Science Fiction Studies

#89 = Volume 30, Part 1 = March 2003

Fiona Kelleghan

War of the World-Views: A Conversation with James Morrow

James Morrow was born March 17, 1947, in Philadelphia. He received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania and earned an M.A. in teaching from Harvard Graduate School. Morrow taught English and lectured on media in various public schools in Massachusetts for several years, before leaving the field of education in 1978 to pursue a writing career.

The arrival of a daring, satirical voice in science fiction was signaled with the opening sentence of The Wine of Violence (1981), Morrow’s first novel: “There was a time, believe it or not, when human beings did each other harm” (np). His later novels include The Continent of Lies (1984), the Nebula Award-nominated This is the Way the World Ends (1986), the Nebula-nominated and World Fantasy Award-winning Only Begotten Daughter (1990), the Nebula-winning City of Truth (1991), and THE GODHEAD TRILOGYTowing Jehovah (1994), nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula and winner of the World Fantasy Award, Blameless in Abaddon (1996), and The Eternal Footman (1999)—with The Last Witchfinder on the way. His collections are Swatting at the Cosmos (1990) and the World Fantasy Award nominee Bible Stories for Adults (1996). Morrow also served as editor of the twenty-sixth, twenty-seventh, and twenty-eighth Nebula Awards anthologies (1993 to 1995).

Morrow is one of a group of writers whom I call the Savage Humanists. Brilliant, occasionally vicious, and always humane, his work has been compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Joseph Heller, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, and Dante. He is a master of social criticism whose fiction most frequently takes potshots at fundamentalist religion, and his plots build on a polarization between two viewpoints, often the rational and the irrational. His characters, both good and vile, are seriously and sympathetically portrayed, however; they are believable as humans. Morrow’s prose is literarily allusive, polished, and electric with wit.

In a review in The Washington Post, Peter Heck wrote that Morrow has established “a position as the most provocative satiric voice in science fiction, willing to take on the Big Themes without pulling punches, and not afraid to step outside the genre’s usual borders” (10). Many of Morrow’s works include a fantastical element—in
Only Begotten Daughter, for instance, Julie Katz really is God’s daughter; in This is the Way the World Ends, the children who were never born really do appear as malignant ghosts; in THE GODHEAD TRILOGY, God and the Devil really do appear on Earth. But his fiction works best when read as science fiction, because Morrow is pro-science and pro-rationalism, and the fantastic elements appear in realistic settings and with scientific explanations behind them. In a 2000 interview for, Morrow told F. Brett Cox that “I will go to my grave saying science is privileged. Not universally privileged, not privileged at the expense of other ways of understanding reality—I wouldn’t be writing fiction if I didn’t think it was terribly important to come at reality from lots of different directions. But I am distressed by a certain kind of mindless dismissal, one that certainly doesn’t begin with postmodern academia, a kind of resentment that science tells us lots of things that we would prefer not to be the case: we’re not special, we’re not the center of the universe, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that we are the special creation of a divinity. Those are extremely annoying messages.” Fortunately, Morrow is willing to risk the annoyance of his readers in an attempt to open their eyes to new sides of old arguments about the human condition.

He lives in State College, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Kathy, his son, Christopher, and their dogs. This interview was conducted at the March 2001 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Fiona Kelleghan: Let’s begin with how you got started writing science fiction. What reading, or what movie, or what experience first gave you that sense of wonder that made you say “I want to do this”?

James Morrow: I wish I had a poetic and lofty answer to that question, an answer having to do with art and literature. The truth is I was inspired by television, and I freely admit that the visual media have been as important in my life as literature. I’m an avid film-goer and armchair movie scholar.

There was a situation comedy on television when I was maybe six years old. It was called The Stu Erwin Show. This was a family sitcom and the adolescent daughter was writing a novel. “I’ve finished chapter one, let me read it to you,” she said to her family. And little six-year-old Jimmy Morrow was just astonished by the idea that, wow, a person could just sit down and write a novel. You didn’t have to settle for your grandfather reading a story to you. [Laughs] And I was hooked ever since then.

I also extrapolated from The Stu Erwin Show that a novel was something divided into chapters, so at age seven I wrote my first novel, dividing it into chapters. I think it was a novel of about three pages, and each chapter was about three or four sentences long. I dictated it to my mother, because I couldn’t write neatly, and I knew that typewriting would look a lot better anyway. And now I’m fifty-five years old, but I still have this book, The Story of the Dog Family—dictated to my mother in six chapters. The characters were all talking dogs, so I guess I was a fantasist right out of the gate. I never did realism. Maybe other seven-year-olds were writing about, you know, divorce in Scarsdale or something [laughs], but I was writing about talking dogs. We bound it with yarn so it looked like a real book. So in a weird way I owe my writing career to television, and I’d have to admit that my sense of wonder came largely from that medium and from television broadcasts of fantasy movies—King Kong [1933] and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein [1948] and so on—but I certainly read children’s classics, and got lost in Gulliver’s Travels [1726], and was blessed with a grandfather who was living in our house and who read to me all the time.

So I had both the visual and verbal. The book has always been a kind of erotic artifact in my life. And I think it’s that way for most readers and writers. I can’t remember the citation, but someone said recently, “The book is a technology that has nothing wrong with it.” And at this point in history, as we sit here at the Conference on the Fantastic, a lot of us are concerned about the possible death of the book with the emergence of hand-held reader thingies and the Internet, and the fact that you can download all sorts of manuscripts now, and Stephen King did his famous experiment with cyberspace and published a novella on the Net. And it was successful, so everyone said, “Oh, there’s the wave of the future. Authors will publish directly on the Net.”

FK: The reports of its success were greatly exaggerated.

JM: Were they greatly exaggerated? Just as the reports of the death of the book are greatly exaggerated, I think. I mean, Stephen King’s readers would follow him into any medium. If his next novel was written in the form of goat droppings strewn along a mountain path in the Andes, they would all get plane tickets and go and read the goat droppings. [Laughter] It was a test without a control group.
I found myself recently tangling with a writer—I think he was also a game designer—on a panel at Harvard, about the future of print. And he was saying, “You know, we writers are enamored of this medieval technology, ink and paper, and what we should be doing, of course, is regarding the computer screen as our medium. Paper should just vanish from the writer’s life. Save some trees. We’ll just compose on the screen and send it to our readers, who will then read it on the screen.” I don’t think that’s gonna happen. The book is a technology that has nothing wrong with it, really.

