Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Exploring Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld
Imagine waking up one morning on a grassy field along with a crowd of other people. Like everyone else, you are naked, and your only possession an empty tube-shaped container. Before you lies a river that divides a mountain-lined valley, and spaced along it, every mile or so, are large stone sculptures shaped like mushrooms. Oh, and one more thing: you remember your death. Vividly.
This is the situation in which Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself in Philip Jose Farmer's novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go. This nineteenth century British explorer traveled widely, wrote prolifically, and spoke numerous languages. Given his extensive experience of other cultures and societies, he nonetheless feels a moment of panic at the thought that this must be the afterlife, and Judgment Day awaits. But then he remembers another dream he had, about waking up in a vast chamber, and discovering other naked bodies floating around him, some of them lacking skin, or with portions of their skeletons showing. Clearly some power brought all of them back to life, for some inexplicable purpose. This situation hardly resembles those described in the Biblical book of Revelations. For, just like everyone else here, despite having lived a long life, he is young again.
In this first day, he will discover that each person's canister fits into one of the many slots in the stone mushrooms. Three times each day, after electricity surges through these mushrooms, the people remove their canisters to find them filled with various food and drink items. It would seem that whoever placed them in this river valley intends to care for their basic needs. Some might view this situation as a return to Eden. Burton, given his understanding of human nature, commences a survey of available resources. He and another man, a hairy Neanderthal, gather suitable pieces of stone, and begin shaping them into stone axes. While he has no desire to hold power over others, he knows that some people will always seek to rule over or take advantage of others. And so he determines to assemble tools he can use to build a home for himself, and weapons he can use to defend himself, as well as what he has built.
With this imaginative premise, Philip Jose Farmer ushers us into Riverworld, a planet containing every person who died after age five or so, from thousands of years BCE to the early twenty-first century, when an apocalyptic event occurred. (As proof that Humanity suffered a great cataclysm, Richard Burton meets a revived alien who landed on Earth in his future, only to find that nations soon fight over the right to the technology he has brought with him). Like a snake, this river winds its way around the planet, always surrounded by a grassy valley, and hemmed in by unscalable mountains. It's a planet of infinite possibilities, where people can begin again, and put all past mistakes behind them. In a world in which each person can remake his life in any way he or she pleases, Richard Francis Burton can feel no satisfaction in building a house or even founding a kingdom. His overwhelming ambition drives him to discover who resurrected Humanity, and why. To fulfill his quest, he vows to travel along the river and discover the beings who brought him here. For what is life without adventure, and the challenges that promise great rewards?
To Your Scattered Bodies Go won the 1972 Hugo award for best novel, voted on by attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention. Its overwhelming popularity spurred Farmer to write numerous sequels. Eventually, Farmer invited other others to write their own stories about Riverworld. Riverworld games appeared, followed by TV programs set on this fantastic world. As yesterday marked the ninety-seventh anniversary of Philip Jose Farmer's birth, why not observe this occasion by exploring (or returning to) the fictional world for this great author is best known? In this timeless series, you may just find yourself carried away on one the greatest vicarious adventures of your life.
That is, of this life, I mean.