I recently finished the first Riverworld novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, by Philip Jose Farmer. I haven’t read much in the way of Farmer before this, but I really enjoyed The Dungeon (inspired and edited by Farmer), and now I better understand the inspiration. At a high level, I enjoyed the book – it presents a very interesting situation and ideas. On the other hand, it failed to keep me engaged at certain points, which occasionally made it a bit longer of a read than I would have liked.
To address that part first, I sometimes felt like the main character (Richard Burton, as it happens) wasn’t really driving the story. There were occasional points in the book where the characters seemed to just ignore the adventure hooks and settle down for a spell. I remember reading that the main characters “sail upRiver for five years” and have nothing really change before and after that line.
On the other hand, Farmer does some very interesting things with the setting, that brings a different feel to every place the characters visit. The various societies they run into, ranging from peaceful to barbaric, from welcoming to enslaving, each has an interesting microculture in a small area of land. The two things that seem to show up more than others though are grail slavery and antisemitism.
While grail slavery is spoken of only in negative terms, the book seems to struggle more with antisemitism, and I think this is intentional. Specifically, persecution of Jewish people is immediately damned, but then questions are raised about Richard Burton, our protagonist, and whether his actions in life were antisemitic. While it is argued more than once, it’s never really resolved – I believe this is intentional, as we’re not supposed to think of Burton as a “good” guy, but something of an early antihero.
Overall, I found the book to only be mediocre – I still plan on reading the rest of the series, but this wasn’t the best introduction. I’m fascinated by the setting, ideas, and themes, but this particular character and story-line was less engaging to me.