FK: Exactly. Besides which, these proselytizers of the electronic overlook the fact that books are not merely novels. Books are also cookbooks, and manuals that you want to hold under your car while you’re fixing it—

JM: I hadn’t thought of that, actually. Yeah, you want to use books that way—I just can’t imagine curling up with a good Palm Pilot. It just isn’t the same thing. The eroticism of the book. Now sure, admittedly, this is a complex subject, and sometimes I find myself on the other side of this argument—that is, when people talk about the linearity of print and how that’s different from the supposed nonlinearity of the visual media. I think that written words live independently of the medium through which they’re displayed. The way you make sense of any glob of print—whether it’s scribbled by hand with a Bic pen on a legal pad or whether it’s on a computer screen or whether it arrives in the form of a printed page—this is a very mysterious phenomenon, this process by which the reader assembles a text in his or her mind and simultaneously paints these mental landscapes. Nobody knows how that works, or why that works.

That’s why I don’t think that the supposed linearity of print is a topic worth discussing. But I do reserve for the book a kind of intrinsic aesthetic worth. The book is a beautiful thing. Even a paperback, a mass-market paperback, can be a beautiful object. I would never say that about any piece of text floating around on screen. It’s a ghost.

FK: I think that the desire to eradicate printed paper is well-intentioned but wholly misinformed, an enthusiasm born out of naïveté about socioeconomic forces that these anti-book zealots are overlooking.

JM: Yeah, they’re just not thinking about the problem. This gentleman I disagreed with on the panel, I would assume either his writing sucks, or he’s just not thinking about how dependent he really is on being able to read a print-out and mark it with a pencil. There are nuances, there are rhythms, that you cannot achieve on screen alone. You have to go back to that print-out. There are typos you would never notice, to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are typos that your spellchecker won’t catch.

But I love the dance, going back and forth between the print-out and what’s on the screen. There are times when the imaginative freedom that word processing provides is exhilarating. I almost close my eyes and just compose in a very spontaneous fashion.

FK: You’ve probably been using AV materials longer than most writers today, actually.

JM: In my first life I was an instructional materials specialist for public school systems, and worked at it in Philadelphia and later in the Boston area. So I’m pretty sure I’m not a Luddite. My chariness about the electronic frontier in publishing doesn’t come from any hostility toward technology. I think technology is swell, within limits. But I’ve thought a lot about the differences among the media. I don’t need to say, “I hope the book doesn’t disappear,” because it won’t disappear. Not gonna happen. Sex didn’t disappear when pornography came in. [Laughs]

FK: If I can circle back to our opening paragraph, you sounded a bit defensive or apologetic at first about the power of television as an influence. Your pointing out subjectivity is important. Bill Sheehan wrote in an essay on The City of Truth that you are the kind of writer most at home in the realm of grand sweeping ideas [96]. It’s true; every time I’ve read any of your work, short stories included, I’ve always had a sense of the sublimity of your imagination. Even the characters who are subjected to horrible depths of degradation in your fiction are done so in a wondrous and imaginative style. We don’t usually associate the sublime with television.

But clearly something was fermenting in your young brain and is still fermenting in your brain now. The sublime has been defined in various ways by various people; it doesn’t have to be the Shelleyian sublime of Mont Blanc.

JM: Yeah, and I think that there are more writers out there—serious writers—writers who are taken seriously—those two groups are not exactly the same—for whom experiences with film and television were formative and primal. I always liked the film critic Pauline Kael, who once remarked something along these lines: “I’ve never trusted the judgment of people who were born with such good taste that they never had to feel their way through trash.” And by feeling my way through trash, I developed an understanding of the Pleasure Principle. The comfort with grand sweeping ideas came later. Naturally, I didn’t find much intellectual material on the Walt Disney Presents program. But I did find narrative: beautiful rapturous sublime narrative. The Disney adaptation of Treasure Island [1950] and the Disney version of the legend of Robin Hood [1952] are astonishing pieces of story-telling, astonishing paragons of script construction, and I just responded to that right out of the gate. For me it was very primal.

The novelist Ross Lockridge, who wrote that very complex, intellectual novel in the late forties called Raintree County [1948]—which became a lousy movie; it has nothing to do with the vision behind the novel Raintree County—he was influenced by D.W. Griffith’s movie Intolerance [1916], which is a mawkish, dopey movie on many levels, but it happens to have an astonishing narrative drive and a very experimental structure: four different stories, intercut, and then come four delayed climaxes that seem to happen all at once through the frenetic parallel editing that Griffith did so brilliantly.

Nabokov used to watch television, I hear. [Laughs]

FK: I have no difficulty believing that. A book like Lolita [1955] is filled with every sort of diction from every walk of life that you can imagine.

JM: And you know, he didn’t watch it to sneer at it, just to be scandalized by Philistine vulgarity. I think he appreciated it at some level. A literary scholar once witnessed Nabokov and his wife arguing over whether they had last seen Lenny Bruce on the Jack Paar program or the Ed Sullivan Show. Which is not the sort of discussion that the literati imagine going on in the home of Nabokov.

Again, to go back to Pauline Kael, she points out that we’re not just intellectual beings with lofty thoughts; we’re also ordinary schmucks, we readers. The community of people with primal ideas and drives is terribly important. If you separate yourself from that community, I think you’re lost, as an artist. You’re then talking only to other artists, which is not why God invented art.

FK: So when you come up with these grand sweeping ideas, such as the literalization of the death of God in THE GODHEAD TRILOGY—or I think of the windswept landscapes of This is the Way the World Ends, the post-holocaust continent of corpses and this vastness of wild grief, and then moving the action to Antarctica of all places, and the walking dead—are you simply literalizing metaphors, or do you have to work to come up with images like these?

