I would like to start my commentary on Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go by addressing one of the criticisms I recently came across. Is the novel, and thus Farmer by extension, sexist?
Before I offer my opinion on the matter, I must state that I have no idea what Farmer’s attitude toward women was when he penned this nearly forty years ago. While it is true that the argument can be made that the women in the Riverworld series serve as little more than companions to be won and kept, I’m not sure we can fault Farmer for not having a lead female protagonist in the story as I have seen suggested in some critiques.
I guess I chose to view this issue within the scope of having the entire cast of characters thrown into a state of nature at the opening of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. I don’t think it is inconsistent to see women brutalized in the story, become more like property than individuals, or to find them seeking the protection of men. This concept of banding together applied equally to men and women, I might add. In addition to the state of nature the cast finds themselves thrust into, we must remember the vast majority of city states that arose along the river were not populated by late twentieth century peoples and the more enlightened views of equality that we now supposedly possess.
My conclusion is that rather than being sexist, Farmer was portraying the Riverworld’s societies with a stark realism, and he presented a picture of what really might have happened under such conditions; Farmer has essentially foisted the entire gamut of humankind’s bigotries and depravities upon us. I will save the debate on what this says about us as a species for another day, noting only that I found Farmer’s sub-humans, Kazz and Joe, to often portray more humanity than anyone else in the series. Perhaps this was Farmer’s nod that alongside the baser instincts of man, there are innate traits of loyalty and decency in us.
So yes, if one wants to claim the novel portrays sexism, I will not argue that point; however, to label it sexist is probably not accurate as sexist and sexism in this context are two different things. Most of mankind’s ‘isms’ can be found in To Your Scattered Bodies Go, so to tag the work and the author with one of them is probably not fair. Again, I must point out that I have no idea if Farmer was guilty of harboring any of these ‘isms’.
Next, I would like to address another of the set common criticisms of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. These concern its poor editing, lack of focus, and plot inconsistencies. While many of these issues do not manifest themselves until the later books in the Riverworld series, particularly in books three and four, they are still present in To Your Scattered Bodies Go. My advice is to ignore them; the conceptual scope and imagination of book one is enough to sustain the reader.
So perhaps now you are left wondering why you would ever want to read Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go. As I stated in the From the Editor piece, the burst of imagination at the opening of To Your Scattered Bodies Go is so profoundly creative that to forego this work due to any of its flaws would be truly missing one of the great reads in the genre. If you are concerned with any of these issues, just do yourself a favor and read through chapter six. I suspect you will find yourself reading until the end. If not, you will have absorbed the essence of the Riverworld series, and a decade from now, it will be all you really remember anyway. This advice applies equally to those who haven’t read To Your Scattered Bodies Go in many years. Go pull your copy off the shelf and re-read through chapter six. Again I suspect you will find yourself continuing until the end.
It should be obvious by now that I am avoiding discussing any specifics in To Your Scattered Bodies Go as this is really one work I do not want to spoil for anyone who has not read it, such is the strength of those first half dozen chapters. I will close this commentary by addressing the one criticism of the Riverworld series I found to be the most troubling.
Should you even read beyond To Your Scattered Bodies Go? Additionally, should Farmer even have written them? Sadly, I think the answer may be no and no; however, I believe you may find it impossible to do so. By the time you finish To Your Scattered Bodies Go, you will so much want the story to continue and the mystery to be solved that you will read on anyway. This fact by itself speaks to the power of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. You will have been told or read somewhere that the rest of the Riverworld series does not compare to that first book, and yet, you will read them anyway, hoping to be satisfied.
I must confess that until a few weeks ago, I did not even know there was a fifth book in the series. Even after re-reading the first four, I have no desire to read the fifth. Perhaps if someone gave me a copy I would, but even then I’m not so sure I would spend the time.
While each reader may have their specific complaint or point in the series where it broke down for them, I can specifically remember where Farmer started losing me. It was late in book two, The Fabulous Riverboat, and it was a classic situation of no longer being able to suspend my disbelief. I just found it impossible to believe that a society would expend all their scarce resources on a riverboat whose sole purpose was to depart that society, taking those scarce resources with them. I will ignore the issue of the limited space on the riverboat and the unlikelihood of getting all the citizens to labor on the project when they knew so few would be allowed aboard. That they did it twice was too unbelievable for me to accept.
So to conclude, I believe To Your Scattered Bodies Go to be one of the monumental achievements in the genre; however, as a series, the Riverworld books that followed are deeply flawed and provoke more frustration than entertainment. Perhaps the best advice is to stop reading after To Your Scattered Bodies Go and simply finish the story by imagining your own ending; in my opinion, you won’t be any less satisfied than if you kept reading.