James Morrow and the Problem of Our Time

December 13, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

I would like to take a few lines to introduce people who don’t already know this writer to James Morrow. As it happens, Jim is a friend of mine. I admire and respect him and I find his writing a delight. He is first and foremost a satirist, of the first water, and I must immediately recommend his Godhead Trilogy as one of the finest riffs on the whole idea of Jehovah in the modern world I have ever read. The three books are utterly fearless: Towing Jehovah, Blameless In Abaddon, and The Eternal Footman.

In the first of these, God has died. An angel comes to a disgraced oil tanker captain with a last commission from the Lord, whose immense body is floating in the south Atlantic. The angels have prepared a tomb in the Arctic and they wish this captain to tow the corpse there for internment. Naturally, the trip is fraught with peril.

The second novel details the trial of God (posthumously, of course) in The Hague. The last is about the world coming to grips with life without a god.

Superb writing, superb thinking, marvelous examinations of some cherished nuggets of human qualities.

The occasion for this piece, however, is his latest book, The Last Witchfinder. Up till this, Jim has been mainly a science fiction or fantasy writer, and intends returning to that milieu for his next book. But this one is an historical novel, based on actual events, and is a lucid examination of two completely incompatible modes of thinking during the time of their separation from each other and their subsequent war with each other. Set during the last days of James II reign and the beginning of William of Orange’s reign, this is the fertile period of the Enlightenment. The time when Locke, Newton, Hooke, Boyle, and the Royal Society began the solid first steps away from occult and alchemical suasions and set the West firmly on the road to reason. At least, it ought to have been. No one who has read this blog can think that we’re done with all that nonsense many hoped had been left behind in the Middle Ages, and in this novel Morrow shows us how the fight began (in a modern sense) and how the arguments have both changed and remained essentially the same.

Besides, it’s a very good read.

Recently, Jim gave an interview in the magazine LOCUS wherein he talks about reason, secularism, and the fray in which we find ourselves today. There are excerpts on-line here.

But here is a sampling, and one of my favorite observations on the current situation:

“You really get the sense that the Bushies would be perfectly happy to see a low-level, feel-good, smiley-face theocracy descend upon this republic. The Bushies know that the Christian argument is correct in an absolute sense, so why should anybody have a problem with it? For me, the great irony of our time is that even as Bush is denouncing Darwin, condemning stem-cell research as blasphemy, and encouraging what he calls ‘faith-based initiatives,’ his administration is hoping against hope that something resembling a rational, secular, post-Enlightenment republic will emerge in Iraq. It’s a towering irony.”

Jim and I met at a convention several years ago and sort of intersected during a discussion with another person about the utility of western style materialist thinking, as opposed to other philosophies. It became a heady, profound review of the problems of modern academic reassessment–deconstruction, relativism, the notion that science is “merely a narrative” with as much usefulness as any other “philosophy”–and we left the party after a few hours of this, dazed and a bit drained. We walked down the corridor toward our respective rooms in the hotel and at the elevator, Jim looked at me, a bit bleary-eyed, and asked: “Who are you?”  The way he said that, he meant is as a compliment, and I have been as proud of that particular question asked from that particular man under those particular conditions as almost anything else in my life.

Since then we’ve had opportunity to have other, less intense, but no less fruitful conversations, and I have come to think of him as a kindred spirit. I always thought he was a gifted writer, and his new novel proves the case.

The Last Witchfinder is also the latest of a number of novels dealing with the period of The Enlightenment by science fiction writers, who seem to be returning to the very font of our freedom from superstition to try to divine the source of both our chosen world-views and the beginnings of the battle we continue to wage against those elements of irrationality which plague us today, as if by reviewing the time, the personalities, the thinking of the day, we might find a clue as to where we have gone wrong recently, resulting in the startling statistic that some 40% of Americans are waiting for the Second Coming.

Other forays of note include Neal Stephenson’s immense Baroque Cycle–three volumes, Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World–which examine that same period as a set of processes and discoveries which teased the mind of Western Civilization away from the dead-ends of spiritual dictatorship and produced the Modern Era. It is a look at history in a way only a science fiction writer could see it.

I commend these books. They are fiction. They are fun, but they are enlightening.

Check out Jim’s other books, too. Go to his website. www.sff.net/people/Jim.Morrow/ Treat yourself to the special pleasures of a fine writer doing solid work…and learn a few things along the way.This announcement has been brought to you by a concerned aesthete.


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Category: Reading - Books and Magazines, Science, Writing

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ebonmuse says:

    Hey Jason,

    It's really cool that you know James Morrow in person – I've read most of his books and I've been a fan of his for a while. I'll definitely have to check this new one out.

    My only quibble with the Godhead Trilogy, which I thought was a brilliant high-concept idea, was a gap in the continuity: the second book depicts God as merely comatose, when the first book makes it perfectly clear that he's 100% dead. Maybe Morrow just realized that there was more dramatic potential in a deity who was just barely alive. You could even ask him, couldn't you? 🙂

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    No, he's dead in the second book. Even in humans, there continues to be neuronal firing for some time after clinical death. In the case of Jehovah, which such a vaster and more "perfect" brain, the firing went on for much longer.

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    Hmm.. That's not how I remember it. Wasn't there some sort of giant life-support system set up in the second book for him? I'll have to check this the next time I get a chance..

  4. Ben says:

    Here is a must read science-fiction short…

    Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"

    Jason: Thanks for recommending "The Last Witchhunter", my mom said she really enjoyed it.

  5. Vicki says:

    I *loved* the Baroque cycle! BTW, Stephenson portrays Newton as a less than shining example of Enlightenment values. How much is based on historical fact, I wonder. I see from the website that Newton is a character in the Witchfinder series. How is he portrayed there?

    The idea of a trial of God is an interesting one. Jung (#1 on the scale of belief!) psycho-analyzed the God of the Old Testament in "Answer to Job" and concluded that Yahweh suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. Maybe he should have been called as an expert witness to support God's insanity plea.

    JUNG: “God is an ailment man has to cure.”

    GOD: Jeez Carl, with friends like you who needs enemies!"

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