28 March 2008

Locus Magazine's Faren Miller reviews James Morrow

from Locus Magazine, March 2008

The Philosopher's Apprentice, James Morrow (Morrow 978-0-06-135144-0, $25.95, 412pp, hc) March 2008.

Back in January, the New York Times Sunday magazine section had an article dealing with morality as explored by today's social scientists, psychologists, and philosophers, mostly in a series of thought experiments designed to investigate the human drive toward altruism — or enlightened self-interest. The questions posed to volunteers involved relatively small body counts, e.g.: Would you doom one person to save five from a runaway train? Sacrifice a few so an overloaded lifeboat could stay afloat? While it gave passing mention to the drives that lead to things like religious war, pogroms, and other high-minded mass murders, the piece gave little sense of the immense price exacted by self-proclaimed idealists, past and present. My latest reading abundantly makes up for that omission.

In The Philosopher's Apprentice, James Morrow brings a hapless "failed philosopher" to a tropical island where he has been hired to tutor a rich woman's teenage daughter, not so much to acquaint her with his own former discipline as to revive her capacity for empathy and ethical feelings after some form of amnesia has wiped her mind of them. That's what they tell him, at any rate. The truth is a good deal stranger.

The cover art shows a clinch between Pygmalion and his now-living statue Galatea, and the blurb alludes to Lolita (Morrow slyly opens the book with a butterfly sighting), but any lust that Mason Ambrose feels for his lovely young pupil Londa is soon tempered by a deep unease. Some of this stems from his surroundings, for the Isla de Sangre isn't a standard rich folks' playground. His new sponsor Edwina Sabacthani rules over her territory like a private kingdom, in partnership with a geneticist who nicely fits the role of mad scientist.

Early on, Mason considers fleeing the place: "Yes, I needed the money, but did I really want to spend a year among people who routinely fashioned mutant lobsters and breathing trees and God knew what other sorts of biological surrealism?" His own attitude toward the Deity has long been a truculent one, and his attempt to defend his doctoral thesis foundered on a point of religion culminating in this rant:

"Why... would this same divine serial killer have begun his career spending thirteen billion years fashioning quadrillions of needless galaxies before finally starting on his pet project: singling out a minor planet in an obscure precinct of the Milky Way and seeding it with vain bipedal vertebrates condemned to wait indefinitely for the deity in question to disclose himself?"

Though he doesn't immediately realize it, he has stumbled into another pet project — this time run by humans with alarmingly grand ambitions.

One further quote encapsulates both his moodiness and the island's Gothic side, natural fodder for gloom. Here he is, contemplating a ruined Spanish fortress whose central keep remains intact:

The longer I stared at that looming tower, the more ominous it seemed — a twin to Kafka's castle, perhaps, or an Auschwitz chimney, or a nuclear-tipped missile. Stoicism was an admirable philosophy, and Epicureanism had much to recommend it, but no Greek school would ever equip Londa to comprehend the bombs and rockets of modernity. We must advance to the Enlightenment as soon as possible.

Mason fails to see that Enlightenment notions can have very little relevance in a particularly mad sector of a mad, mad world. Of course Morrow himself knows this all too well, and keeps escalating the weirdness and the mind games that surround his hapless hero until the plot achieves a degree of insane improbability that's the hallmark of Swiftian satire. Call it fantasy, SF, or some mixture of the two, it's perfectly suited to expose humankind's pretense of rationality for the delusion it really is.

While self-importance and idiocy are universal, The Philosopher's Apprentice also skewers more specific contemporary targets. An increasingly prominent plot thread involves fanatical American right-wingers and their own experiment designed to confront sinners with very physical evidence of their past errors, resulting in such widespread chaos as to make the project on the Isla de Sangre seem almost benign — though it too was conceived in a spirit of hubris and megalomania where good intentions are inevitably lost somewhere along the way.

It's enough to make a man want to leave it all behind him (as much as he can) and go back to chasing butterflies.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the March 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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