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A Conversation With James Morrow
An interview with Nick Gevers
November 2000


© David Tait
James Morrow
James Morrow
James Morrow has been called "The most provocative satiric voice in science fiction" by the Washington Post. It may be true. He won a World Fantasy Award for his novels, Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter, and has been nominated for his collection, Bible Stories for Adults.

James Morrow Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Eternal Footman
SF Site Review: Blameless in Abaddon
Interview
James Morrow Bio Information

The Eternal Footman
This Is The Way The World Ends
Towing Jehovah
Blameless in Abaddon
Only Begotten Daughter
Bible Stories For Adults
City of Truth
This Is The Way The World Ends

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Born in 1947, James Morrow is a highly significant practitioner of literary SF and Fantasy. His novels and stories are erudite and stylish satires, particularly upon religion; his wit is sometimes hard-edged, sometimes whimsical, but invariably telling. His eight novels are The Wine of Violence (1981), The Continent of Lies (1984), This Is The Way The World Ends (1986), City of Truth (1990, in actuality a long novella, and winner of the Nebula Award), Only Begotten Daughter (1990), and the volumes of The Godhead Trilogy, Towing Jehovah (1994), Blameless in Abaddon (1996), and The Eternal Footman (1999). He has published two collections: Swatting At The Cosmos (1990), a slim small-press retrospective, and the rather more substantial Bible Stories For Adults (1996). His current project is The Last Witchfinder, an ambitious "pseudo-historical novel" with fantastic elements.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Looking now at the issue that links almost all of your work published in the 90s: you've become an exhaustive satirist of religion, in particular the dogma and the foibles of organized Christianity. Four novels and many stories devoted to this subject -- with more, I gather, to come; don't you ever feel you may be shooting fish in a barrel, at very great length? (Let me hasten to add that this is not at all my perspective on your recent writing.)

That's a fair question. At a certain point, any religious satirist probably ends up shooting fish in a barrel, beating dead horses, flaying straw men, preaching to the choir -- the English language has a lot of idioms for this pitfall, doesn't it?

But as I mentioned earlier, what makes a novel worth reading is not its immediate subject but its deeper themes. For my money, Only Begotten Daughter is only secondarily about "the dogma and the foibles of organized Christianity." The heart of the book is the responsibility theme. It's a novel about a deity who finds that she can do the world some real good only by shedding her supernatural powers. It's about a woman who gains her divinity by giving it up.

And Towing Jehovah goes after lots of worldviews, not just the outlook sponsored by organized Christianity. The Corpus Dei is like the pachyderm in the old Hindu fable, "The Blind Men and the Elephant." Feminists, atheists, Catholics, Protestant evangelicals, secular Jews -- everybody has a different perception of the Big Dead Deity.

As for Blameless in Abaddon, it's essentially about the mystery of unmerited suffering, a problem that goes back to the Book of Job -- to its Sumerian antecedent, really -- long before anybody heard of Christianity.

That said, I think I may indeed be getting into a rut. For a while I thought I'd call the new story collection Sermons By Satan, but now I think it would a mistake to evoke Christian supernaturalism in the title. You can rest assured that there won't be very many deities running around in James Morrow's forthcoming projects.

Your series of articulately subversive Bible Stories for Adults began your anti-theistic barrage. Were all of these tales indeed conscious rewritings of well-known Biblical episodes?
When I wrote my version of the Flood legend, "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge," I tossed in that "No. 17" on a lark -- I thought it would be funny to imply that 16 such stories had gone before it, with more to come. But since the story was successful on several grounds -- it got a Nebula -- I decided to keep mining Scripture, and the result was three more Biblical deconstructions, dealing with the Ten Commandments, the Tower of Babel, and the Suffering of Job respectively.

In the years to come, I don't expect I'll produce more than one or two additional such "conscious rewritings," partly because there aren't that many other Bible stories that lend themselves to my larger satiric agenda, and partly because -- as we've been saying -- I don't want to settle for targets that many people might legitimately regard as superficial or obvious. I don't want to beat straw fish.

The rest of the stories in my collection were never keyed explicitly to Scripture. They just happened to end up in a book called Bible Stories For Adults.

