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Vintage Treasures: The Riverworld Series by Philip Jose Farmer

Saturday, April 16th, 2016 | Posted by John ONeill

To Your Scattered Bodies Go Berkley 1971-small To Your Scattered Bodies Go Berkley 1971-back-small

When I was a wee lad discovering science fiction for the first time, I eagerly read and enjoyed all the most famous SF series. Dune, Foundation, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Amber — and Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld saga.

The first volume, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, won the 1972 Hugo Award, and it’s not hard to see why. The premise, that every human who ever lived wakes up one morning on the shores of a great river, was thoroughly original, and Farmer built on it brilliantly, crafting a science fiction novel peopled with famous historical figures, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Hermann Göring, a fictionalized version of Farmer himself (“Peter Jairus Frigate”), and especially the famed explorer Richard Francis Burton, who sets out to solve the mystery of this strange world.

scattered-bodies1[Click any of the images for bigger covers.]

The hardcover edition of To Your Scattered Bodies Go was published by Putnam in 1971 with a low print run, and is a very rare book. The cover, by Ira Cohen (right), is bizarre but eye-catching.

The paperback was released by Berkley in September that same year with a cover by Richard Powers (above). I’m a huge Powers fan, but this isn’t one of his better efforts. In fact, it’s a very weak cover all around, and it’s fairly obvious Berkley knew it. They reissued the book less than two years later, replacing the Powers cover with a fine piece by Vincent di Fate.

Nonetheless, the Powers edition had a huge impact on the field. The hardcover edition disappeared without a trace, but the paperback was a huge hit, winning the Hugo Award for best novel, and placing #2 in the Locus Awards (just behind Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven).

Farmer had already made a name for himself as a short story writer, winning a Hugo in 1953 for “Most Promising New Writer” after the publication of “The Lovers” in Startling Stories, and a second for his Dangerous Visions novella “Riders of the Purple Wage” in 1968. But To Your Scattered Bodies Go launched his career as a novelist, and it was an enormously productive one — he published 25 novels in the next 10 years.

The reprint edition with the iconic di Fate cover, which touted the Hugo win the previous year (see below), became the definitive edition of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and remained in print for over a decade. When Farmer published a sequel, The Fabulous Riverboat, in November 1971, di Fate was hired to do the paperback cover; he also returned for the next two novels.

All told, there were five Riverworld novels written over a dozen years; all were published in paperback by Berkley.

  1. To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)
  2. The Fabulous Riverboat (1971)
  3. The Dark Design (1977)
  4. The Magic Labyrinth (1980)
  5. Gods of Riverworld (1983)

Here’s di Fate’s cover for the 1973 paperback edition.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go Berkley 1973-small

Unfortunately, while To Your Scattered Bodies Go completely dazzled me on first reading, it didn’t hold up to multiple re-readings. I haven’t been able to get through the book in the last 25 years.

Which is unfortunate, because I think the sequel, The Fabulous Riverboat (which was not nominated for any major awards, and which placed 8th in the Locus poll), is a much superior book.

The Fabulous Riverboat

It follows the doggedly determined efforts of Sam Clemens to build a steamship capable of navigating the impossibly huge river on the metal-poor Riverworld — and ends with one of the great cliffhangers in SF. Fans had to wait six long years for the third book, The Dark Design, to arrive in hardcover in 1977.

The Dark Design was reprinted in paperback in July of 1978, also with a handsome cover by Vincent di Fate.

The Dark Design-small

As I recall, virtually every book in the series was touted as “the final volume,” but new books kept arriving. Gods of Riverworld (1983) was the final volume, but I admit I viewed that fact with some suspicion right up until Farmer’s death in 2009.

In the early 80s, Berkley re-issued the entire series with a new set of matching covers: all five novels, plus Farmers’ Riverworld collection, and two shared world anthologies, each of which includes two stories by Farmer:

Tales of Riverworld (1992)
Quest to Riverworld (1993)

The cover artist for these editions was Don Ivan Punchatz.

Riverworld series Farmer-small

The Riverworld books have been perennially popular through the decades. In the 1998, Del Rey released a handsome set of trade paperback editions, with covers by John Stevens.

Riverworld series Farmer Del Rey-small

That was by no means the final version — in the 21st Century the series has been reprinted (so far) by Tor and Gateway / Orion. The Tor editions remain in print, in both trade paperback and digital format.

When an SF series remains in print for over 40 years, that’s an accomplishment worth celebrating. Drop by our offices for a slice of Riverworld cake (offer not valid in Illinois. Or any state with a Black Gate satellite office).

See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.

7 Comments »

  1. Thanks for bringing this series to people’s attention, John. It was one of my favourites, though I haven’t reread it in years. I agree with your assessment of the first book, btw.

    Comment by Violette Malan - April 17, 2016 5:55 am

  2. Like you, I was blown away by the concept of Riverworld in the first couple books. But Farmer couldn’t sustain that level of imagination in the following volumes.

    Comment by kelleyg@ecc.edu - April 17, 2016 8:17 am

  3. Another series I encountered in high school on the paperback spinners at the public library.

    I remember really liking the first three or four books, but being unhappy with the final installment because Farmer tried to do a massive retcon of what was _really_ happening and why, and I didn’t like it as well as the explanation from the earlier volumes. But still, I should probably revisit the series someday.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 17, 2016 9:10 am

  4. I know I stand in the minority here, but I read the first two and found them – and the whole concept – gimmicky. Farmer was never a favorite of mine, and those books cemented that low opinion.

    Comment by R.K. Robinson - April 17, 2016 4:00 pm

  5. The cover artist for the Berkley re-issues, the first Putnam edition of Gods of Riverworld and it’s subsequent Berkley mass market paperback edition, and the two shared-world volumes was, of course, the late great Don Ivan Punchatz.

    Comment by christopher paul carey - April 18, 2016 1:05 am

  6. > Thanks for bringing this series to people’s attention, John.
    > It was one of my favourites, though I haven’t reread it in years.
    > I agree with your assessment of the first book, btw.

    You’re very welcome, Violette. I wonder how the books would stand up to a re-read now. I’m sure I’ll give them another try at some point… but maybe I’ll start with The Fabulous Riverboat this time.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 18, 2016 9:59 am

  7. > The cover artist for the Berkley re-issues… was, of course,
    > the late great Don Ivan Punchatz.

    Thanks Christopher! I knew someone out there must know. :)

    I will update the article with that info.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 18, 2016 10:01 am


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