Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

 You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why it’s so hard to write science fiction.

The first Riverworld novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go, was published in 1971. That was less than an eon ago, culturally, but Philip Jose Farmer was born in 1918. His ideas about the world were formed before World War II.

Read in 2009, certain moments in the novel are amusing, sad, and creepy, all at once. The story, in case you’ve never read it, is that every human who has ever lived wakes up after death in the Riverworld. This is neither Heaven nor Hell, but it’s a bodily resurrection for sure. Everybody is restored to youth and health. Everybody is naked (and hairless). And everybody has a sort of cylindrical aluminum lunch bucket, which they can insert into a recess in this great big mushroom-like device three times a day, the lunch bucket then being magically filled with food.

And not just food. When they open their lunch buckets, they find cigarettes! (Also cigarette lighters, which prove handy for building campfires, Riverworld being an outdoor environment conveniently supplied with trees and bamboo.)

The Surgeon General’s report on the hazards of smoking tobacco had appeared in 1965. The first story in what became the Riverworld saga was published that same year. But Farmer had grown up in a world where smoking was a lifestyle choice, not a deadly addiction. It was just obvious to him that the lunch bucket machines would provide both food and cigarettes. Also bourbon and marijuana.

Also lipstick for the women. Never mind that most of the women who have ever lived wouldn’t know what a tube of lipstick was. Never mind that Farmer forgot to mention mascara, eye shadow, and probably five or six other cosmetic products whose names don’t come to mind offhand. And never mind that the reborn women are as bald as billiard balls. No, by golly, the women in Farmer’s tiny little mental world need lipstick!

The absurd acceptance of smoking also mars Earth Abides, a novel that made a powerful impression on me when I was a teenager. A plague has suddenly and neatly wiped out 99% of the human race, but the survivors have no trouble scavenging enough cigarettes from the decaying ruins of civilization to keep puffin’ away for years.

I’m 100% sure that when today’s SF novels are read 40 years from now, absurdities just as sad and comic will pop up. We can’t imagine what we can’t imagine.

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