Only Begotten Daughter makes some telling points at the expense of Bible-thumping evangelists and Christianity's more dogmatic eschatological assertions. What motivated you to centre this novel on a literal, divine, sister to Christ? Is a feminine, if not a feminist, angle of view essential if religious fundamentalism is to be palliated?
My initial motivation was indeed overtly feminist. I thought it was high time that an unequivocal female principle entered the arena of theological speculation. Jesus, Moses, Abraham, God: they're all guys -- you simply can't get away from that bedrock fact of the Western religious tradition. No matter how many fantasies you have about Yahweh's feminine side, no matter how much you play around with the Biblical pronouns, divinity still equals maleness in Judaism and Christianity. Sure, there's the Virgin Mary, but she's a pretty stupid role-model for anybody, especially a woman, to follow: she's defined entirely in relation to the reproductive function -- the ridiculous paradox of being both a virgin and a mother. Jesus didn't seem to have much respect for her (see Matthew 12:46-49 and John 2:1-4), and I can't say that I blame him.

Of course, my Julie Katz isn't the most activist goddess the world has ever seen. I thought it would be artistically interesting to maroon her in the late 20th century, a time when the Christian consensus has, for better or worse, been lost. It seemed to me that if you dropped Jesus in the middle of contemporary Western society, he wouldn't know what the hell he was doing there. Even the original Jesus sometimes seemed confused in his heart: "Who do men say that I am?"

As I began researching Only Begotten Daughter, I learned that in recent years certain respected religious thinkers -- Thomas Sheehan at Loyola University, for example, and Uta Ranke-Heinemann at the University of Essen -- have called into question the whole institutional foundation of Christianity. What are we to make of the fact that Jesus never talked about starting a Church (with the exception of one uninteresting remark to Peter) but was instead obsessed with this ambiguous notion of "the Kingdom"? What are we to make of the fact that, at its core, the Christian narrative is an ugly story about a father (God) who deliberately kills his son (Jesus) in the name of a greater good that never comes to pass? What does it mean to predicate a religion on a murder?

For me the astonishing thing was that these critiques were coming more-or-less from within the Church. So fairly early in its gestation, I realized that Only Begotten Daughter wouldn't be targeted solely against fundamentalism. I'd be going after the whole eschatological enchilada.

The Godhead Trilogy, made up of Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and The Eternal Footman, grows from a single massive conceit: the physical death of God, the presence of his decaying body on the wondering Earth. How did you come up with this notion?
Earlier in the interview, I mentioned my background in filmmaking. Towing Jehovah arrived in my brain as a Cinemascope shot. I saw a large ship towing a huge humanoid body. I couldn't shake the image -- it was almost an hallucination -- so I began asking questions about it. Whose body is it? Where is the ship taking it? What will happen when the ship gets there?

Of course, being a full-time writer, I also asked other sorts of questions. How much money can my agent get for this thing? How can she convince a publisher that there's an audience out there who won't dismiss the whole idea as embarrassing, depressing, or both?

Only in the course of writing a novel does the central theme emerge for me. Eventually I realized that Towing Jehovah would be a baroque retelling of "The Blind Men and the Elephant," that Blameless in Abaddon would be the Book of Job reconceived as a courtroom drama, and that The Eternal Footman would be a kind of double-homage to Dante's Paradiso and Camus's The Plague.

But initially all I had was that Cinemascope shot.

A criticism that has been ventured of The Godhead Trilogy is that even as the series offers a cogent metaphor for the entry of humanity into a post-theistic condition of thought, too many of its outcomes are still dictated by God -- literally, in the case of the scouring but liberating plague of death awareness in The Eternal Footman. If you'll again pardon my playing a sort of devil's advocate here: how does an author of religious fantasies conclusively dispel the clouds of religious belief?
A fair question, Nick. I worry about it. I should begin by saying that -- as my readers might imagine by now -- I'm an atheist. I don't like that word, though, because the concept it identifies is keyed to a negative, a void, whereas atheists of my stripe experience their attitude as something quite positive, quite nourishing. As the British philosopher Galen Strawson recently observed, God loves the atheists best, because they're the ones who take him the most seriously.