JM: That’s a good question. I think that both must be the case, flights of fancy and hard intellectual work. The construction of a novel is irreducible, and I don’t like to think about it too much, because then I might become self-conscious and lose the spontaneity, which I think is the sine qua non of creativity. But I think a conceit like the potential descendents who get locked out of life, as a result of human extinction—that’s very intellectual. I stole it from Jonathan Schell’s book The Fate of the Earth [1982] and added my own flourishes to it, and literalized it. I don’t think Schell ever thought of his idea in narrative terms, but I immediately saw that there was a drama in this concept of the Unadmitted.

But it’s also very emotional, and that’s what art is all about. It’s about the emotions. As I like to say, all drama is melodrama—it just doesn’t work the other way around. All art is entertainment—it just doesn’t work the other way around. But, gee, going back to television, I can remember a series called Omnibus. They presented the Olivier film of Richard III [1955], which I got to see when I was about ten years old, I guess. It made an astonishing emotional impression on me, the pageantry counterpoised against the dark, brooding, quieter moments. So, yeah, I want to have both. It’s important to engage the reader’s mind, and make the reader think and, I would hope, think about things he or she has never thought about before. But as a child of the movies and television, I find that the spectacular vistas also matter to me terribly, and the emotional dimension.

FK: I admire your success in balancing the sensations of the individual and the domestic with the sensationalism of the huge, catastrophic or post-catastrophic world.

JM: I’ll tell you something even more revealing. I was talking to Brett Cox about this. When you talk of moving from the domestic to the catastrophic, all academically-inclined people immediately think of the Uncle Scrooge comic books that Carl Barks produced in the 1950s. [Pause] I guess you’re not of the cult of Uncle Scrooge comics.

FK: [Laughs] I’m not acquainted with them.

JM: They’re a bit before your time. For your own amusement, you should try to get me, Brett Cox, and John Crowley going on the Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks. He was both the illustrator and the script writer. Barks could do astonishing things with his artistic talent—but he also had an amazing sense of story structure. I learned from Barks the kind of narrative move that an author can make, where you begin in the most mundane setting and take the reader to some exotic locale. Barks always started the reader in Duckburg, you know—[Laughter] Duckburg, USA—and before you know it, in the effort to protect his fortune, Scrooge has had to go into the jungle, or underground, to Antarctica, or halfway around the world, off on some fantastic adventure. You can see that structure in nearly every novel I’ve written. I shouldn’t be saying all this. I feel naked. I’m being too honest. [Laughs] But no, I think that childhood passions are important to one’s development as an author. I’m not a Freudian, or at least not in any orthodox sense, but God knows you are who you were.

Of course, the other half of my writer’s sensibility comes from literature, which had become central to my life by high school. I had an astonishing course in World Literature in tenth grade. The curriculum opened up the universe of the novel for me—it enabled me to understand the novel as a matrix of ideas, not just as a narrative. I realized that much more could be done with the medium of the novel than Carl Barks was doing with Uncle Scrooge comics. I don’t think I really understood that until this wonderful teacher, James Giordano, took us on an amazing tour of world literature. We were mere tenth graders, fourteen years old, fifteen years old, and he made us grapple with Camus’s The Stranger [1942] and Kafka’s The Trial [1925] and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment [1866] and Voltaire’s Candide [1759]. We read The Inferno [1310]. We read Madame Bovary [1857]. We read Ibsen’s plays. So that changed my life forever—

FK: In tenth grade!

JM: In tenth-grade Honors English. You couldn’t do that today. I think Mr. Giordano was getting in trouble for it even at the time. But today, both the Left and the Right will have no truck with that kind of curriculum philosophy. By the Left, I mean the postmodern Left, which is pretty hostile to the concept of literature as the embodiment of a universal human spirit. In the postmodern world-view, all human understanding is cultural and “local”—that’s one of their favorite words, “local”—and the purpose of the novel is to express the voice of a particular people. This type of criticism has its place, but I don’t think Mr. Giordano would have been very happy if you asked him, “Was Kafka speaking for the Jews?” I think Mr. Giordano would have said, “No, he’s speaking about the human condition and what life feels like.” You know. Camus isn’t writing about the French. [Laughter] On the Right, meanwhile, you have the guardians of public morality telling teachers they mustn’t assign novels that satirize the demonic side of the Catholic Church as Voltaire does, or that find God to be illusory, as Camus does. That’s not gonna go down these days in the classroom.

So I was very lucky that I came of age at a time when it was thought that adolescents could handle great works of world literature. So that’s why we’re here in this room. [Laughter] Next question.

FK: How and when did your opposition to irrationality arise? Give examples. [Laughter]

JM: Boy, these doctoral defenses are harder than they used to be. My opposition to irrationality arose through irrational means. It sounds like there’s a paradox in there, and maybe even some hypocrisy on my part. But there’s a sense in which—and I hope I’m not sounding remotely mystical—there’s a sense in which those literary voices spoke to me: the voices of the skeptics, the world-view that’s going on in Voltaire’s Candide or in the plays of Ibsen, in the satire of Jonathan Swift, and in the honest atheism of Camus.

The word “honesty” is pivotal for me. These writers seemed like honest voices when compared with the voices of Belief and Irrationality, and with the Theistic Claims, and with Anti-Darwinism. It became so clear that something disingenuous was driving the believers’ agenda. The proselytizer was not coming clean, was not asking questions of himself or herself, tough questions—questions like, “Why have I been appointed to go out and tell people about Jesus? Why does God permit such a deranged state of affairs, where some people become privy to ultimate truth, while others remain in the outer darkness? Why do I keep gunning for Darwin? Is God so weak that he can’t even make his presence felt in a crummy biology classroom? Is that a deity worth worshipping, this being who needs this pathetic press corps running around, these spin doctors for the divine?” That seemed ridiculous compared to the honest anguish of a Camus or a Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky inhabits this wonderfully ambiguous mental space in which doubt and belief collide with each other.

FK: His entire oeuvre is from the underground.

JM: Exactly. That’s my ultimate critique of so much belief, whether we’re talking about New Age mysticism or orthodox church-going—or Marxism. At a certain point, the practitioner is not asking the tough questions that have to be asked. I always liked a truism about George Orwell, which was that the Right Wing hated him because he was a Socialist, and the Left Wing hated him because he told the truth. I don’t see myself as a truth-teller, but do I see myself as an ambiguity-monger. Somebody who says that a question is always better than an answer.

