Burton did not believe in miracles. Nothing happened that could not be explained by physical principles — if you knew all the facts. - Philip José FarmerThis week I read another classic work of science fiction, the Hugo award-winning To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer. This is the first book in the Riverworld series, in which the entirety of humanity from throughout history find themselves simultaneously resurrected on the banks of a world-long river. We follow the famed explored Richard Francis Burton as he works first to build a new life and then to uncover the mystery of humanity's resurrection.
As we've seen before, this is another book that started life as a series of stories published in a periodical and later turned into a novel. In this case two novelettes were expanded and combined, each making up about half the book. In the first half we're introduced to the Riverworld and learn how it works. All those who died on earth throughout history have been resurrected simultaneously in new bodies at approximately the age of 25 (or younger if they died younger). Each wakes entirely naked and hairless with only a strange cylindrical device in their possession. These devices, which come to be called grails, turn out to be a source of ongoing supplies; when placed on a large mushroom-like stone at the appropriate time food and other sundries are generated within.
Burton becomes the de facto leader of small group that includes a neanderthal, a 20th century man, an alien who visited earth in the near future, and Alice Hargreaves, among others. Dissatisfied with the thought of simply settling down in one place, he decides that they will build a boat to sail up the river that dominates the land and explore this new world. This exploration leads Burton to begin uncovering more about the Riverworld and the beings who created it. Along the way his path becomes entangled with that of Herman Göring, who has set himself up as the power behind a tyrannical ruler.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a fascinating novel that takes a sometimes depressing but entirely believable view of humanity. Brought forth on this new land and provided with food, some groups institute 'grail slavery' where slaves are kept so that the greater part of what their grails provide can be taken by their masters. When someone dies in the Riverworld, they are resurrected the next morning at a random spot along the river. With no need to hunt or farm for food and death not being final, war between groups becomes common in part as a means of creating excitement.
The Riverworld is a sandbox MMO.
In 1971 Farmer predicted the behavior of MMO players with remarkable accuracy before MMOs even existed. I'm actually very surprised now that there is no Riverworld MMO, as it basically writes itself. The sheer number of people (36 billion) would take some work, but the early days in Riverworld are very reminiscent of survival/crafting games like Don't Starve or Rust and the later period, once states have formed, feels a lot like stories I read of EVE Online's null sec (with fewer spaceships).
By the end of the book some questions have been answered, but a lot more are left hanging. There are a few sequels, the first of which follows Samuel Clemens as he hunts for the means to build a riverboat. My interest is definitely piqued.
For next week we have more SF, but a modern book this time. Join me next Saturday for my thoughts on The Martian by Andy Weir.