Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Down the River, Part One

As some of you probably surmised from this recent post, I was thinking about Philip Jose Farmer recently, specifically his Riverworld series. I read the series for the first time a long time ago when I was very young, and for some reason they popped into my head again over the last few weeks. I had some time on my hands, so I reread the books to see how well they held up compared to my memory.

Rereading books you recall fondly from your childhood is always a dicey proposition. I'm glad, for instance, that I didn't actually get around to The Lord of the Rings until I was in High School, and old enough to enjoy the books for what they were while still keeping a somewhat jaundiced eye on some of Tolkein's rather questionable stylistic cul-de-sacs. (Of course, it's not just kids who get too swept up in Tolkein to see the forest for the trees, but still. Best Tolkein is still The Silmarillion, perhaps because at the time the book was constructed the old man was too dead to screw it up.) Riverworld was an especially frightening proposition for me because, frankly, I remembered having problems with Farmer's writing back when I was twelve.

The most pleasant surprise, therefore, was the fact that To Your Scattered Bodies Go actually held up better than I remembered. A lot better. The later books in the series did not hold up so well, and in fact, represent pretty much a textbook example of how writing for larger series kills the impetus for a lot of science fiction books. If I had been Philip Jose Farmer, I would have looked at To Your Scattered Bodies Go and said, you know, this is just about perfect as it is. Really. If I elaborate on this concept any more, I might dilute the appeal. Sure, none of the big mysteries are really solved, but you get at least a glimpse of the bigger picture. And isn't the essential mystery what makes the core concept so fascinating?

Farmer's biggest asset is also his biggest problem. He has a mania for consistency: more than just about any other major writer in the genre's history, he is fascinated with the concept of world-building, of creating isolated fictional universes that are totally and absolutely consistent in the context of themselves. Not just Riverworld, but also the World of Tiers and Dayworld series present absolutely cohesive worlds, the elucidation of which almost seems more interesting than the plot or characters in and of themselves. (Obviously, Farmer's Wold-Newton universe is in a class by itself, in terms of OCD-level consistency.) Tolkein is a great counter-example, because for all his faults he discretely kept the worst of the world-building off in the wings for the bulk of The Lord of the Rings, providing enough information in discrete chunks throughout the book to keep the wheels of plot moving forward but rarely enough to loose track of the narrative through-line.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is just short enough to avoid some of the problems of extended world-building. To begin with, the premise is strong enough to keep the book interesting on its own merits for quite a while, without necessarily needing to explore anything more of the underlying cosmology. It's without a doubt one of the single most compelling high-concept premises in the history of science-fiction: every human-being who ever lived, from about 100,000 BC up through an indeterminate point in the middle of the Twentieth Century, wakes up on the banks of a long river on a planet far from Earth. Every possible physical need is taken care of, from the universally temperate climate to the copious food and drugs provided by the magic grails strapped to every resurrectee's wrist. Even death is meaningless, for every time anyone dies on the Riverworld they are simply resurrected the next morning somewhere else along the banks of the million-mile long river.

The sequence at the beginning of To Your Scattered Bodies Go which describes the moments immediately following the "great awakening" on Riverworld is one of the most immediately visceral passages in the genre's history. Science-fiction is uniquely situated to ask many important questions about life and society, but for the most part (there are, of course, exceptions) the notion of after-life is elided by virtue of the fact that most sci-fi exists in the context of an atheistic cosmology. (Even those science-fiction authors who are not atheists have to at least concede the non-interference of divinity in human affairs to be able to work in a genre in which human ingenuity is the zenith of achievement, either for good or ill.) The Riverworld series tackles this cognitive dissonance head-on by beginning at the exact moment beyond which any science-fiction should rationally be able to explore: the moment we die.

Everyone begins on the same page because no one on the Riverworld - at least that we know - has any more insight into the circumstances of the resurrection than anyone else. Whether you're a 20th century dialectic materialist, a 9th century Christian or a 10th century BC Egyptian, being reborn along the banks of an infinitely long river to relive your life seemingly in perpetuity is no-one's conception of heaven or hell, let alone the oblivion of atheistic death. There's a moment of numinous, incontrovertible wonder at the heart of the concept that gets to the heart of the most primal fears and fascination of life in a way that is, frankly, almost impossible in the context of a supposedly enlightened post-religious mindset. Regardless of whether or not you are actually an atheist (I assume, simply based on statistical extrapolation, most of the people reading this are not atheists), it's still not a mode of thinking most people are used to exercising in this very modern world. The demon-haunted, impermeable mystery of Medieval Christianity is not something that even modern Christians can easily comprehend, but the primal, irrational uncertainty at the core of the religious impulse is front and center from the very first pages of this book.

If Farmer had done nothing more than establish this single concept, the book would already be one of the most genuinely frightening, rigorously thought-provoking exercises in the history of the genre. Of course, it didn't end there.

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