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Having It Both Ways
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, August 1998)
Photo by Beth Gwinn
James Kenneth Morrow has degrees in creative writing and teaching, and taught English and lectured on media at various academic positions in the '70s and '80s. But he has considered himself to be mainly a freelance writer for almost the last 20 years. His first novel, The Wine of Violence, appeared in 1981, followed by The Continent of Lies (1985), This Is the Way the World Ends (1986), World Fantasy Award winner Only Begotten Daughter (1990), Nebula-winning novella City of Truth (1990), and the first two of his ''Death of God'' trilogy, Towing Jehovah (1994) and Blameless in Abaddon (1996). Morrow also won a 1989 Nebula, for short story, with ''Bible Stories for Adults #17: The Deluge'', one of a group of works collected first in Swatting at the Cosmos (1990) and eventually in revised collection Bible Stories for Adults (1996).
''I was born on St. Patrick's Day, and I'm Irish in much of my heritage – my mother's name was Devlin. And of course, Ireland produces all the best writers, so I'm delighted to claim that lineage! But I sometimes wonder if I would want to be a terribly well-known mainstream novelist, because then I would have more enemies than I do now, maybe become yet another Salman Rushdie....
''I think I have the best of both worlds at the moment. There are times when I say, 'By God, I deserve that huge audience that Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut and T. Coraghessan Boyle, and some of our contemporary satirists enjoy.' But then I say, 'No. There's very few ecological niches out there for that sort of writer.' I've got a captive audience, an appreciative audience, it understands what I'm doing. I've never felt the people I meet at science fiction conventions weren't appreciative of my agenda. When occasionally a mainstream reader shows up in my life, they say, 'Well, I don't normally like science fiction, but I like your stuff.' To which I often say, 'But this is science fiction.'
''No question that Vonnegut has been a major influence. Just the voice of Vonnegut is delightful, that ability to turn a joke. He once said he spent a lot of time on each book because he wants to get each joke to work. That's pretty much my ambition as well: to polish each sentence until it shines. Beyond Vonnegut, I guess I will cop to the fact that the satirists are much more influential on my fiction than traditional SF. I've read very little Heinlein, very little Asimov. I do love Arthur Clarke a lot. He's been an influence. But more so are Joseph Heller in Catch-22, Voltaire's Candide, Mark Twain – to me, Huckleberry Finn is the great American novel. All these writers use the medium of dark humor, sardonic comedy, to try to get at reality. Yeah, that speaks to me more than plausible extrapolation does.
''The range of literary ambition and accomplishment you find within science fiction is much greater than the mainstream. The range of tone, subject matter, the diversity, is here within science fiction, and mainstream fiction is pretty much the mimetic – quotidian life and its discontents, and trying to make that seem plausible and dramatic – whereas traditionally, literature has almost been synonymous with the fantastical. If you go back to Shakespeare, where ghosts and witches are taken for granted, and if you go back any further than that, you're automatically in the world of myth and fantastical happenings – Dante being taken on a tour of Hell.
''We all would like our lives to have satisfying dramatic structure and meaning. To get into my religious obsession, it seems to me that what's going on when people join churches and practice religious rites is just that hunger for meaning. It's giving structure to a situation – namely, being alive – that doesn't seem to have any intrinsic structure, which is something the absurdists noticed in this century. I think in religion, it's not so much people believe the various miraculous events occurred in the past which tell us what reality's all about; it's a story that's coherent. It tells us that we matter, that God cares about us, that it's not an absurd or indifferent universe.
''I'm finishing up a trilogy about the death of God.Towing Jehovah was pretty well sketched out as being the supertanker towing God's corpse. I didn't know exactly how it was going to end, but I knew what the central situation would be. I wanted to revive the genre of the nautical adventure of ideas, and write in the tradition of Conrad and Herman Melville, Jack London. I always liked the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant. In Towing Jehovah, I was able to use that pretty explicitly: everybody has a different perspective on God's corpse. Everybody filters the corpse through his or her own worldview. And I think there's something like the blind men and the elephant going on in all my fiction. What I continue to value about science is its willingness to say all answers are provisional, all of our insights are tentative and vulnerable to new evidence.
''Blameless in Abaddon was initially going to be simply a sort of tour through the brain of this bizarre artifact. It was going to be called 'Terra Incognita', and was maybe going to end with some kind of a trial in which God would be put in the dock for the suffering of humanity. As I started to write it, the trial came into the foreground, and it became a retelling of the Book of Job. It turns out that's been done quite a bit. There are elements of it in Moby Dick, at one level. It's certainly a way to look at Kafka's The Trial. Archibald MacLeish's play J.B. is very explicitly Job in modern dress. There's Robert Frost's poem 'A Mask of Reason'. Even Neil Simon did a Job play! His most obscure and his worst effort is his comedy God's Favorite. And of course there's Job: A Comedy of Justice by Heinlein. That's what my agenda became, so I abandoned my original title, and it ended up being called Blameless in Abaddon.