FK: Throughout my reading of criticism on the fantastic, I have encountered again and again a manifesto that says that fantasy and myth and Story, with a capital S, are better than science because they speak the truths that speak to the soul, and meanwhile that science is good only at measuring things. And I’ve always thought, “Well, there’s no need to be rude about science just because myth is good for you.” I find my sublimity in the scientific world-view, which I guess makes me an adherent of scientism.

JM: In a way, science is not about measuring things.

FK: It’s about asking questions.

JM: As opposed to theology, or at least Medieval Scholasticism, which is about measuring things, and astrology is about measuring things, and all sorts of nonsense is about measuring things. Science, at its best, engages the sense of wonder, which is the topic we began with. I’m a Carl Sagan-ite, I guess. I think that the given world, the given universe, is so astonishing and mysterious and miraculous and, as Einstein would say, knowable, that if that isn’t enough, then we’re all in a lot of trouble. In other words—and this is how I put it in my recent novel—God got it right the first time. [Laughs] I think the given available world is where we’re supposed to cavort and find meaning, not some imaginary afterlife. Why should we waste our time looking for angels and imps and goblins, and other stuff that has the drawback of not existing, when we have stag beetles? That’s where the miracles are.

FK: The Enlightenment promised Western civilization a future of rationalism, an irrevocable march of science and technology that would benefit all humanity by promoting education and reason and abolishing superstition and pseudo-science. What went wrong?

JM: That’s a great question. It’s a question every scientific humanist like myself, every secular rationalist like myself, has to ask. What went wrong? Let me take a stab at it.

I think that the rise of experimental science in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century was perhaps the most radical of all revolutions. Nobody was prepared for it. It worked so well, it worked so reliably, all the things that we humanists chant about science—it’s replicable, it’s objective. I don’t care what the postmodernists say, there is a physical universe out there, and it’s lawful, and we have a grasp on those laws.

Nothing like that had ever come upon the scene before—in this lawfulness, these replicable experiments. People kept running back to Aristotle. “It must be in Aristotle!” But it wasn’t. They would run to the Bible. “It must be in the Bible!” It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there. “What are we going to do?” The intoxication must have been profound. An inevitable extrapolation occurred from those victories, the success of Newtonian science, into the social realm. I think that’s what went wrong, the not illogical assumption that we could have a science of ourselves.

But Newton never solved the problem of consciousness. The self: the quirky, perverse, magical, individual self—the physical sciences can’t get a glove on that. Nor should they; they don’t pretend to. For Newton, the answer to all those mucky problems of self and soul lay in the Bible—in revelation and the theistic world-view.

I can’t blame my ancestors for saying, “We have a mechanics that works for the physical universe; the lawfulness of Nature seems to be a constant throughout time and space; so why can’t we apply an analogous mechanics to ourselves, and thereby construct a Utopia?” But there’s always the imp of the perverse, as Poe would later put it. We’re a perverse species, for better or worse. I think for the better. As Dostoevsky put it, and I quote this line in Blameless in Abaddon, “If everything were rational, nothing would happen.” Aesthetics is ipso facto irrational. There is no mechanics of the human heart.

So I think that’s what went wrong. Human consciousness remains a mystery. Psychology hasn’t had a Newton yet. Some people would say it has had a Newton, and his name was Charles Darwin, and you can explain human consciousness through the theory of natural selection. Okay, but Darwinism also teaches us that there are no ethical principles in Nature. If we want to construct a Utopia, we won’t find any clues in the physical universe.

Unfortunately, the Darwinian insights were not available to the Enlightenment. Ben Franklin once remarked that he wished he could be alive in a hundred years when human society would be perfect. In retrospect, that’s Enlightenment naïveté in a nutshell. And we have to factor in the French Revolution, with rationality elevated to the status of religion. But anything elevated to the status of religion is going to blow up in our faces. Whenever you pervert science—mere systematic curiosity about the physical world—into a kind of church, that’s a recipe for the guillotine, which is exactly what the French Revolution got.

The Enlightenment gave us two great gifts: the gift of reason and the gift of doubt. The problem is, reason without doubt inevitably leads to disaster. Today, it’s really fashionable to piss on the Enlightenment. I think what people are really pissing on is the way our more immediate ancestors have fetishized reason and completely missed the other half of the program. The journalist John Ralston Saul wrote an Ambrose Bierce-ian dictionary called The Doubter’s Companion [1994] which influenced my thinking on this problem.

Now, for all this, I am willing to defend reason per se up to a point, because I’m not sure that reason was tried, really. It’s not that reason was tried and found wanting. I’m not sure that you can say it was seriously tried. [Laughter]

I think we’re all kind of waiting for the Age of Reason! I don’t know if it’s just around the corner. And I hope it is, as long as it’s tempered by doubt, as I said earlier. But at the moment we live in the Age of Nonsense, where any kind of charlatan with a pseudo-science will get a hearing on the Internet or in the bookstores. There’s nothing to do about that. The alternative is far worse, the alternative of squelching such voices. The only answer to bad speech is good speech. Which is one of those Enlightenment gifts: the need to keep a conversation going about the immense human capacity for self-delusion.

I think that was the genius behind the founding of this republic. The Founding Fathers were sick, sick to death of European monarchy and the notion of the divinity of kings. I love that play by Peter Barnes called The Bewitched [1974], which is about the reign of Carlos II, who was the last of the Hapsburg monarchs. He had such a huge Hapsburgian jaw that he couldn’t even chew his own food, and he was a mental defective and had epileptic fits. There’s a line from one of Carlos II’s biographers that I think says it all: “Nobody can understand how powerful over the human mind the belief in the divinity of kings can be, unless he has watched its effects where the king has been an idiot.” [Laughter]

And there we have the genius behind the founding of this republic—this understanding that God isn’t really arranging our political affairs for optimal human happiness, so we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We’re in charge. But we’re fallible. So we need the checks and balances in government. And it works pretty well. It didn’t work in the last [2000] election, in my opinion, but we don’t have to get into that. [Laughter]

FK: In your first novel, The Wine of Violence, the love interest, Dr. Tez Yon, is a member of a Utopian society. When she carries out an experiment to demonstrate that some fishes’ acquired characteristics can be transmitted to their offspring, she proves the Lamarckian hypothesis of evolution—which is what utopianists always dream of accomplishing. Unfortunately, Tez Yon, who is a paragon of rationalism next to the protagonist, entomologist Francis Lostwax, is betrayed by him and collapses into homicidal madness, proving that irrationality is contagious. It’s a sad outlook for these two lovers who are both scientists.

