A Neglected (though flawed) Sci-Fi Gem: City of Truth

Posted: March 6, 2015 in Book Reviews, Humor, Religion, Science Fiction
Tags: ,


City of Truth(City of Truth, by James Morrow. Harcourt & Brace, 1990, 144 pp., $13.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


This novella won a Nebula Award, and it’s easy enough to see why: the premise is inventive, the central character is believable and sympathetic, and the first fifty pages or so are hilarious.

The novella’s premise is that all citizens of Veritas (Latin for “truth”)  are conditioned as children to tell nothing but the truth, and after that conditioning are simply incapable of telling lies. This provides rich comedic possibilities, of which Morrow takes good advantage. Instead of the police, we have the Brutality Squad,  self-help books bear titles such as You Can Have Somewhat Better Sex, and elevators carry signs stating, “This elevator maintained by people who hate their jobs. Ride at your own risk.” Perhaps even funnier are the sexual negotiations between the central character, Jack Sperry–a professional “deconstructionist” who “criticizes” works of art with bonfires and a sledgehammer–and Natalia, a woman he meets by chance in a cafe.

City of Truth continues in this vein for approximately its first third, and then, spurred by a tragic incident in Sperry’s family, abruptly shifts tone. While still whimsical, the humor largely vanishes as Sperry looks for comfort in illusions in Veritas’ mirror image, Satirev, the city of lies. Along the way, Morrow glances at such things as what is honesty? is it the same as literalism? is it synonymous with full disclosure? does it consist only of restraint from telling lies? is literal representation the only honest approach to art? and is there a role in life for comforting illusions?

While these are all worthy questions, the abrupt shift in tone a third of the way through City of Truth is jarring, and leaves the reader (at least this reader) feeling cheated. Morrow sets up City of Truth as a dark comedy, and then largely delivers philosophy for the latter two-thirds of the book.

Another problem with City of Truth is the conditioning mechanism Morrow describes. It’s a standard, but slightly more brutal form of electrical aversive conditioning. The problem here is that such conditioning (and its close cousin, chemical aversive conditioning–think A Clockwork Orange) was tested extensively in the 1950s through roughly the 1980s as a means of treatment for both substance abuse and (notably at Brigham Young University) for homosexuality. Aversive conditioning was abandoned for two reasons: 1) it was too brutal; 2) it simply didn’t work very well, and the minimal effects it sometimes produced wore off quickly.

Further, these studies involved multiple conditioning sessions. The version Morrow describes is almost a textbook description of an average electrical aversive condtioning “treatment,” and it takes place in a single session. It stretches credulity to the breaking point to think it could produce the long-lasting, severe effects Morrow describes. It’s one thing to base sci-fi stories on plausible scientific or technological speculation; it’s another to base them on already thoroughly busted and abandoned technologies. Morrow would have been better off entirely dropping this attempt at providing a scientific gloss to what is essentially, and would have worked better as, a pure fantasy story.

Recommended, despite its flaws.

* * *

A final note: While City of Truth deals quite caustically with religion, religion is not center stage here, and the story itself is presented as science fiction rather than fantasy. All of the other books I’ve read by Morrow have taken the opposite tack: they’re overt fantasy titles with religion at their center. They include God’s Daughter, the “Towing Jehovah” trilogy, and Bible Stories for Adults. Of them, the one I’d most recommend is the dark and funny Blameless in Abaddon, the second book in the “Towing Jehovah” trilogy, which deals with placing God on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity; while it is part of a trilogy, it works well as a stand-alone novel. (A more recent dark satire of  the Bible, comparable to Morrow’s Bible Stories for Adults, is G. Richard Bozarth’s Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up [2014], published by See Sharp Press. You can find an excerpt here.)

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia

Free Radicals front cover



  1. […] them funny. The one other book of Morrow’s I would recommend is the philosophically oriented City of Truth (1990), which in parts is quite […]


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