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James Morrow VO
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James Morrow VO

Actusf : You write about religious fanaticism, abusive use of genetics, cloning of human beings, which are very serious topics. Why did you choose science-fiction to do so?
James Morrow : We’re accustomed to thinking of speculative and fantastical fiction as a genre attached to a broader literary realm: a star within a constellation, you might say. But I sometimes think that’s a fallacious—indeed, completely backwards—model.

Until recent centuries, literature was virtually synonymous with fantastical modes of expression. Beowulf fights monsters. Gods abound in Homer. Dante takes us into supernatural realms. Shakespeare moves his plots along with the aid of ghosts, witches, wizards, sprites, and Caliban. So one can argue that speculative literature is the constellation, mimetic fiction a mere constituent sun.

It’s always worth remembering that “science” is just another word for knowledge. Science fiction is knowledge fiction. Avant-garde biology, pathological theology, the cognitive development of the human conscience—these are things about which we have knowledge, and so they found their way into The Philosopher’s Apprentice (L’Apprenti du philosophe).

Actusf : In addition to being science-fiction novels, your books are philosophical satires. What made you use this very peculiar literary style in your books?
James Morrow : When I was fifteen years old, as a student at Abington High School in Pennsylvania, I was privileged to take Mr. James Giordano’s World Literature class. The curriculum was amazing, replete with writers notorious for their unconventional religious views: Dante, Voltaire, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Ibsen.

Those dissident voices led me down an inverse Road to Damascus. I came to feel that my unexamined theistic beliefs didn’t begin to account for reality. The Christian argument is beautiful and coherent, but it happens not to apply to the world in which we actually live.

Candide in particular spoke to me. Before reading that novella, I hadn’t realized how philosophically complex a satire could be. Voltaire is not simply making jokes as the expense of institutions he doesn’t like. He’s engaged in a dance of ideas, with the mindlessly optimistic Pangloss on one side of the ballroom and the eternally cynical Martin on the other.

Fifty-two years later, I was able to repay Voltaire for clearing the cobwebs out of my skull. The New York Public Library mounted a special exhibit celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication of Candide. As a satirist, I was invited to contribute to the Internet component. During the winter of 2010, my colleagues and I—guided by a brilliant young literary scholar, Alice Boone—annotated Voltaire’s original text with our musings.

Actusf : What would you say is the main theme or subject of The Philosopher's Apprentice?
James Morrow : Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has no greater admirer than myself. Beyond its Gothic chills, I regard that novel as an important philosophic work—an extended meditation on what it means to be human. As I understand Shelley’s argument, Victor Frankenstein’s downfall traces not to his ambition but to the way he treats his brainchild. Yes, he commits an act of hubris, but his real sin is irresponsibility. He’s a bad father.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice is my homage to Frankenstein. But instead of giving readers the shambling—though articulate—brute of the original novel, I wanted to explore the notion of a moral monster: a creature whose conscience is so highly developed that, compared to her fellow humans, she’s a dangerous freak. After receiving a whirlwind education in ethics, Londa Sabacthani develops a hypertrophic superego.

The essential crisis is triggered when my heroine learns about the radical worldview embodied in the Sermon on the Mount. Londa doesn’t realize she isn’t really supposed to take those noble ideas seriously. From the moment she encounters the Beatitudes, Londa resolves to remake the world in her own morally charged image. Needless to say, this is a recipe for disaster.

Actusf : What inspired you while composing this novel?
James Morrow : The Philosopher’s Apprentice gave me a great excuse for watching old Frankenstein movies—notably the American cycle from Universal Studios and the British series from Hammer Films. I love them all.

Actusf : In your self-interview on your website, you not only compare The Philosopher's Apprentice to Frankenstein but also to Lolita. Why the Nabokov connection?
James Morrow : While not nearly as perverse as what happens when Humbert Humbert meets Lolita née Dolores Haze, the relationship between Mason Ambrose and Londa Sabacthani is libidinous and ultimately romantic—the same arc we find in Nabokov’s novel. And, as with Humbert and Lo, the initial dynamic between Mason and Londa is that of a teacher and his student. 

Actusf : In The Philosopher's Apprentice, scientific breakthroughs lead to cruel experiments: the tragic fates of poor Proserpine, the thinking tree, and of the immaculoids, for example. Do you think that if men were able to achieve everything they want by means of science, their desire to play God would supersede their ethics?
James Morrow : Besides Frankenstein and Lolita, the third touchstone of Mason and Londa’s story is The Island of Dr. Moreau. The theme of H.G. Wells’s great novella is simple: a person cannot play God without going insane.

