Posts Tagged ‘James Morrow’


 


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.

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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.)

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

Free Radicals front cover

 

 


MOST SCIENCE FICTION IS IRRELIGIOUS — in most sci-fi stories, religion is simply not there. Some sci-fi novels, however, are implicitly or explicitly atheist: some have atheist characters, some revolve around the conflicts of atheists with religious believers and religious institutions, and — to make the definition even looser — some that I’d classify as atheist (more accurately, atheist related) simply critique religion and religious institutions.

The following books do not comprise anything approaching a complete list, even using that loose definition of atheist science fiction. They’re merely the best atheist and atheist-related sci-fi novels that I’ve come across.

I’m sure there are many other good atheist science fiction novels, and I’ll add them to the list as I discover them. If you have any favorites not listed here, please leave a comment about them. (All links in the listings below go to book reviews on this site.)

cover photo and quotation from Mick Farren'ts "Protectorate"

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Margaret Atwood

  • The Handmaid’s Tale. (1985) More speculative social fiction than science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s horrifying vision of what would happen to America, and especially American women, if fundamentalists seized power. Anti-fundamentalist and antiauthoritarian, but not specifically atheist.

Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy is also well worth a read.

  • Oryx and Crake (2003) bears not at all on religion, but rather on rapacious corporate capitalism and the evil uses to which it could put technological developments in the pursuit of profit.
  • The Year of the Flood (2009) is set inside a believable, intricately described religious/ecological cult, and continues describing the socio-politico-economic problems carried over from Oryx and Crake.
  • Maddaddam (2013) has still more on the matters dealt with in the first two books, but also looks at the extreme measures necessary to avoiding detection in an all-pervasive surveillance state. It also features biting and insightful passages regarding the sleaziness and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion. All three books in the trilogy are masterfully written and quite entertaining.

Iain M. Banks

The following are Banks’ “Culture” novels–space opera on a grand scale. While set in the same universe, all work as stand-alone novels. All are set in a galaxy-spanning, far-future atheist and anarchist society, where religion pops up only when there’s an “outbreak” of it somewhere. All of the Culture novels feature strong, believable characters (including AIs), complicated ethical dilemmas, and frequent dark humor. Of them, the two best are probably Player of Games and Surface Detail, and the weakest is probably The Hydrogen Sonata. The one that has the most to do with religion, revolving around the sheer viciousness of many religious believers, is Surface Detail; religious fanaticism and the ills it produces also features prominently in Consider Phlebas.

  • Consider Phlebas (1987)
  • The Player of Games (1988)
  • Use of Weapons (1990)
  • Excession (1996)
  • Inversions (1998)
  • Look to Windward (2000)
  • Matter (2008)
  • Surface Detail (2010)
  • The Hydrogen Sonata (2012)Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up, by G. Richard Bozarth

G. Richard Bozarth

  • Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up (2014). A very funny, very revealing retelling of well known stories from one of the original, though unevenly written and poorly plotted, fantasy novels. (Full disclosure: See Sharp Press published this one.)

John Brunner

  • The Crucible of Time (1983). An inspiring novel about the rise of science and its eventual triumph over religion in an alien society.

Mick Farren

  • cover of "The Armageddon Crazy" by Mick FarrenProtectorate (1985). Deals with cults in the context of authoritarian government. Not one of Farren’s better novels, but worth reading if you can find a copy for a buck or two.
  • Their Master’s War (1987). An entertaining page-turner concerning militarism, imperialism, and religious manipulation.
  • The Armageddon Crazy (1989). An all too timely and at times quite funny novel about a fundamentalist takeover of the U.S. government. Probably Farren’s best sci-fi novel.

Tom Flynn

  • Galactic Rapture (2000). Deals almost entirely with the harmful effects of religious belief, irrationality, and gullibility. The high points are the detailed descriptions of “psychic” scams.

James P. Hogan

  • Code of the Lifemaker coverCode of the Lifemaker (1983). Very entertaining, very funny. A sharp look at a questioning attitude and rationality vs. credulousness and irrationality, with some sections exposing how “psychics” gull their victims. Probably the best sci-fi novel ever written about the conflict between science and religion, and definitely the funniest.
  • The Immortality Option (1995). The sequel to Code of the Lifemaker. Well worth reading, but only after reading Code of the Lifemaker. It’s almost as funny as its predecessor.

Victor Koman

  • The Jehovah Contract (1987). A noir-comic — to use the current term, “urban fantasy” — novel about the conflict between good and evil, where good is personified as a hit man who has a contract to take out evil, personified as The Almighty.

Ken Macleod

  • The Night Sessions (2008). A perceptive near-future look at the menace of religious fundamentalism.
  • Intrusion (2012). A frighteningly plausible dystopian novel of an all-pervasive surveillance state. A modern 1984. The protagonists are both atheists, and the novel in part revolves around their conflicts with religious “nutters” and religious privilege.

James MorrowBlameless in Abaddon by James Morrow

  • Blameless in Abaddon (1996). This is more fantasy than science fiction, but it’s worth including nonetheless. The second book in Morrow´s Godhead trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon revolves around the unstinting efforts of a terminally ill cancer patient to put God on trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity. It’s very dark, but very funny.

