INTERVIEW: Large Philosophical Questions with James Morrow
James Morrow is the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award-winning novella Shambling Twards Hiroshima, and the New York Times Notable Book Blameless in Abaddon. His recent novels include the Last Witchfinder, hailed by the Washington Post as “literary magic”, and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, which received a rave review from Entertainment Weekly. Morrow lives in State College, Pennsylvania.
After reading Morrow’s newest novella, The Madonna and The Starship, I was brimming with questions for him! Read on, as we discuss the evolution of the new novella, how Science Fiction finds a balance between logical positivism and theism, home movies, The Lord Of The Rings lesson plans, his soon to be released Darwin epic, and more!
Andrea Johnson: The Madonna and the Starship deals with themes you’ve touched on before: organized religion, humanism, atheism, and satire thereof. I’d like to know what made you decide to set this newest novel in the 1950s and give it a pulpy scifi twist?
James Morrow: I imagine I’ll go to my grave obsessed with embarrassingly large philosophical questions, conducting the discussion simultaneously in my head and on the printed page. It’s all so mysterious, this business of being a person with a private consciousness. None of the respectable answers satisfy me.
From a logical-positivist perspective, metaphysical questions cannot be addressed coherently. (This gives that school a kind of philosophical integrity, but it isn’t much fun.) For religious monotheism, all mysteries terminate in a Supreme Being, an argument that for me raises more questions than it answers. (I agree with philosopher Thomas Nagel that God is “a place holder” in the mathematical sense; otherwise one is forced to ask, “If God created the Universe, then who created God?”) For many New Age mystics, meanwhile, every person is on a trajectory toward infinity, some version or other of Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, where the individual self becomes absorbed by the divine. I’ve always found this notion ironically self-aggrandizing.
Could it be that science fiction, even in its pulpiest forms, helps us get our bearings as we maneuver between the extremes of logical positivism and truculent theism? I think so. For many generations, the default sensibility of the genre was atheist — but it was never merely atheist. The foundational SF texts spontaneously melded their materialism with awestruck visions of the cosmos. For the plot to work, The Madonna and The Starship had to be set in the early 1950’s, the era of live television. But the engagement with metaphysical questions was characteristic of science fiction from the very beginning.
The Madonna and The Starship was originally titled That Buck Rogers Stuff. My plan was to transport the cast of a children’s TV space opera to a planet (or perhaps a future) where a war of the worldviews—logical positivism versus scorched-earth theism—was threatening to tear the dominant civilization apart. Back on Earth, of course, the philosophical mindset embodied by science fiction is being routinely dismissed as “that Buck Rogers stuff.” Against the odds, my dauntless troupe of actors would have found itself in a position to negotiate a truce between the two Weltanschauungs. But this was supposed to be a novella, not an epic, so I decided to simplify things by keeping the actors on Earth.
J.M.: I’m old enough to have been in the original audience for Space Patrol and Captain Video. So memory was probably my main research tool. But I also dug up some DVDs containing early fifties SF television serials as recorded on 16mm or 35mm celluloid. In the early fifties the only way to preserve a live broadcast was via a “kinescope,” which you made essentially by pointing a movie camera at a studio monitor. (The technology resolved the disparity between the 30 frames-per-second norm on which the TV illusion depends and the cinematic equivalent of 24 frames-per-second.)
On the whole, early fifties SF was pretty cheesy, as you say (though let me put in a good word for Science Fiction Theater and Tales of Tomorrow). My previous experiment in pop-culture inflected fiction, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, was a lot more fun to research. The main character, Syms Thorley, is based on Lon Chaney, Jr., so the project became a great excuse to revisit The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, and those endearing forties mummy movies. If you’ve read Shambling, you know that, as the war in the Pacific winds down, Syms is required to put on a lizard suit and portray the U.S. Navy’s recently developed biological weapon—giant bipedal fire-breathing iguanas—the better to convince Japanese delegation that surrender is their nation’s best option. And, of course, I couldn’t put Shambling to bed until I’d indulged in an orgy of Godzilla movies.
One thing I believe I got right in The Madonna and The Starship is the ambience and protocols of a pre-digital TV studio. In 1973, after getting a teaching degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I went to work for the Chelmsford Public Schools in Massachusetts. Sometime in the 1960’s, not too long after the invention of videotape, the Chelmsford administrators had undertaken to wire the entire system for closed-circuit television, with an elaborate studio at the nexus (located in one of the middle schools). This curious and ostensibly enlightened institution was actually rather regressive in intent. The administrators thought that by embalming the “minor” subjects on videotape – art, shop, home economics, music appreciation – they could ultimately fire the corresponding teachers. I don’t think the scheme worked out very well. There is no substitute for a flesh-and-blood instructor. But the students eventually commandeered the facilities for their own purposes.
