To Your Scattered Bodies Go
by Phillip José Farmer
1972 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
The love fest that has been my last few reviews is over.
Let me get this out of the way fast: in To Your Scattered Bodies Go everyone who ever lived on earth from the dawn of man to the people wiped out an alien doomsday machine in the not too distant future wake up immediately after their death in a million mile long, planet spanning river valley (presumably it circles the planet multiple times). Magical technology along the shore of the river provides food and some other basic conveniences but that's it. The book follows nineteenth century explorer Richard Burton as he gathers a crew of historical figures and explores the strange afterlife.
"What a concept!", right? It's mind boggling, brings into play anyone from history who might be interesting, and any kind of story could be told with it. It's one of the best ideas in science fiction.
So how did it turn into one of the worst books to win the Hugo award?
The answer there is simple: fan fiction. If you have not been made to suffer by reading fan fiction then you should be grateful since you might have missed the most annoying of all fan fiction characters the "Mary Sue". A "Mary Sue" is when the author inserts an idealized form of themselves into their story and the more transparent this is the more annoying it is.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go features a character by the name of "Peter Frigate" who drops piles of exposition on the famous historical figures, all but swoons over Richard Burton, gets excited to be traveling with a Lord Greystock who he calls "Greystroke" (Tarzan being one of Farmer's obsessions), and beats up a thinly disguised stand-in for an editor that caused an earlier version of the novel to be lost. He earns the respect of the other historical figures over the course of the book. It's not as ugly as some Mary Sues I've read but it's still fairly horrible.
What really kills To Your Scattered Bodies Go is that it is essentially Richard Burton fan fiction. There's a lot of time in this very short book telling us how great Richard Burton is. We're told of his expeditions repeatedly. Farmer hand waves away his antisemitic writing and throws in a major character that's Jewish so we can see that Burton isn't really antisemitic (a redundant character too since he only exists for this purpose). Burton is the daring man of action who has other characters just react in awe.
The end effect is that I found Burton unlikable. Telling me over and over again how great a character is has the opposite result when I'm reading and that is apparently the only characterization Farmer could do. We're even told how the genocidal alien is a decent guy despite killing everyone on earth because he thought that the US (not earth, mind you, just the US) could reverse engineer his space ship and then launch a conquering invasion fleet against his people's interstellar civilization.
I'd say that To Your Scattered Bodies Go has about forty pages of good things in it. Sadly my copy was two hundred and seventeen pages long and those pages that didn't have good things in them were complete rubbish. If I want to read poorly written fan fiction where the author puts themselves in the story there's terabytes of it on the Internet now.