I finally got a chance to swing by the excellent Book Exchange here in Amsterdam. Although the owner claims not to know much about Science Fiction, they have a pretty impressive collection way down in their basement.
Having heard about "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" from my good friend Antranig, I scooped up a copy along with four or five other books soon to be featured in their own reviews here.
With most Science Fiction novels, there are a few central conceits that take life beyond what we consider normal at the moment. The ability to teleport by thought alone, as in "The Stars My Destination", for example. The central conceits of "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" are grand in scope and presented well.
At a stroke, Farmer erases the physical realities underlying almost all of the world as we know it. All of human history has been recorded, and 36 billion humans are resurrected at the same time and laid out along a great river than winds around the surface of an entire planet. All are reborn in a youthful and vigorous body based on their own, minus any defects or injuries. No one ages physically beyond the apparent age of 25. Injuries heal at an amazing rate, eyes and limbs lost regrow. Those who die in this new world are reborn yet again somewhere else along the river.
There is time, land and food enough for everyone to live in peace and comfort. Instead, humans quickly recreate the concepts of scarcity and wealth, and soon move on to recreate slavery, trade, and war. War and preparations for defense drive men to develop technology. In this installment, society progresses to the Stone Age within days of the resurrection.
One of the chief ideas of this new world is the idea of the soul. Later science fiction authors like Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Richard Morgan, and Philip K. Dick treat human experience as something that can be recorded and replayed. A clone with our experiences is in essence the same as the original. Each copy of a person that is killed falls into nothingness, even if a new and identical individual is recreated at a later stage.
In the Riverworld, Farmer makes it clear that each recreated body houses the same original soul. If two of the same bodies are recreated, only one will be animated with the living spirit of its owner. There is a connection between soul and body (a silver cord, if you will). If a person dies too many times, their soul loses its affinity for its body and is lost. If a person reaches a state of enlightenment, they become one with the oversoul.
This emphasis on philosophy and religion is a current that travels throughout the series, and is part of its enduring charm. We are not reading about Flash Gordon narrowly cheating death time and time again. We are reading about characters who continue to live and grow beyond the bounds of our short terrestrial lives. They have seen beyond the veil of death and only have new questions confronting them.
It's a classic in the best sense, and well worth the time.