JM: There is in The Wine of Violence a playful attitude towards science. Since I wrote The Wine of Violence, I have become much more an armchair student of science, and I feel that I know more about science. So the tacit endorsement of Lamarckianism and the flippant, throw-away gags about chemistry and entomology are not affectations I would indulge in today. But I think what I was getting at, implicitly, was my impatience with dualisms of any sort. The idea that science is sterile and somber, you know, and therefore kind of a dead end, whereas everything mystical is ipso facto warm and nourishing.

That’s what the novel takes to task: the Romantic assumption about pacifism, which is that a pacifist utopia would be devoid of passion, and everybody would be a creampuff, or a Lotus-eater, or like the Eloi in The Time Machine [1895], sitting around and drowsing their way to extinction. I just wanted to question that assumption in the form of a novel.

FK: Tez Yon’s people, the Quetzalians, are pacifist utopians who are never childlike. They are menaced constantly by the marauding brain-eaters, who devolved through Lamarckian processes into madness; they’re mature and they enjoy debates in place of violent sports. Yet I’ve been indoctrinated by my capitalistic, inhumane government into thinking of pacifists and utopianists as somehow infantile.

JM: The Quetzalians are fully developed humans who happen to be fanatically pacifist—though they’re pacifists primarily for Skinnerian reasons; they’re pacifists because they can hook themselves up to TV sets and drain off their violent impulses. It’s essentially a technological Utopia—but it works.

So up to a point, what the Quetzalians are doing—inoculating themselves against aggression—is okay with the author. Up to a point, that’s analogous to vaccines. I’m sure the postmodernists have weighed in with a critique of vaccines. “Look, you pathetic scientific rationalists, new viruses are emerging to haunt us, so obviously it was arrogant to intervene in the first place.” But talk to any parent whose kid didn’t get polio because of the Salk vaccine, and you won’t find a sympathetic listener for that argument or its common New Age variant, that any human intervention in nature is ipso facto bad and blasphemous.

In The Wine of Violence, the trouble starts when the hero takes it upon himself to decide that the Quetzalian solution to the problem of violence deprives them of their spiritual essence. I’ve always liked the moment in James Whale’s film, The Bride of Frankenstein [1935]—it’s a great metaphor for how I feel about this—where the monster stumbles upon a blind hermit, and the hermit becomes his teacher. The hermit isn’t just taking the monster through the Piagetian cognitive stages of thinking. He’s introducing the monster to the moral universe. We all remember the moment when the monster says something like, “Friend good. Fire bad.” And that’s the level of discourse that goes on about science, among the postmodern intellectuals and the spiritual hucksters. [Laughter]

“Science bad. Irrationality good.” That’s about all you get out of so many fans of the New Age and Deepak Chopra. The post-Enlightenment conversation shouldn’t stop there. Because Deepak Chopra isn’t the Frankenstein monster. He can think about these things a little more deeply and ask himself those tough questions. [Laughter]

FK: But it’s more lucrative for him not to.

JM: That’s another question worth asking: In what direction is the money flowing? Who’s picking up the tab? When spirituality becomes lucrative, doesn’t it lose its essence? When you commodify spiritual enlightenment, haven’t you made a devil’s bargain?

FK: Charlatans need to eat too, Jim.

JM: Yeah, they do, yeah. I can’t begrudge somebody for being that canny. For all I know, Mr. Chopra has rescued some people from despair. There’s a line in a novel I like, Lying in Bed [1984] by Mark Harris—it’s an academic novel set in a college community, and some guru comes to town, and his line is, “Any cure is the right cure.” And I can see the wisdom in that. If it helps you get through the day and if it doesn’t hurt other people, then, you know, maybe the “intuition good, science bad” model is a price worth paying. I don’t know.

FK: Was that what you were thinking when you wrote City of Truth?

JM: It’s a novel about how all dualisms and dichotomies almost seem to be ipso facto defeating. What I liked about Bill Sheehan’s essay was that he went right to the heart of the theme: this fanatical devotion to a literal-minded version of truth, this systematized attempt to turn a city into a teaching machine, to turn a city into a Skinner box, is evil. Even if it’s done with the best of intentions.

Any truth that gets out of hand [laughter] becomes an evil. I loved what John Crowley was saying here in his talk [at the Conference on the Fantastic] about how magic easily devolves into sorcery and then the sorcerer exempts himself from manipulation, but imposes it on others, and you get a situation where—how did Crowley put it?—“The person with the least love wins.”

FK: In City of Truth and The Eternal Footman and other works, you expose the meretriciousness of belief systems that are designed to make adherents feel better rather than to uphold the truth.

JM: Yeah. A whole other phenomenon that makes me mistrust religion and New Age cosmology and all the “paradoxers,” to use Carl Sagan’s word, is that the news they channel from the Higher Realms is always good news. It’s always lacking any sense of the tragic. I said earlier that I’m not a Freudian, but I do appreciate the tragic sense. It’s manifestly the case that we’re gonna die, with probable oblivion to follow, no details at 11, and that’s very sad. I have this thirteen-year-old, he’s turning thirteen tomorrow, and I love him more than anything, and when I suddenly realize that he’s going to become an old man and die, that seems monstrously wrong. And it’s even more wrong when a young person dies, which is what City of Truth is about. And at this conference there were two memorial services for people who shouldn’t have died [Jenna Felice and Dede Weil]—who died young, too young. I think a certain kind of stoicism is to be admired. Whatever problems you might have with stoicism or existentialism or whatever you want to call it, it tries to tell us the truth about death.

