The title of Philip Jose Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go may not be familiar to everybody, but the successful and imaginative science fiction series it spawned soon will be. "Riverworld" is a syndicated television show, now in pre-production, which will no doubt introduce many more people to Farmer's series, which began with this novel.
Many science fiction readers are already familiar with the best-selling Riverworld series. To Your Scattered Bodies Go was the ground-breaking novel which began it all, and which received the 1972 Hugo Award for best novel.
The series is set in the far future on "Riverworld," a purposefully constructed place on which advanced technology has resurrected every human in history. Everybody finds themselves waking up along the shores of a river which covers the entire planet. People usually find themselves among others from their own time period and culture, but many individuals are displaced into completely unfamiliar people groups. The newly revived people soon realize that their bodies are quite mortal -- some people are murdered amidst the chaos and some commit suicide. But as soon as a person's body dies, they find themselves waking up in a new body at some other, unpredictable point long the River. Nobody knows why this has happened or who is responsible.
Most Hugo-winners are certainly worth your time, but I would suggest that To Your Scattered Bodies Go be placed high on anybody's "Must Read" list. It certainly has its flaws, not the least of which is the fact that it doesn't really have an "ending" so much as a lead in to the rest of the series. But the book is so original and fun to read that its strengths more than make up for its imperfections. To Your Scattered Bodies Go may not be a literary masterpiece in any pretentious way, but it's the perfect choice for someone looking for something really new -- a plot and setting unlike anything else you've read before.
Into this very original setting, Farmer injects some decidedly non-original characters. Actual historical figures interact as main characters in the novel. The main character is Sir Richard Burton the British adventurer who, as this novel alludes to, infiltrated Mecca disguised as a Muslim, translated The Arabian Nights into English, and once tried to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
Soon after waking up on Riverworld, Burton sets off to explore this strange new world, intending to do no less than confront those who created it, and demand some answers. Burton's intellect and comfort with things foreign makes him an ideal surrogate explorer as his quest guides the reader in unraveling Riverworld's mysteries. Just getting the hang of how things work is interesting.
There are apparently hardly any natural resources, but large mushroom-shaped stations spaced along the River freely dispense food and small amenities at regular intervals. In this new world with no apparent law or authority, people soon find themselves organized along the same tribal and cultural lines they were familiar with in their life on Earth. Some former despots rise to power again, as do people with strong wills and talents for leadership who may have lacked opportunity when first alive. When Burton builds a riverboat and sets off to travel to the River's start, he encounters newly-emerging communities which range from benevolent to Nazi-led, slave-holding fiefdoms.
As noted before, this question is only the first in a series, and it doesn't really "end." More questions are asked than answered, and I know that the adventures of Burton (and later Mark Twain) are only beginning. But I found the book very enjoyable and satisfying, even though I haven't read any more of the series.