richard Burton isn’t the only historical figure to show up. Where else but on the riverbanks of Farmer’s world could we meet Hermann Goring, Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll’s muse) and Mark Twain? Ultimately, the novel is an adventure that manages to retain the unearthly air of a religious allegory. It’s Thrilling Wonder Stories as painted by Botticelli. The mystery lies behind it all: this is all very exciting, but why is it happening? Why would anyone create any thing as (whisper it) preposterous as Riverworld? The question applies to the author too. Why did Farmer think this was a good idea for a novel, let alone a major series of novels?
The answer is, Farmer was smart enough to know that we’d need to find out. We’d need to follow the course of the river, just like Burton, and his adventures would keep us with him for as long as it took for him to lay out his answers. It’s a trip. It’s supposed to transport you.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is available as part of the Philip José Farmer SF Gateway Omnibus and as an SF Gateway eBook. You can read more about Philip José Farmer in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
This piece was written by Dan Abnett and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.
Dan Abnett is Black Library‘s bestselling author and has also worked extensively in the comics, films and computer game worlds. He blogs at http://theprimaryclone.blogspot.co.uk/ is latest book is the Warhammer 40,000 novel Ghostmaker. And we’re delighted to say that, come Autumn 2016, he will be bringing his muscular brand of heroic fantasy to Gollancz, with the action-packed epic The Wield.