The Philosopher’s Apprentice might be regarded as a thought-experiment dramatizing the hazards of playing God. Let me hasten to add, however, that I’m not automatically sympathetic to Wells’s argument. I happen to believe that—when compared with the alternative religious and political options—post-Enlightenment rationality still represents the last, best hope of humankind. My previous novel, The Last Witchfinder (Le Dernier Chasseur de sorcières), unabashedly celebrates the coming of the scientific worldview.

As I interpret my own novel, Vincent Charnock, the creator of the RXL-313 ontogenerator—the machine that brings Londa and her two cloned “sisters” into being—functions as a Victor Frankenstein figure. His experiments are not ipso facto unprincipled and ignoble, but he doesn’t put sufficient effort into keeping the machine out of the wrong hands. I’m thinking especially of how the Christian evangelicals exploit the ontogenerator to turn aborted fetal tissue into living, breathing, quasi-human “immaculoids.”

Meanwhile, Londa’s “mother,” Edwina Sabacthani (who is really her genetic twin), is a Dr. Moreau figure. Early in her scientific career, Edwina creates the thinking tree, Proserpine, with little regard for its tortured mental state. Later, she employs the ontogenerator simply to gratify her desire for offspring. In Edwina’s eyes, her three “daughters” are not complete human beings but useful pawns in her quest for self-fulfillment. If that isn’t mad, it’s certainly immoral.

So, yes, the fruits of science can be poisonous indeed—but I don’t believe that pitfall is inevitable or predetermined.

Actusf : The first title for the book was Prometheus Wept. Why did you choose this title and why did you change it for The Philosopher's Apprentice?
James Morrow : The original title alluded to Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley subtitled The Modern Prometheus. I was also evoking John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” I liked the juxtaposition of “Prometheus” and “wept” because it points to the dark side of the Enlightenment, the theme we were just discussing. As the personification of the scientific spirit, Prometheus might very well shed tears upon realizing how much raw, cruel power has accrued to human ingenuity—thermonuclear weapons, carcinogenic chemicals, and global warming being three conspicuous examples.

Neither my American nor my British editor cared for the title “Prometheus Wept,” which they thought too obscure. When Jennifer Brehl of William Morrow (no relation) suggested “The Philosopher’s Apprentice,” it sounded right to me, and I liked the echo of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Both narratives are about experiments that get out of hand, largely because the experimenters don’t really know what they’re doing.

As a writer with literary pretentions, I still find certain virtues in the title “Prometheus Wept,” but I’m just as happy with “The Philosopher’s Apprentice.”

Actusf : In the novel, why is Mason chosen to be Londa's moral compass ? Is a young PhD student a valid choice for such an heavy burden?
James Morrow : Mason gets the job because he makes a good impression on a scientist named Dawson Wilcox, whom Edwina Sabacthani has hired to find a tutor for her daughter. Dr. Wilcox attends Mason’s public defense of his PhD thesis, and while the presentation is a disaster, Wilcox is impressed with the young man’s grasp of the history of Western ethics.

Now I suppose that, yes, technically speaking, an older and wiser intellect would be better suited to the job. But by making Mason close in age to Londa, I was able to turn the novel into a love story without venturing into the creepy nymphet-meets-Mephisto territory that Nabokov explores. In The Philosopher’s Apprentice I wanted to perform a thought-experiment that was erotic but not distressing.

Actusf : Mason uses not only a theoretical education but role-playing exercises to develop Londa’s understanding of ethics. Aren’t you doing the same thing with readers of your book?  Making them experience moral dilemmas, not just think about them?
James Morrow : I was quite pleased when I realized that Mason needn’t simply lecture his nubile pupil in correct behavior. Instead he could put her through a series of role-playing exercises, such as the dilemma devised by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg: Is it all right for a wife to steal an expensive drug from a greedy pharmacist to save her husband’s life?

Mason wants Londa to know with her heart and soul what it’s like to make a serious moral choice. If readers find themselves having the same experience, as you suggest, then I’m a happy writer.

My studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education came in handy here. At this time—the early 1970’s—Lawrence Kohlberg was there doing his research into a children’s ethical development. Occasionally I ran into his graduate students, and we would get to talking about the mystery of morality.

Actusf : What are your projects now?
James Morrow : During the past three years, most of my creative energies have gone into an epic comic novel called Galapagos Regained. Just as The Last Witchfinder dramatizes the birth of the Enlightenment, this new novel celebrates the coming of the Darwinian worldview.

Most of the action takes place during the decade before the publication of The Origin of Species. The plot turns on a Victorian actress, Chloe Bathurst, who finds that, to save her father’s life, she must recapitulate Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands. She has many fantastical adventures along the way.

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