''My final take on this big subject of the death of God is a novel called The Eternal Footman, about a world where the fact of God's death can't be denied. The skull of the corpus dei has broken free of the body and gone into orbit! It's also grown in size, so we now have this new satellite. God's skull is in geosynchronous orbit over the West, because I'm writing about the western theological tradition. I don't know what the death of God would mean to the Asian religions, but here in the West, we can no longer get away from the fact of God's death. You walk out on your lawn, you look up in the sky, and you see the sun and also this death's head. This causes a kind of plague of depression. It's a pretty upsetting situation, to not be able to get away from God's death! Throughout the West, people start to succumb to a kind of existential pestilence. The main character is a woman who undertakes a quest through this post-apocalyptic landscape to find a cure for the disease, for her son who's been stricken with the plague.
''I like to think that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that The Eternal Footman comments not only on itself but on the first two novels. In getting the ending to work, I'd say I'm facing the biggest challenge I've ever faced, because I have to come up with an alternative. Until now, I've been the satirist mocking religious institutions, coming at the foibles of churches and ridiculing them with my dark humor. But now I have to invent a kind of utopia, or at least a post-theistic world, one where James Morrow would want to live. That's hard! It's going to be the argument that starts out in Towing Jehovah, that God Himself wants us to grow beyond Him, that He wants His death to be known about and publicized, and this is the way for our species to grow up. The joke, particularly in Blameless in Abaddon but I guess in the whole trilogy, is that all of this is happening in a weird sense with divine permission, that God is making the arguments against his own goodness, when Martin goes on the tour of God's brain.
''On one level, science fiction seems to me 'religion by other means.' It's a community, particularly the convention infrastructure. There's an element of the transcendent. Even the most scientifically oriented works have the sense of wonder, a sense of awe. There was certainly a hope that I entertained for a while, that science could replace the magical, mystical, transcendent element of religion, because after all, this cosmos is astonishing in its scope and beauty, and we've only begun to probe it. That seems not to be working out, though. I'm a scientific humanist, and I still believe that world-view is the most valid of all possible world-views, but I don't think it can work for very many people, because science is something you cannot practice unless you're part of that very small sub-population of investigators.
''But I still have a hope that, because religion causes so much mischief, and often seems to be so divisive, that maybe the late Carl Sagan will have the last laugh. Maybe people will come to see that the given world, the giving universe, is itself so astonishing and mysterious that we don't have to live under this sort of dictatorship of tradition, this allegiance to myths. I think myths are great, but they're too often confused with fact, particularly in organized churches. When I speak of religious myth, I mean the story of a birth occurring in Palestine of God's son. That's a most compelling story. It can't be verified, and historically led to something that we call the Christian Church, and all of the problems, the mischief, the bloodshed that has accrued to the claim of absolute knowledge. Science at its best is a myth too, but it's a myth of curiosity, a very positive myth.
''Neither science nor religion has absolute knowledge. And I particularly value science fiction because it's not afraid of these big questions. Certainly politicians don't want to talk about the Big Questions. As Gore Vidal points out, the politicians have to pretend they're very pious people, and yes of course the Sky God exists, and it's important that America be as religious as possible. And you're not going to find it in mainstream fiction much any more. There was a time when a novelist such as Dostoyevsky would ask these agonizing questions about reality and faith and the meaning of it all, and what sort of a being God is. But that was the last century. In this century, fiction became very privatized, lowered its sights and became about reproducing a very quotidian reality, the specifics of having a divorce or having an affair; it lost that calling to be a kind of thought experiment, in the Einstein sense.
''I have another trilogy in mind – not 'trilogy' in the sense so often used within the SF/Fantasy genre, as just one big story chopped into three different books, but in the sense of three different takes on the same idea. I'm finally going to leave God alone for a while, and write about the American Dream. It's going to be a kind of science fiction/fantasy/surrealist epic about America as maybe a compromised utopia, a big, ambiguous utopia.
''A lot of us, when we begin to write novels, think we're going to change the world through our prose, and that somehow if we articulate what's wrong, people will see the light. It just doesn't work that way. I used to think, particularly with a book like This Is the Way the World Ends, I could actually change some people's thinking. I do think these efforts are eminently worthwhile. I'll continue to be idealistic, I guess. I like a metaphor that Walker Percy uses. He says the novelist is like the canary that miners used to take down into the shaft with them, because then they would be alert to the presence of poison gas. When the canary gets unhappy and starts running around and then keels over, maybe it's time to surface and talk things over.
''Serious artists are always worth paying attention to, because they have made the attempt to step outside of the immediate social situation, get some perspective on it, diagnose what's wrong. Walker Percy says the novelist is essentially a diagnostician. He's maybe not equipped to administer a cure, but he is pretty well equipped to interpret the symptoms. I suppose that's another place where I'm like Vonnegut. We do a lot of ranting and raving against human foibles.''
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