Serious Satire


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INTERVIEW The satiric science fiction of James Morrow C’69

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James Morrow C’69 has spent his fiction-writing career playfully wrestling with the big issuesamong them nuclear war, the existence of God, the possibility of utopia, and the role of reason in determining reality. Compared by critics to Voltaire, Swift, Vonnegut, and Pynchon, Morrow combines high concepts with a voice that is at once sardonic and humanistic, as well as finely drawn characters facing poignant personal problems. The author of such novels as This Is the Way the World Ends, Only Begotten Daughter, City of Truth, The Last Witchfinder, Shambling Toward Hiroshima, and the three books of The Godhead Trilogy, Morrow has won the Nebula and World Fantasy awards (twice each), as well as the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife Kathryn, his son Christopher, and a functioning set of 1950s Lionel electric trains.

Morrow recently spoke via email with Doug Texter C’91, whose own science fiction, satire, and essays have appeared in publications ranging from the Writers of the Future Anthology, to The Door and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In your work, you create worlds. Have you always been a model builder?

This has never occurred to me before, but the hours I spent as a child fiddling with electric trains are probably reflected in my fiction. My villains typically build circumscribed and megalomaniacal domains that they mistake—disastrously—for desirable worlds. I’m thinking especially of the jurists and prickers in The Last Witchfinder, confidently building their demon-driven universe, and the reigning oligarchy in City of Truth, blithely constructing a society predicated on mandatory candor. To this day, my fiction has me assembling models—right now I’m building the Beagle while working on a novel about Charles Darwin.

In Towing Jehovah, which features the literal death of God and the appearance of the divine body in the ocean, you have re-enactors use planes from the USS Enterprise to bomb the Corpus Dei. But you do something incredibly haunting. You have one of the re-enactors lose his arms in battle.

That’s a pretty direct allusion to “Snowden’s Secret” in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. And the subtext of This Is the Way the World Ends is that nuclear war would not be a “war” at all, but a meaningless exercise in mass murder. I came away from Catch-22 feeling that war is the ultimate obscenity. In my own halting way, I’ve tried to continue the conversation that Heller brought to such a pitch of mordancy.

Your characters have a sense of history. Do most Americans have an historical awareness today?

We seem to be living through an epidemic of historical amnesia, especially vis-à-vis the Founding Fathers and their unequivocally contrarian worldview. Revisionists like Glenn Beck would have us believe the framers of the Constitution map neatly onto today’s conservative Christians, when in fact most of them were deists and freethinkers. Does Beck even realize that Thomas Paine, from whom he lifted the title Common Sense, was essentially an atheist?

My novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima is an attempt to take the debate about the atomic attacks on Japan and kick it into a new key. It’s 1945, and horror-movie actor Syms Thorley is hired by the US Navy to don a rubber lizard suit and impersonate a giant fire-breathing iguana razing a miniature Japanese city—my obsession with models again—before an enemy delegation. It happens that the Navy really has created such a biological weapon, but Harry Truman has become persuaded that a demonstration shot might frighten the emperor into accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.

Obviously I’m raising a bedeviling question here: Were we not morally obligated to demonstrate the A-bomb to the world, as opposed to unleashing these unprecedented weapons in a sneak attack? I have no unequivocal answer, but I do think we ignore the question at our peril.

You graduated in 1969. What was it like to be a student at Penn in that era?

The counterculture ethos flourished on the Penn campus in the late sixties, and I was very much caught up in that zeitgeist—its questioning of received wisdom, the long-overdue critique of capitalism, its profound disgust with the Vietnam War. Like most of my hippie friends, however, I wasn’t on board with the New Left’s romanticizing of Marxism and its cavalier attitude toward violence. John Lennon’s “Revolution” says it all.

My time spent in the same room with Joseph Heller also proved a major asset in my career. Penn had given Heller some sort of teaching sinecure, and I was thrilled to take his playwriting course. I remember Heller as self-effacing, life-affirming, witty, and not a little bewildered. Best of all, he thought my dialogue was “absolutely hilarious,” a remark that convinced me I had the stuff to become a satirist.

One of the most vivid characters in The Last Witchfinder is Penn’s founder. Why did you want Benjamin Franklin at the center of a novel?

In recent years the Age of Reason has gotten a lot of bad press. Postmodern academia detests the Enlightenment for allegedly ushering in a murderous era of technocratic expertise. Meanwhile, the religious Right hates the Enlightenment—well, for being the Enlightenment, an ethos that invariably leads to secularism, the separation of church and state, and the rise of the Darwinian worldview.

God knows, the Enlightenment had its dark side (as it were). The architects of the French Revolution made a miserable mistake in turning Reason into a religion. But the Enlightenment’s great gift to the world was not rationality per se—we received that dubious boon centuries earlier, from Aristotle—but rationality coupled to what might be called the Ben Franklin style. Contrariness, irreverence, skepticism: These are the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Enlightenment heritage.

During the Culture Wars, Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, talked about how, when you cut out God, you cut out the basis for ethical thinking. What are your views?

Like Ivan Karamazov before him, Allan Bloom gets it exactly backwards. Far from underwriting ethical behavior, theism is often a recipe for moral catastrophe. The pious man’s loyalties are by definition divided: on the one hand, his duty to God—on the other hand, his duty to other mortals. We have a long and bloody body of evidence, called human history, suggesting that the two constituencies rarely make compatible demands.

It seems to me that if we choose to behave decently primarily to curry favor with a presumed Supreme Being—thereby sparing ourselves his wrath and perhaps earning relentless ecstasy beyond the grave—we aren’t acting as moral agents at all. At best we’re behaving as children, at worst as sycophants.

Is science much better than religion?

God knows, science has much to answer for—or, rather, its stepchild, technology, has much to answer for. To what degree may we legitimately lay thermonuclear weapons, environmental desecration, and the exploitation of the weak at the feet of science per se, and to what degree does the problem lie in humankind’s misuse of materialism’s fruits?

On the whole, science tends to get things right when maneuvering within its sphere, whereas religion—from where I stand—almost always gets it wrong.

That said, I’m the first to argue that science gives us but a provisional and limited picture of the universe: The map is not the territory. The phenomenon of scientism—the notion that our empirical knowledge will one day explain the whole of reality—is a genuine pitfall. But when it comes to filling the gaps inherent in the Enlightenment worldview, I feel that our arts do a far better job than our churches.

Do you think anything should be off-limits for the satirist?

As far as I’m concerned, a satirist is obliged to obey only one rule: Be sure that the first blow against decency was struck by the target of your art, not by you yourself. If you play by that principle, then any subject is fair game.
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 4/28/11