To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What would happen if all of humanity was inexplicably resurrected after death on a vast alien world?
A frequent daydream of mine is to imagine "If I was suddenly transported back in time..." Farmer's daydream has a fantastic variation on the theme of time travel: Every human being who ever lived (including Da Vinci, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, Cleopatra, Hitler, Elizabeth I - plus the billions of mere rank and filers from every era and region) suddenly wakes up in a vast world dominated by impassable mountains and a giant River. With every physical need provided for, obviously resurrected humanity starts over with new wars and slavery, just to keep things interesting.
The new world is a mystery that one man wants to solve: Sir Richard Francis Burton caught a glimpse behind the curtain of Riverworld before resurrection and is determined to interrogate the man behind the curtain. He explores the endless River with a small group of companions and slowly begins to understand that Riverworld is no supernaturally created afterlife. In fact, the designers may have dark plans for humanity. Half the fun of reading this book is learning more about the Riverworld, so I won't say more about the plot or specifics of the world.
In choosing historical figures, Farmer shows perfect taste: the talented polyglot explorer Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring (1893–1946), and Alice Liddell Hargreaves (1852–1934). Burton is a fascinating character, full of contradictions, and Farmer obviously knows a lot about his eventful life. Göring, too, is given depth and interest beyond that of a Nazi sociopath. The only shortcoming is Hargreaves, who gets a fairly perfunctory treatment as a love interest (most of the women seem to be here merely to be admired for their figures). The women are frequently lumped in with the property (you know: food, tobacco, women), though you can tell Farmer attempts to give them some credit for action and independent thought. Sexism is a common problem of old-school science fiction, though Farmer is not as bad as some.
It's a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to fans of classic science fiction. If you enjoyed Larry Nivens' Ringworld or Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, you'll love To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It's not necessary to know about Sir Richard Burton's real life, but he's such a fascinating character you'll probably want to pick up one of the biographies about him by either Edward Rice or Byron Farwell.
Next up: Farmer's sequel, The Fabulous Riverboat, starring Samuel Clemens!
"Burton, despite the scoffings of his twentieth-century friends, believed steadfastly in most of the superstitions he had nourished on Earth. He often laughed at the superstitions of others, but he knew that some numbers held good fortune for him, that silver placed on his eyes would rejuvenate his body when it was tired and would help his second sight, the perception that warned him ahead of time of evil situations." - 199