I’m skeptical of the channeling phenomenon—these people who discover their past lives, or who manage to bring us dispatches from beyond the grave—because these messages are always banal. They’re always banal! There hasn’t been a single scrap of interesting poetry channeled from ancient Egypt, nothing as good as e.e. cummings, much less Shakespeare! One line of poetry, insight, even a new cliché, or a new maxim would be nice. The whole thing is just people telling other people what they want to hear. Betty Eadie writes that book, Embraced by the Light [1992], which seems to be saying there’s nothing ambiguous or terrifying or even interesting about dying. You simply go to Heaven, and Jesus gives you a T-shirt, and in her case she got to come back—[Laughter]

I guess I’m sort of a Jungian, even though I’m skeptical about that too. Jung bothers me because, at a certain level, he is a critic of scientific humanism and he sees empirical knowledge as a poor substitute for genuine religious experience, and he opened the door to a lot of nonsense and a certain kind of New Age folderol. But I do like Jung’s idea that everything has a shadow side, and maybe that’s been the theme of this interview. The people who so frustrate me are the ones who aren’t looking at the shadow side of their own systems. That’s why the pseudo-scientists are so destructive.

The last product of the Enlightenment, perhaps, is Marxism, which claims to be a scientific theory of humankind and tries to appropriate the mystique of scientific objectivity; and it’s nothing of the kind. I don’t think Marx understood the first thing about science. It’s a pseudo-science, and it’s the worst kind of pseudo-science—it’s a political pseudo-science.

Telling people what they want to hear is such a devil’s bargain. We’re all guilty of that foible at some level, but most of us don’t make money at it, so we try to rein it in.

FK: Many of these New Age systems of thought allow great gaping blind spots to make us feel better about things.

JM: Every religious and political system has a dark side—or a blind spot. It would be a better world if people were up front about that. And that’s the positive side of what the Veritasians in City of Truth are trying to achieve. If Deepak Chopra lived in Veritas, he would get up there and say, “Let me tell you how much money I’m making. They pay me a lot. They pay me more than you think. And in fact I make all kinds of demands, you know, and I’m actually sort of a prima donna when I come to a university. I expect to be treated really well. Now let me tell you about the humble spiritual life.” [Laughter]

FK: Let’s talk about your trilogy in which you tackle deism.

JM: Well, I’ve recently finished this magnum opus, which I call THE GODHEAD TRILOGY. Sometimes my publisher discourages me from talking about it in those terms. The marketing of books is an art that eludes me, because it’s both a trilogy and not a trilogy. It’s certainly not a trilogy in the sense that the science fiction community often construes the term, as a long continuous saga, with a single cast of characters, that the author chopped into three volumes. That’s what happened with The Lord of the Rings [1954-55], which was not conceived as a trilogy. It nevertheless begat that format.

I was disappointed that the last book in THE GODHEAD TRILOGY did not occasion very many retrospective reviews—you know, considerations of the three Corpus Dei books as a totality. None of the reviews I’ve seen has pointed out that the last scene in The Eternal Footman circles back to the first scene in Towing Jehovah. I mean, there’s nothing obscure about it, it’s pretty obvious, that when the children put on their play, it’s a wildly inaccurate recapitulation of the first scene in Towing Jehovah. It’s a way for the author to say, “Look how quickly epiphanies get corrupted in the retelling,” because the kids are presenting a version of the opening scene that’s quite distorted. It’s my critique of what religions become in the hands of their followers, as opposed to whatever creative spark got the faith started.

But I think that, after I’m dead, some people may really go back to those books and consider them as a trilogy in the old-fashioned sense: three different takes on the same state of affairs, but each with its own independent story, which is what Dante is doing in the Divine Comedy—each volume is telling its own story—and Robertson Davies’s DEPTFORD TRILOGY [1970-75] comprises three books and each has its own cast of characters and its independent theme and plot. But then there are revelations in the third book of THE DEPTFORD TRILOGY that connect to volume one. So that’s what I was up to, but I also consciously designed the trilogy so that each book could be enjoyed separately.

FK: One thing I like about the construction, one thing that occurs in each of the three novels, is that each tableau, the drama of each chapter, plays out in a finite setting. You constructed it so that each action scene occurs within a small space, and yet is played against, for example, an immensity of ocean. The re-enactors in their little airplane towards the end of Towing Jehovah are flying this incredible mission through the huge sky, diving towards the huge ocean, and then a grotesque, horrifying drama illustrating the fragility of the human body shocks us within that cockpit. It’s not at all the same as in, say, the Gothic, where we often have a finite setting to instill a sense of temporary imprisonment. I don’t think you are working toward a Gothic aesthetic in these tableaux—rather, maybe, you’re focusing on the individual playing out against this vaster drama of catastrophe, as in an allegorical drama.

JM: Yeah. I’m fascinated by the problem of the individual self, the unique psyche. I think much of science fiction and fantasy can be faulted for giving its characters a strictly pre-Freudian psychology. Immediate existential pain is usually not part of the world of fantasy. I think it’s Tom Disch, who’s here at this conference, who says that science fiction lacks a decent sense of despair.

FK: He would.

JM: And I think Norman Spinrad amended Disch’s indictment to say that sf lacks a decent sense of tragedy. The lives of sf heroes rarely end in failure. So the cockpit scene you mention is an example of my commitment to not telling the reader what the reader wants to hear, not letting the reader off the hook.

You know, that cockpit scene is about the destructiveness of fantasy. These guys, these World War II re-enactors, are living in a dream-world!

FK: The re-enactors are romanticizing the war—

JM: They’re romanticizing World War II, romanticizing war, and it blows up in their faces. I think that scene was probably influenced by the movie Bonnie and Clyde, if you know that Arthur Penn movie. It was a revolutionary movie, and not just because it was shot on the road. It was very unusual for a Hollywood film to be shot on the road in those days. Those motels are real, they aren’t sets, in Bonnie and Clyde [1967]. But Arthur Penn’s real breakthrough was to bring a different—I’m at this academic conference, so I’m going to use the word “discourse”—he brought a different discourse about violence to the movie screen. Suddenly you weren’t allowed to get away from what being hit with a bullet really means. There’s an appalling death in the second act—Gene Hackman’s death—that was unlike anything that had been put on the screen before concerning the relationship between a human and a bullet. It made everything that had come before seem like a lie; and it really was.

I’m sure I had Gene Hackman’s death in mind when suddenly everything goes wrong in the World War II re-enactment. I’m a pacifist at heart, you know. I think war is obscene and pornographic. But I use war imagery a lot, and I could be accused, at some level, of buying into the spectacle of battle as theater, as grand theater of the sort that we also have in Shakespeare. I guess I would plead nolo contendere to that charge.