Some readers say that, given all the woolly speculation in my fiction, I must be an agnostic. But I don't like that word either. I find it evasive. It lacks sinew. An agnostic is an atheist who has lost his nerve.

Am I any sort of believer? Well, I believe in the universe, and all the mind-boggling mysteries the word "universe" entails. Science has given us some authentic insights into that universe, but much of reality is still pretty cryptic. The philosopher Thomas Nagel says that, when we speak of God, we're using the word as a placeholder for the insights we don't yet have. So maybe I'm a placeholderist. But I'm not happy with that stance either, because "God" is so easily confused with the answers whose place he's holding.

That said, I won't deny that, though written by an atheist, The Godhead Trilogy is parasitic upon the theistic worldview. For better or worse, I founded the project on a variety of supernaturalism. I was stuck with it. My original instinct was to soft-pedal the supernaturalism in these three novels, but ultimately I decided to run with it. The Godhead Trilogy is not out to "disprove" theism so much as to call the theists' bluff: look at what you're really saying.

So by the time we get to The Eternal Footman, yes, there's a dramatic, on-stage divine intervention -- the arrival of the existential pestilence. This catastrophe is identified as the work of a malign deity, but it's still supernatural, and it still suggests that we're ultimately in thrall to a Creator-God. There's no getting around that.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, this concession to theism troubles me, and I think perhaps I should start a novel that argues from page 1 that the Creator-God doesn't exist. But during the rest of the week, I'm pretty happy with my decision, because I think the really important question is not "Does God exist?" but rather "What is God like?"

In other words, I think you get a better grade of blasphemy from theistically-grounded fiction than from its opposite. When the starving sailors start munching on God's flab in Towing Jehovah, when Jesus reveals himself as Satan at the end of Blameless in Abaddon, and when God's large intestine lets slip that he doesn't give a shit about humanity in The Eternal Footman -- well, there's not much going on there to comfort the average churchgoer. But I'm still playing my game in the churchgoers' backyard, which is why I should maybe write that atheist novel one day.

A couple of queries, relating to specific satirical points: why the deluded mock-World War II air-raid on the Corpus Dei in Towing Jehovah? And why the detailed evocation of the Gilgamesh Epic in The Eternal Footman?
At the level of the raw narrative, I'd have to admit that the World War II air-raid in Towing Jehovah is there because it's colorful, and it evokes my beloved Catch-22. But my mock Battle of Midway also works on the thematic level, I hope. The members of the World War II Reenactment Society aren't fully adults. They're thoughtless sexually-mature children playing at being adults. In the Morrovian worldview, the Original Sin was not disobedience but thoughtlessness.

When Pembroke and Flume come on stage, I think the novel is asking, "What are the differences, if any, between our illusions about a Creator-God and our illusions about history?" Most of the other special-interest groups in the novel define themselves in relation to the Big Dead Deity, but the reenactors have keyed their lives to a demented, rhapsodic vision of World War II. They think this fantasy can have no real-world consequences, but they're tragically mistaken. One of them gets his hands burned off.

As for The Epic of Gilgamesh, I brought it into The Eternal Footman by way of venting my dissatisfaction with the sort of scorched-earth relativism that used to call itself post-modernism and now calls itself cultural studies. According to the post-modern catechism, there is no such thing as a universal human spirit; there are only local cultural narratives. I think The Epic of Gilgamesh flies in the face of that assertion.

Also, if you look at the plot of Gilgamesh, you find roughly the same structure as in The Eternal Footman, even though I outlined the novel long before I looked into ancient Sumerian literature. Footman certainly isn't a retelling of Gilgamesh, but the two tales periodically intersect each other in ways I find interesting.

The protagonists of the Godhead novels are not treated fairly by destiny -- an important indictment of God throughout the trilogy. Why does Captain Van Horne, who is after all guilty of a terrible ecological crime of negligence, survive quite cheerfully, while much less blameworthy individuals, like Martin Candle and Nora Burkhart, suffer such tragic ends?
You're asking the basic question behind all theodicies. Why do the guilty prosper while the innocent suffer? According to the Trilogy, the answer goes something like this: "Because God, if he exists, has a malicious side, and his better nature is nothing to count on. By the way, why are you worshiping this person?"

