James Morrow:
A Shower and Teller of Tomorrow

Interview by Lila Naydan

LN: The science fiction you write isn't like typical science fiction. You have lots of religious themes and theological ideas that run through your work. Where do those ideas come from?

JM: What I'm interested in doing probably partakes as much of social satire and dark humor and philosophical commentary as much as it does what we think of as science fiction. I think of myself as someone who uses science fiction rather than someone who writes science fiction. I use the tropes of the conventions and the toolbox of science fiction. It's given me a home, I guess. It's given me a way to get published, an audience, and some awards [laugh], so I'm not about to abandon it.

It's sad to me, though, that there is such a stigma attached to it. And it's only gotten worse in recent years. There was a time, I would say, in the late seventies, when a lot of university professors recognized that science fiction was a serious and legitimate literature. It accomplished some pretty remarkable commentary, and it was not synonymous with escapist entertainment. It was a literature of ideas, and it was the kind of literature that played with theological, philosophical, and sociological questions.

But then beginning in the eighties, when the Star Wars films became cultural touchstones and movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind were mopping up at the box office; that was ultimately bad news for the literature of science fiction, because to teachers at universities, science fiction, once again, became mindless escapism as opposed to a literature of ideas.

I love the fact that science fiction enables me as a writer to take a very broad perspective on the human species and to address these very big philosophical and theological problems. It lets me write about religion in very non-realistic modes. I can actually have a woman character whose problems include that she's Jesus's divine half sister and she's living in a lighthouse in Atlantic City, and doesnít know what her destiny is. That book is called Only Begotten Daughter.

And I can do these magical fantastical wonderful scenes. I could have her bringing a dead crab back to life! And she can breathe underwater. She spends most of the novel wondering what to do with her supernatural powers.

Science fiction also lets me do something like bring a literal corpse of God on stage. A writer like Dostoevsky or Nietzsche can talk about the death of God, but in my science fiction, I'm able to have this corpse bumping into a supertanker and causing lots of chaos among the crew. So, I love the genre's toolkit, as I said. But I wish it got more respect.

LN: Do you have a personal favorite of the books you've written?

JM: Probably, my favorite is a book called Blameless in Abaddon, which is the sequel to Towing Jehovah, one of the books I discussed earlier. It's my favorite because I think it takes on the biggest question of all, which is what are we doing here and why do we suffer -- is there any point to existence? It's sort of the Book of Job retold in science fiction terms.

I think I put in just about everything I know about life in that book, or at least I try to. And I think I give the question a really full hearing without the book becoming a sort of babble of ideas. I think I made the book interesting.

The third act of it is a courtroom drama, where they put God on trial for crimes against humanity. That's the part that's most like the Book of Job. It's sort of an allegory of the Book of Job in the Bible.

The second act is a trip through the brain of God, where the main character keeps meeting all of these characters out of the Bible stories. And the characters out of the Bible stories proceed to explain to my hero the different arguments that account for human suffering and what defenses one might put forward to acquit God of the charge of acquiescence to human misery. I'm proud of that because I donít think anything like that has ever been done before in fiction.

And in the first act, I just have fun with the corpse itself. I make it the center of an amusement park. That's James Morrow the satirist. I'm a satirist even before I'm a science fiction writer, I think.

LN: What kinds of books do you like to read?

JM: One important aspect of living here is that there is a philosophy seminar that's pretty much been open to anyone. It was started many years ago by Joseph Cockelmans, who's a pretty eminent philosopher in town. Michael Svoboda was one of the founders of it.

As you may know, Penn State has traditionally had a first rate Philosophy Department. I found out about this seminar and they let me in. All you had to do was be willing to show up and be willing to read and wrestle with some pretty demanding books. I learned a lot, and since my science fiction is pretty philosophical, it just became a great resource, and I'd get all sorts of ideas.

Also, having access to a major university library is a great asset. I like to creep around in the stacks of Pattee Library -- you never know what you're going to find. I also like the sort of coffee house ambiance that's arisen in town the last six years or so. When I first came here, there were no coffee houses, and therefore it was not a convivial place to write in. I usually write at home, on my word processor, but I love to take the printout and go to a coffee shop -- especially Webster's, where they staged a play of mine a couple of months ago called The Zombies of Montross.

As soon as I saw that they'd be interested in something like that, I wanted to write a play, so I spoke with Elaine, one of the people who runs Webster's. It took me a week or so to write the play, then I showed it to Elaine and did some rewriting based on her reaction. It's been a really great way to connect with the community, I think.

So, Webster's is sort of my home away from home. As my new novel develops, I'm sure you'll see me there going over my manuscript with a pencil.

LN: Can you tell me a little more about what you've been working on lately?

JM: It's my first historical novel and it's called The Last Witch Finder. I would describe it as a novel about the birth of the scientific world view. It's about this remarkable period in human history when you had these two incompatible world views existing side by side in the West.

One was a belief in witchcraft at all levels of society -- it wasn't just a folk belief -- and the other was experimental science emerging; it was then called natural philosophy.

For a while, the two were able to exist side by side, and nobody saw any particular contradiction. So, you have these two world views, and you could actually have one person who could live through this shift from the Renaissance witchcraft universe to what we've come to call the Age of Reason, or The Enlightenment.

I imagine a woman being born in the year 1678, and in her life becoming aware of the natural philosophers, particularly Isaac Newton, who becomes a character in this novel. Ultimately, she grows up to be the friend and then the lover of Benjamin Franklin.

I use Newton and Franklin to personify these different world views. Newton was very much the Renaissance man belonging to the theistic universe, even though his discoveries helped usher in the age of science, which begins in the late 17th century. What I'm really charting, then, is the end of the belief in witches.

My main character is this woman, who, as I said, is born in 1678, and whose father is persecuting witches in Restoration England. And she has an aunt, who is ultimately assumed of being a witch, but the main character knows she's not a witch.

What many people don't realize is that the height of the persecution of witches is occurring at the same time as science is getting started. The law against witchcraft remained on the books until at least 1776.

My heroine makes it her life mission to try to get this parliamentary law in England off the books, so she travels between England and the colonies.

Ultimately, I have Newton and Franklin meeting each other, and as I said, they belonged to these two different universes. They could have met, and in fact they almost did meet in 1725 when Franklin was in London buying printing equipment. So Newton and Franklin will meet in my novel -- historical fiction lets you do that -- and, ultimately, my heroine will be accused of witchcraft, and she is put on trial for that crime. I won't tell you how it ends, but ... But an important question I deal with in the book is why exactly did this belief die out, because it wasn't simply the emergence of the physical science -- as I said, the two beliefs existed side by side. So it's a very complex story, but I think it makes for a good drama.

With that, my interview with Mr. Morrow ended. If you've never had the opportunity to read Mr. Morrow's work, I highly recommend it to you. His writing is fascinating, rich, and intelligent, and appeals not only to fans of science fiction, but fans of outstanding contemporary literature in general.

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