Morrow, James

Tagged: Author

(1947-    ) US author who lectured and taught in the 1970s, served as a contributing editor to Media and Methods magazine 1978-1980, and produced material for Boston television 1979-1984. His first book was Moviemaking Illustrated: The Comicbook Filmbook (1973). Through the 1980s he produced several textbooks for children, along with at least five children's novels beginning with The Quasar Kids (1987). Unsurprisingly, his first sf novel, The Wine of Violence (1981), shows in its smooth competence clear signs of Morrow's wide experience, though even here can be sensed a tendency, which affected some of his 1980s novels, for his maintenance of the suspension of disbelief to become intermittent – quite deliberately, perhaps – at rhetorical high-points. That these rhetorical complexities almost invariably occur at moments when Morrow wishes to convey an intense ethical concern for the human race does not alter the fact that, for some early readers, they weakened the fictional context from which they derive their specific meaning. The Wine of Violence is set on a planet long colonized by humans (see Colonization of Other Worlds), who have divided into two societies, the nomad Brain-Eaters, who do precisely that, and the Quetzalians, who discharge their human aggressiveness into a symbolic conduit which encircles their city walls. Chances to engage in humanist sarcasms – witness the very name Brain-Eaters – are rarely missed as the plot develops, and the Quetzalians are forced by a group of human visitors to the planet to come to grips, pyrrhically, with the vile nomads. Morrow's second novel, The Continent of Lies (1984), also set on a planet settled by humans, is less shaken by rhetorical overlays. With wit and concision it traces the attempts of its protagonist to track down an evil category of "dreambean" – good dreambeans being fruits which generate innocuous entertainment-hallucinations when eaten – before it can madden its victims into thinking of it as a god. Some moments of existential doubt intervene, but all comes right in the end.

With This Is the Way the World Ends (1986) Morrow abandoned the galactic stage, for which he clearly felt only muted sympathy, and came to Earth; soon after the book begins, the nuclear Holocaust of World War Three kills all but a few, who are then transported via submarine to Antarctica, where they are put on trial by the "unadmitted" – those souls who will now never be born. As an idea it is perhaps more effective in paraphrase than within the constraints of a fictional narrative, though the decency of the book clearly transcends the inevitable disembodiedness of its message. Only Begotten Daughter (1990) tells the story of Christ's sister, Julie Katz, whose virgin birth derives from the fact that her father has contributed to a sperm bank and whose life in other ways mirrors and affectionately spoofs the Christian version (see Religion). Counterpointed to that life, which is told with sympathy and verve, are the stories of Satan and a fundamentalist minister, the former being perhaps the more plausible creation; Julie's preordained destiny plays out against these figures. City of Truth (1991), a novella, conveys in parable form some sharp lessons about the nature of art and the subtle virtues of untruth, with considerable wit; it won the 1992 Nebula for Best Novella.

The bulk of Morrow's work in the 1990s was directed towards the Godhead Trilogy, comprising Towing Jehovah (1994), Blameless in Abbadon (1996) and The Eternal Footman (1999). The premise of the first volume – that the miles-long body of the deity is found in the Atlantic and must be towed to shore – makes clear Morrow's method, and the unfailing and sophisticated literal rendering of the physical nature of the deity did much to alleviate a sense that, as in his earlier works, reality would be allowed to thin under the sway of idea. Throughout the trilogy, Morrow subjects the symbolic claims of Religion to a scouring and often very funny literal examination. These books sharpened a sense, already present, that Morrow's central project is to articulate a scientific rationalism that stands in opposition to theism, to argue that the visible world is sufficient for humans to explore and to explain their lives. This is not to say that Morrow does not find poignancy in the stories generated by religion, as in the second volume when God's body forms the ground for a theme-park.

These themes are continued in Morrow's two subsequent major novels, The Last Witchfinder (2006) and The Philosopher's Apprentice (2008). The first is a Fabulation reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon (1997) in its exuberant fictionalization of a new historical age coming into being. In Morrow's narrative, as in Pynchon's, historical figures like Newton or Franklin make cameos at emblematic moments to serve the book's larger didactic purpose. The Philosopher's Apprentice approaches Morrow's concerns from a point of view of innocence rather than knowledge: it is centrally concerned with the philosophical education of a young woman who is a kind of tabula rasa following a diving accident; echoes of Mary Shelley's examination of eighteenth-century Enlightenment premises in Frankenstein; Or, the New Prometheus (1818 3vols) are unlikely to have been accidental. Moreover, not for the first time in Morrow's books, aspirations towards the Good become aspirations towards unsustainable forms of Utopia: indeed, a gnawing ambivalence about the Enlightenment marks his work from the first. Shambling Towards Hiroshima (2009) is a slighter work, playfully conflating the Godzilla myth with Japan's recent history. The Madonna and the Starship (2014), also comparatively slender, sophisticates the governing premise of Galaxy Quest (1999): representatives of an Alien civilization, despite their knowledge that Television shows are not exact records of history, do fail through excessive literalism to take with a grain of salt the exorbitances of a programme about Religion, and propose to eliminate anyone who has viewed it. The tale, set in 1953 New York, gently Satirizes contemporary morés; and the aliens are wised up.

Short stories – Morrow has not been a prolific writer of them – are assembled in Swatting at the Cosmos (coll 1990), which includes the Nebula-winning "Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge" (in Full Spectrum, anth 1988, ed Lou Aronica and Shawna McCarthy). He also edited several editions of the Nebula Anthology series Nebula Awards, as well as an ambitious anthology, The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent (anth 2007), the latter with his wife Kathryn Morrow.

Morrow's work has been likened to that of Kurt Vonnegut Jr, and similarities are indeed very evident. Morrow could easily be seen as a more attractive author than his mentor, and certainly he couches his vision of the world's plight more happily than Vonnegut has ever done. But, while Vonnegut never disbelieves in the medium of his art, Morrow has great difficulty giving credence to the artifices of fiction. His novels only sometimes avoid making clear the author's opinion of the issues they debate; and so their debates can sometimes seem rigged. Yet there is no doubting the clarity with which Morrow articulates his love of the world. [GS/JC]

James Kenneth Morrow

born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 17 March 1947

died

works (selected)

series

Godhead Trilogy

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor

series

Nebula Awards

See also Nebula Anthologies.

  • Nebula Awards 26 (New York: Harcourt, 1992) [anth: Nebula Awards: hb/Patrik Ryane]
  • Nebula Awards 27 (New York: Harcourt, 1993) [anth: Nebula Awards: hb/Craig Rosenberg]
  • Nebula Awards 28 (New York: Harcourt, 1994) [anth: Nebula Awards: hb/Craig Rosenberg]

individual titles

links

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