As the Chelmsford school system’s graphic artist and media specialist, I often found myself in the central TV studio, helping the students broadcast a daily morning show, create instructional videos for their English and Social Studies classes, and produce original dramas and comedies for the sheer delight of it. Although most of these program were recorded on tape, they all employed the grammar of live television—switching from camera 1 to camera 2 to camera 3 in real-time without interruption—and the stuff I learned during those years informs the climax of The Madonna and The Starship.
A.J.: Your 1996 omnibus Bible Stories for Adults was recently re-released as an e-book. It contains your Nebula Award-winning satire, “The Deluge” This collection sounds right up my alley. Can you tell us a little more about it?
J.M.: My attitude toward supernaturalist worldviews is summed up in that book’s cheeky title. I don’t think that speaking on behalf of a hypothetical Supreme Being, or pronouncing on the presumed workings of his mind, is a wholly adult thing to be doing with one’s time. Before I die, I hope somebody will explain to me why William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience is supposed to be a great book. I could barely drag myself through its gummy prose, boring examples, and enervating notion of the human potential.
Of course, I suppose I should be grateful to the world’s religionists, because without them I’d be out of a job. Evidently I have a theological bone or two in my frame, and I’m clearly a blasphemer at heart. In theory, my sardonic views should arouse no anger in other human beings, for no God worthy of the name needs mere men and women guarding his reputation. In practice, however, we all know what happened to Salman Rushdie—though technically Rushdie’s transgression lay not in denying Allah but in mocking the Prophet.
My secular humanist friends are fond of the witticism, “Blasphemy is a victimless crime.” (I wonder who invented that clever gag?) Though I should note that my fellow atheists don’t mean that God is unflappable. They’re arguing that, being nonexistent, he cannot be harmed by human words or deeds.
Once I’d decided to confine The Madonna and The Starship to NBC Studios in 1953, my imagination churned up a scene of irrepressible Gernsbackian space-cadets invading a staid and solemn Christian tableau: the Nativity, perhaps, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Last Supper. I was hoping to achieve state-of-the-art blasphemy. Eventually I decided to have Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers encounter the Virgin Mary and several disciples a few days after the Crucifixion. Once I had a clear vision of that climax, the rest of the novella fell into place.
A.J.: You’ve written a number of full length novels, and a handful of short novels (or long novellas). As a fan of the shorter format, I’d like to know what advantages or disadvantages you’ve run into writing and selling 150-200 page novels.
J.M.: I’ve always been galvanized by epics, both literary and cinematic. We own a 65-inch television on which we periodically revive Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid, and other widescreen movies from the golden age of Hollywood spectacles. Over the years, my book-length efforts have gotten increasingly vast in scope, a phenomena that culminated in The Last Witchfinder and a soon-to-be-released saga about the coming of the Darwinian worldview.
So I love working on a large canvas. It seems like every damn James Morrow novel has a battle scene. And yet, having recently written two stand-alone novellas in rapid succession, Shambling Towards Hiroshima and The Madonna and The Starship, I’ve decided that my theological, philosophical, and political agenda can be served almost as well on a small scale. A modest thought-experiment can be as compelling as an operatic one.
So you’ll probably be seeing more novellas from me in the future. Publishers are fond of that format, at least when it comes to tree-books as opposed to e-books. A smaller page-count means lower production costs.
A.J.: I read on your website that you and your wife wrote a series of Tolkien lesson plans. How I wish my 7th grade English class could have read The Hobbit instead of whatever dreck we were given! Why do you feel it’s important for young readers to have exposure to Tolkien, and what feedback have you received?
J.M.: I accepted my role in the project with mixed emotions, because I hadn’t revisited J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre in years, and I didn’t really count myself an aficionado – but we needed the money, and I liked the idea of re-entering the education world. We applied for the job on the strength of my wife’s passionate appreciation of The Lord of the Rings and her scholarly background in folklore and mythology, plus my aforementioned degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
It turned out to be an enormous undertaking—a novella-length curriculum complete with printer-friendly excerpts from the sorts of works that influenced Tolkien: fairy tales, Homer’s epics, Beowulf, et cetera. (Today, of course, we would bypass any notion of paper handouts; the students could download all this stuff onto their iPads.) For six weeks Kathy and I barely slept, lest we miss the deadline. In the middle of it all, our refrigerator broke down. Besides affordability, our main criteria for a replacement was that the vendor had to deliver it before sundown.
