Thursday, August 5, 2010

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Even though I said I was reading something, I ended up finishing something different altogether. I've never read anything by Philip Jose Farmer, but his reputation is one of critical appreciated.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go has a unique setup. Every person who has ever lived and died on Earth, wakes up one day onthe banks of a great River, one that stretches the whole of the planet they are on. Each person has a bizarre canister that fills with food when placed on bizarre stones along the bank of the River. The first novel in the series follows famed explorer Richard Burton and his nemesis Hermann Goering. As everybody adjusts to the strangeness of the world, questions arise and some people don't seem to be who they appear to be.

This is one of the most high concept premises I've ever encountered. It's interesting, and grabs you from the opening moment of the novel. The question is, then, of whether or not the actual execution of the premise is as interesting or well done as the setup.

Unfortunately, not really. Farmer's prose is weak and limps across the page, sort of like older Philip K. Dick's prose. It's so workmanlike and the narrator is far too intrusive. Nothing subtle is left to the reader's imagination - everything is laid out and explained in detail.

While most of the prose is clear, To Your Scattered Bodies Go suffers from one familiar problem with modern fiction. During the action sequences, when there's physical violence, the narrator tends to blur things, like the character's perspective would do. So, everything is not coherent, as it would be in reality. Too bad that this is distracting and annoying. I would rather the generally intrusive narrator to stay omniscient, rather than get inside the head of someone being knocked around.

Like a lot of high concept science fiction, there's more effort put into setup and world-building than there is in usable characters. Burton is a fascinating person all by himself, without a sci-fi world to work in, so when then does Farmer fumble so badly in making him authentic to the reader?

There are aspects of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, however. The central mystery is interesting and I always wanted to get to the end of the novel. As well, Farmer takes the idea of constant resurrection to its logical point. This novel is clearly well-planned, and sets up expertly the next novel in the series, while still providing a satisfying conclusion.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a great concept wrapped around a mediocre novel. If characters, prose and dialogue had been given more attention, I would have been more impressed. Because of the novel's deep flaws, I have no desire to read the next novel in the series. There is far too much better science fiction out there for me to hope the next novel fixes these mistakes.

I still have a couple Robert Charles Wilson novels to get through. I heard from a friend that Margaret Atwood's science fiction duology was worth reading so I might go on with that. Right now I'm 20 pages into William Gibson's Neuromancer, which I tried reading years ago and failed. We'll see how that goes.

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