I'm not sure that Anthony Van Horne survives "quite cheerfully," but he's certainly supposed to be a sympathetic character. Once again I would evoke the responsibility theme: Anthony, for all his flaws, is a grown-up. He never pretends that the oil spill didn't happen, or that he didn't cause it. In a sense he shoulders too much guilt, because the accident was something of a fluke, and he left the supertanker's bridge only because his migraine headache had become intolerable.

I would contrast Anthony's guilt feelings with the pose inevitably struck by our political leaders -- Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, say, who so cheerfully orchestrated the Vietnam debacle even when it made them complicitous in what I have to call war crimes. I agree with Robert Bly that, after Vietnam, America's leaders should have brought their constituents together and had them weep openly over the tragedy of it all -- not because America lost, not because of the numerous blunders, but simply because that much pointless suffering should not go unacknowledged. That would've been the grown-up thing to do.

Why do Martin and Nora die? While Blameless in Abaddon and The Eternal Footman are dark comedies on one level, on another level they're flat-out tragedies. I'll always respect the tragic worldview, though it seems to have largely vanished from our culture. It's 180 degrees from the Christian-salvationistic worldview, and also 180 degrees from the New Age ethos, whereby you can solve all your problems by tuning into the cosmos. To honor the tragic sensibility, I had to destroy my heroes physically even as they enjoyed a kind of metaphysical triumph.

Finally: your next novel is reputedly to be titled The Last Witchfinder. I have visions of Salem Witch Trials in the present day. How prescient am I being about the new book?
Eerily prescient, as a matter of fact. The Salem Trials are a major feature of the new novel, and at first I indeed imagined transporting those proceedings to "the present day." My original notion centered on a character, presumably somewhat unbalanced, who decides to stage an old-style Renaissance witch-hunt in the late 20th century. I felt I could have a satiric field day with this conceit. What sort of arguments would the modern world make against a literal contemporary witch-hunt? How would the Catholic Church, the scientific establishment, post-modern academics, and Wiccan feminists construe this bizarre state of affairs?

But eventually I decided that what I really wanted to say about witches could only be communicated through a pseudo-historical novel. I say "pseudo-historical" because I play lots of meta-fictional games throughout the book, but without deviating radically from the historical facts. I've never written anything quite like The Last Witchfinder, but it seems to be working, and I'm only one month shy of a first draft.

The setting is England and the American Colonies during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. We tend to think of witch-hunting as a rather unsophisticated project, a Dark Ages sort of thing, but it's actually quite recent, very much a Renaissance enterprise. As I got into the research, I realized that Europeans born in the late 1670s, a decade or so before the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica, lived through an astonishing transition: not only from one century to another, but from one universe to another -- the "witch universe" of the Renaissance versus the "law-driven universe" bequeathed to us by science (or "natural philosophy" as it was called back then).

My heroine, Jennet Stearne, is one of these voyagers to the new universe. She makes the trip quite consciously -- her life's mission is to defeat the witch universe -- meeting Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Montesquieu, and other Age of Reason luminaries along the way. I found I was able to use Newton and Franklin as avatars of the two worldviews: Newton the Renaissance figure, completely pious, versus Franklin the quintessential Enlightenment man, flirting with secular rationality. Today, of course, we see preternatural demons and scientific demonstrations as incompatible. But the perception of incompatibility happened gradually. In the late 17th century, about half the members of England's famous scientific body, the Royal Society, believed in witches. Newton was a skeptic, but Robert Boyle (of Boyle's Law) thought that the witch universe made perfect sense.

At one point, Jennet and Newton and Franklin all end up in the same scene together. It turns out that such an encounter almost happened. In 1725 the young Franklin was in London buying printing equipment, and he tried to get an audience with Newton through Henry Pemberton, who'd edited the third edition of the Principia. But the 82-year-old Newton didn't want to meet this kid from Philadelphia. In The Last Witchfinder, they really do meet.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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