This all has a happy ending. Tolkien, I came to realize, was a complex and irreducible thinker. I was especially struck by his understanding of the Malign Principle that may or may not inform the Universe, the author’s subtle notion that Evil cannot imagine that Good would walk away from power. True, there’s an unfortunate, if qualified, Manichean dualism in all this. (I personally have as little use for the Morgoth hypothesis as for the Jehovah hypothesis.) But that’s all the more reason to discuss these matters in secondary schools.
I ended up deciding that, with his anti-lapsarian theology and appreciation of the pagan sensibility, Tolkien was actually in the grand tradition of the Catholic heretic, rather like Teilhard de Chardin, who I mentioned earlier. Unlike Teilhard, of course, Tolkien never got in trouble with the Church hierarchy, but I think that’s because they didn’t understand the novel.
I should also mention that at one point Kathy found herself retranslating a scene from a horribly stilted, but publicly owned, rendition of Beowulf. I think her treatment of the Geats approaching Heorot holds its own against any existing translation—though I haven’t read Tolkien’s own recently published version!
Alas, way back 2006, the average precinct of the Houghton Mifflin website did not include a Comments section, so we never got much feedback. All during the composition process, however, we ran rough drafts of the lesson plans past veteran classroom teachers, and they seemed to think we knew what we were doing.
J.M.: I could write a book-length memoir about Abington-International Movie Company (though I’m not sure anyone would want to read it). My favorite film from those days is probably The Tell-Tale Heart, which I created in collaboration with my friend George Shelps. It was a rebound project. A much more ambitious effort, an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, had just fallen apart, and we simply had to do something with our camera and floodlights and stuff. So I went home and wrote a two-character script based on the one really famous Edgar Allan Poe story in which Roger Corman evidently had no interest.
Somehow George got wind of the fact that it was possible to mail-order unexposed black-and-white 8mm stock. (These were the days before Super 8). This medium held zero appeal for home-movie buffs, of course, but George and I thought it would evoke the mood of our beloved old Universal black-and-white monster movies. In the final reel, the film bursts into color, just in time for me to cut out the antagonist’s heart and then ostensibly burn down my parent’s attic, the main set. This effect was a simple double-exposure that worked far better than we’d hoped.
A.J.: Inquiring minds want to know, what are you working on now?
J.M.: I mentioned my Darwin epic earlier. The title is Galápagos Regained, and it’s scheduled to appear from St. Martin’s Press early in 2015. Right now I’m working with the copy-edited pages, sneaking in last-minute flourishes.
The story begins in the summer of 1848, when young Chloe Bathurst loses her job as the principal ingénue with London’s Adelphi Theatre Company. She soon secures a position as Charles Darwin’s zookeeper, nurturing the aquatic iguanas and other exotica he brought back from the Galápagos archipelago. (The fine print on my poetic license allows me to imagine such a menagerie.) Eavesdropping on a conversation between Darwin and his scientific colleagues, Chloe learns of a theory that traces each particular kind of bird and beast not to separate acts of Divine Creation but to the natural “transmutation” of one species into another—an idea so radical it bids fair to claim the Percy Bysshe Shelley Prize: £10,000 to the first person who can prove, or disprove, the existence of a Supreme Being.
Chloe immediately fantasizes winning the Great God Contest, not only to settle her father’s debts but also for the aesthetic satisfaction of “mocking the cosmos.” But when Darwin orders her to avoid this tawdry competition—and refuses to lend her any specimens for presentation to the judges—Chloe takes matters into her own hands, planning an expedition across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn to Galápagos. Once she reaches the fabled islands, she hopes to collect living, breathing illustrations of “descent with modification.”
But soon Chloe is in over her head: not only because her quest entails physical hazards—storms at sea, voracious piranhas, tropical diseases, ruthless robber barons, rickety hot-air balloons, mad utopian visionaries—but also because some players in the Great God Contest are more devious than she imagines. Her competitors, in fact, have violent designs on Galápagos, and only my heroine, with her fondness for theatrics and talent for chicanery, can prevent the destruction of the archipelago’s unique birds, strange lizards, and fabled giant tortoises.
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