There were so many books I had to read I stopped reading. Then I had a craving like one craves junk food sometimes. I wanted to read science fiction. It was all I read from age 14-17, then I stopped almost completely. I imagined a recent book, I imagined discovering new voices in science fiction from the time I had left it. But instead, I ended up rifling through a markdown bin at a secondhand bookshop and picking out two 1970s paperbacks, the precise era I spent obsessively reading in my teens.
Philip Jose Farmer’s first volume of Riverworld – To Your Scattered Bodies Go – has been something to restore my interest in reading this week. I haven’t finished yet, but it is interesting to think of it theologically.
Everyone who has ever lived awakes with a resurrected body in a world dominated by a long river. The people are resurrected at their peak, with the bodies of young adults. Or most of them are; those who died as children are resurrected as children.
Everyone is naked and hairless. The hair starts growing and people begin covering themselves up, but before these things even happen, violence breaks out. There was just a brief window of time where we might have hoped for a peaceful society, or at least a better one than the one one people remembered on Earth. But that was not a possibility. There was not even the restraints of culture, family, the law. Some are been murdered hours after being resurrected. Fighting erupts over territory, sex and food. It’s made worse by the realisation that if one dies, one will wake up in a ‘refreshed’ body the next day. There is less reason to hold back.
The inhabitants don’t know why they are in this land, or how. They don’t even speculate much. The religious among them acknowledge that it is not the afterlife they believed in. But, of course, they are closer to the mark than the materialists who thought there was no survival beyond the grave. In the absence of any answers, the needs of the body and the rhythms of the day take over.
For readers who cannot or will not believe in God, our world, perhaps, is little different from this. Our existence is either inexplicable or explained fully by blind, natural processes. And yet few live like this is true, few face this in all its brutalness.
I taste the inexplicable world sometimes. It’s when I let the silence in, and the what ifs of my atheist friends. ‘What if’ we have been brought into consciousness without hope of explanation? ‘What if’ there is nothing after death? The atheists, if they are right, they will not get to gloat. They need to win the debate now, because that is all they have. (If they are right, it is all Christians have, too.)
The novel gives me new respect for the conventions of society. The impossibility of not spoiling the fresh creation. The chaos in the absence of restraint. I think he has it right; he is not being too pessimistic about humanity.
On another matter, we live in Christian hope expecting that in the new creation, all will be explained, all will be made clear. (We are meant to know enough here and now to keep us going. But I don’t often feel like that. Not enough certainity, for one thing.) But just consider another ‘what if’ for a moment: ‘what if’ we are resurrected, but only to a state without any answers? Of course, that is not the biblical picture at all, although I wonder if a God who works so subtly in this Earth will reveal everything all at once?
Perhaps the ‘what ifs’ are unproductive. Perhaps all the science fiction of the world should be burned. Or perhaps the ‘what ifs’ at least keep us humble.