FK: In The Eternal Footman, Nora Burkhardt’s journey south from New England—

JM: Yup, she’s going from New England through the American South, from the Yankee industrial corridor but then south, trying to get to New Orleans.

FK: It’s a journey from chaos to greater chaos. Sometimes she’s a victim fleeing, or she’s a participant, as when she takes shelter with the traveling actors’ troupe and becomes a participant in their dramatization of Gilgamesh. In one scene, Nora watches a battle on a New Jersey golf course between an army of Jews and an anti-Semite army using Brinks trucks, reminding us that the Aryan Nation brotherhood is alive and well today. She’s on a pilgrimage to Mexico, the new Dark Continent, with her dying son, because she’s heard that a mysterious cult may have a cure for the “death awareness” plague. Nora travels grimly through increasingly outrageous scenes and situations, always single-minded and optimistic and fighting her own despair to keep her son alive.

JM: Yeah, because it was analogous to what happened during the Black Death, the plague.

FK: And you deliver a plague to end all plagues. The Eternal Footman is remarkable because you managed to get everything in there! You have civil wars, you have theological wars, you have wars of the spirit, you have a pandemic plague, you have the post-theistic— Why are you frowning? You put everything in there!

JM: No, no, I’m just thinking. It sounds like a better novel than I remember.

FK: You’ve got the death of children, you’ve got the death of hope, the death of faith, the death of most humans on the planet; and dying, the process of dying that we all go through, is made manifest in these horrible fetches, and I don’t know where you got that word from, is that something you invented?

JM: Fetch really is the term, if you go to an unabridged dictionary, for an appearance of your own death. I didn’t know that. In fact, a very erudite friend of my wife’s was visiting us at Hallowe’en, and I had this large Grim Reaper sitting on the couch. I really get into Hallowe’en. [Laughter]

This Grim Reaper was sitting on our couch, this skull with a black shroud, and she said, “Oh, I see you’ve got a fetch.” And I said, “What is that?” [Laughs] So she knew about this Definition Number 14 of a fetch. Up till then I was calling them sextons. But I figured the plague victims would have several words for these wraiths.

It’s gratifying that you see the importance for me of existential pain, of trying to speak for the victims. That was my credo while composing This Is the Way the World Ends, a nuclear-holocaust comedy. I kept saying to myself, “Too much post-holocaust fiction is about survivors.” Even good novels, even Canticle for Leibowitz [1960] and Riddley Walker [1980] at some level they’re celebrating survivors and they’re using the conceit of a post-holocaust world to say something—very interesting perhaps—about human history and human nature. But I went into This Is the Way the World Ends feeling that the pornography of extinction had never been dramatized, at least not in the way I wanted to do it. When there are no humans, there’s no longer any such thing as human nature. Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon [1959] has lots of survivors in it, and so does David Brin’s The Postman [1985]. Dr. Strangelove [1964] has no survivors, but we’re—

FK: Relieved. [Laughs]

JM: Yeah. But Kubrick doesn’t show anyone dying, either. He doesn’t bring the extinction on stage.

FK: Tell me more about this idea of a book asking to be written. Is this true of your work-in-progress, The Last Witchfinder?

JM: I keep thinking of the reading we just heard from John Crowley [from The Translator, 2002] in which the narrator talks about how babies work so hard to get born, and we have to go to such efforts to keep them from getting born with all our contraceptive technologies. And the historical novelist, I would surmise from my own experience, often feels as if the book is asking to be written, needing to be written. Certain connections that are implicit in the matrix of history get forged explicitly by the historical novelist.

The Last Witchfinder is about that remarkable time following the Renaissance, the same Renaissance John Crowley is writing about in his ÆEGYPT series [Ægypt, 1987; Love and Sleep, 1994; Dæmonomania, 2000] when science is getting up to speed—hey, we’re bringing this full circle, aren’t we—and the Enlightenment and Newtonian mechanics have taken hold of the Western imagination, but when there is still overlap with the witch universe, the mental landscape that makes demons not only possible but essential. For the best scientific minds of the day, without demons, there is no way to account for movement, for action at a distance, for all the flowings and the flappings and hummings and strummings of Nature, which, according to Descartes, is dead, is inert, is just a kind of a machine. To make the machine move, you have to have spirits and angels and demons. Or if you’re a Cambridge Neo-Platonist, the world is sort of a shadow of reality. It’s a demiurge’s playground. What’s making it move? Why do we have gravity and elasticity? The only obvious answer is that God is constantly deploying spirits and demons.

So for a while, the scientists of the Enlightenment, who called themselves natural philosophers, the natural philosophers didn’t perceive any incompatibility between their world-view and the world-view of the Malleus Maleficarum [ca. 1486], the witch-finding enterprise. And I don’t think anybody’s written a novel about that before. And I figured out I could create a character who lived through the transition from the Renaissance world-view to the point where the idea of motion-spirits was no longer seen as incompatible with scientific laws. Some people might say this change was for the worse, this incompatibility that arose in the scientific outlook, but I think it was for the better. So when my heroine dedicates her life to bringing down witch beliefs, this is perceived as a good thing. At one point she even arranges to be put on trial for witchcraft.

Now, historically, I don’t think the transition can be traced to any one act of courage, as opposed to some of the other revolutions we’ve seen, you know, like the Civil Rights Movement, which required an enormous amount of courage. It wasn’t so much courage as just a gradual erosion of the demon hypothesis. Newton didn’t believe in evil spirits, but he was no crusader against witch-finders. And many other members of the Royal Society—Robert Boyle, for example—found the demon hypothesis indispensable.

The book that most influenced me is Edward Harrison’s Masks of the Universe [1985]. He was a physicist at the University of Massachusetts. He talks about paradigm shifts as universes. Science never gives us the Universe, with a capital U. Rather, we move from universe to universe, and sometimes those universes are psychotic, as the witch universe was.

In the witch universe you’ve got the corroboration of the Bible, an unequivocal mandate to go out and execute witches. And you’ve got the corroboration of the witch tests—which in a weird way were scientific tests. Swimming the witch, you know: if the water spits her out, she must be an agent of Lucifer. And also pricking any suspicious-looking marks with a steel needle, the Devil’s mark, and the preternatural teat that the witch uses to suckle her imps or her animal familiars. If the mark didn’t bleed, you knew you had a witch on your hands. All sorts of tests. A witch can’t recite the Lord’s Prayer without making a mistake. A witch will attract animal familiars, so you should lock her up and watch her, and if a mouse or even a bee appears, of course, that’s her familiar. All these “scientific” tests. The war of the world-views, as I like to put it, has never been more dramatic than at that time. In America we’re going through a similar war of the world-views now—secular humanists versus conservative theists, Darwinists versus Creationists—but it’s being fought with words, it’s not being fought with pyres and gallows.

FK: And with a different set of casualties.

JM: Yeah. I guess clear thinking is the main casualty. But actual fleshy people were the casualties in the era I’m writing about: the Renaissance. I mean, the Renaissance was a nightmare if you were on the victim list. We think of the Renaissance as a rebirth of learning and a wonderful time to be a humanist or an artist or a scholar, which it was; but it was a horrible time if you were just another peasant scratching out a living somewhere, and you were vulnerable to the charge of Satan worship. The Renaissance was a really screwy time, not coherent the way the Medieval era was. You didn’t have one story to tell that made sense.

FK: It’s interesting that the human body is constructed to be a matter detector, and yet the human mind is capable of dreaming up all sorts of immaterial terrors.

JM: Yes, yes, that’s a good way to put it.

FK: So that all of these scientific tests for testing witches can be justified, but—

JM: Exactly. I think of Gibbon’s work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [1777-88]—the idea that the two great problems of history are how to account for the rise of Rome and how to account for its fall. An analogous problem is how to account for the fact that we started burning witches and how to account for the fact that we stopped. Because what changed? The Bible didn’t change. God’s opinion of witches didn’t change. Something changed! That’s why I’ll always defend the Enlightenment. It was needed, it was really needed. Theism had gotten out of hand in the Renaissance, and we needed the Benjamin Franklins and the Voltaires.

I use Benjamin Franklin as a symbol of the Enlightenment and Newton as a symbol of the Renaissance. They almost met in 1725. They do meet in The Last Witchfinder, because the young Benjamin Franklin was sent to London by the governor of Pennsylvania in 1725 to buy printing equipment, and Governor Keith turned out to be sort of a knave and didn’t put the promised letters of credit on the ship. So Franklin’s bopping around in London, working as a printer, and wants desperately to meet Newton. Eventually he befriends Henry Pemberton, who was an editor of the second edition of Principia Mathematica [1687], and Pemberton tries to get him an audience with Newton. But Newton didn’t want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, you know. [Laughs] So I do have this historical meeting take place—and it turns out they have nothing to say to each other, because they really are in different universes. Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived, probably the weirdest scientist who ever lived; and Franklin, an avatar of reason, the optimist—I mentioned Franklin earlier, as someone who wished he could live to see the Utopia that was just around the corner.

So that’s what I mean by a historical novel that’s almost asking to be written; all these connections waiting to get forged. It turned out that Franklin’s life was touched by the witch universe, in that one of the judges at the Salem trials of 1692, Samuel Sewall, went on to become a sort of professional persecutor; and Sewall next targeted Benjamin Franklin’s brother James, who was editing The New England Courant, one of the first newspapers in the Colonies. And even though James Franklin doesn’t come across very well in history books—he beat his younger brother Ben, who was his apprentice in his shop—James Franklin is an unsung hero in the history of free speech. He printed provocative things against the Puritan clergy in Massachusetts and against the Royal Governor, knowing he would get into trouble, but believing in the English ideal of freedom of expression, and he was jailed for it by Judge Sewall. So I’m able to make that connection.

All sorts of historical events just happened to have occurred when they were supposed to in my plot. The Indians burn down the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, just when I needed them to. Franklin tried to track down Newton just when I needed him to. The Baron de Montesquieu started gathering materials for The Spirit of the Laws [1823] just when I needed him to. Parliament struck down the Witchcraft Statutes of 1604 just when I needed them to. God was really looking out for me on this book.

Morrow, James. The Wine of Violence. New York: Holt, 1981.
─────. The Continent of Lies. New York: Holt, 1984.
─────. This is the Way the World Ends. New York: Holt, 1986.
─────. Only Begotten Daughter. New York: Morrow, 1990.
─────. Swatting at the Cosmos. Eugene, OR: Pulphouse, 1990.
─────. City of Truth. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.
─────. Towing Jehovah. New York: Harcourt, 1994.
─────. Bible Stories for Adults. New York: Harcourt, 1996.
─────. Blameless in Abaddon. New York: Harcourt, 1996.
─────. The Eternal Footman. New York: Harcourt, 1999.
───── and Murray Suid. Moviemaking Illustrated: The Comicbook Filmbook. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1973.
─────. Comics: Tab and Lil. Boston: Houghton, 1973.
─────. Media & Kids: Real-World Learning in the Schools. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden, 1977.
─────. The Creativity Catalog: A Comic Book Guide to Creative Projects. Belmont, CA: Fearon, 1982.
Morrow, James, ed. Nebula Awards 26. New York: Harcourt, 1992.
─────, ed. Nebula Awards 27. New York: Harcourt, 1993.
─────, ed. Nebula Awards 28. New York: Harcourt, 1994.

Barnes, Peter. The Bewitched. London: Heinemann, 1974.
Cox, F. Brett. “Interview: James Morrow Continues to Swat at the Cosmos with The Last Witchfinder.” SciFi.Com <>.
Eadie, Betty. Embraced by the Light. Placerville, CA: Gold Leaf, 1992.
Harrison, Edward. Masks of the Universe. New York: Macmillan, 1985.
Heck, Peter J. “Science Fiction and Fantasy: The Divine Miss Katz.” The Washington Post Book World (March 25, 1990): 10.
Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Schell, Jonathan. The Fate of the Earth. New York: Knopf, 1982.
Sheehan, Bill. “Of Lunacy and Sorrow: Comedy and Tragedy in James Morrow’s City of Truth.” ParaDoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 5.12 (1999): 95-104.

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