I’ve read the other two books in the trilogy, Towing Jehovah (1994) and The Eternal Footman (1999) and would not recommend them; fortunately, Blameless in Abaddon works as a stand-alone novel.

Morrow has written a number of other atheistic novels and story collections, such as Only Begotten Daughter (1990) and Bible Stories for Adults (1996); I wouldn’t recommend them for the same reason I wouldn’t recommend Towing Jehovah or Eternal Footman: they’re satires, but I didn’t find them funny. The one other book of Morrow’s I would recommend is the philosophically oriented City of Truth (1990), the first portion of which is downright hilarious.

Douglas Preston

  • Blasphemy (2007). A cross between a near-future high-tech thriller and a Tony Hillerman mystery, Blasphemy features two strong, very well described fundamentalist-preacher characters, one a sleazy, wealthy televangelist (drawing on Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Robert Schuler), the other a dirt poor, ignorant, vicious fanatic. If you like both thrillers and the Hillerman novels (set on the Navajo Reservation), you’ll probably love this one.

Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Galileo’s Dream (2009). A well executed time-travel novel involving Galileo and his conflict with the Catholic Church and the Inquisition.

Norman Spinrad

  • Mind Game (1980). Science fiction related but not science fiction, this is sci-fi author Spinrad’s insightful treatment of a barely disguised Church of Scientology, and one of the best novels about cults ever written

Charles Stross

The Apocalypse Codex front cover

  • The Apocalypse Codex (2012). An oftentimes funny, genre-bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) novel about a prominent televangelist, Christian fundamentalism, slithering necromantic horrors, and “applied computational demonology.” Although part of the Laundry Files series, this works as a stand-alone novel, though you’ll enjoy it more if you first read the previous highly entertaining books in the series; the first is The Atrocity Archives (2004).
  • The Delirium Brief (2017). The primary characters from The Apocalypse Codex, and the related fundamentalist and necromantic monstrosities, reappear in this latest Laundry Files novel. There were two intervening novels in the series between these two, and it’d be a good idea to read The Apocalypse Codex before tackling The Delirium Brief; it’d be a better idea to read all of the prior Laundry Files books, as there are many references to events in the previous novels.

Gore Vidal

  • Kalki (1978). A terrifying look at religious fanaticism and the use of biological WMDs.
  • Live from Golgotha (1993). A  short comic time-travel novel about live TV coverage of the crucifixion of J.C.

Robert Charles Wilson

  • Re-Birth, by John Wyndham front coverMysterium (1994). A perceptive, well written novel about an alternate-reality American religious police state, and the casual arrogance, self-righteousness, callousness, intrusiveness, and brutality of those who run such religious states. Also deals with the evil of blindly following orders rather than following your own conscience.

John Wyndham

  • Re-Birth (1955). A nicely written early post-apocalyptic tale of religious ignorance, arrogance, and brutality, and escape from it.

 

 

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Zeke Teflon, compiler of this list, is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, which deals in large part with religious and political cults.

Free Radicals front cover


 

Tuf Voyaging cover

(Tuf Voyaging, by George R.R. Martin, 2013, Bantam, $16.00, 440 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Bantam has re-released George R.R. Martin’s 1986 fix-up sci-fi novel, Tuf Voyaging. (Fix-up novels are comprised of pre-existing pieces, often short stories and/or novellas, fit together to make a coherent whole.) It’s loosely based on biblical tales and characters, with the title character’s, Havilund Tuf’s, seedship vessel bearing the name “Ark,” and with chapters titled “Loaves and Fishes,” “Call Him Moses,” and “Manna from Heaven.”

Tuf Voyaging, however, is not a biblical parody. (If you want that, your best bet is G. Richard Bozarth’s Bible Tales for Ages 18 and Up.) Rather, it’s a social science fiction tale focusing on the perils of runaway population growth and religious dogmatism. Martin is quite open about this. Among other things, the action in Tuf Voyaging largely revolves around a grossly overpopulated but technologically advanced planet, S’uthlam. (Reverse the letters, transpose the “t” and “h,” take out the mandatory “sci-fi apostrophe,” and . . . well, you get the idea.)

Despite this grim subtext, the book is light reading in the tall-tale tradition; its tone is very similar to that of Mike Resnick’s “Inner Frontier” stories. It’s also similar in that it has extravagant, often-amusing caricatures rather than fully developed characters. In contrast to the panoply of grotesques in Resnick’s works, in Tuf Voyaging the only character worth mentioning is Tuf himself. And the reader only sees Tuf’s surface: logical, sarcastic,  almost eerily calm and restrained, yet quirky (a vegetarian gourmand who loves beer and cats)–with all this presented via a distant third-person point of view. In short, Tuf is a cardboard character–and one entirely appropriate to a tall tale.

Those familiar with Martin’s other more famous works, and expecting an intricate plot and well drawn characters, will be disappointed in Tuf Voyaging. But those happy with a simple but amusing tall tale, with a social/political message with which they’ll probably agree (any sane person would), will enjoy the book.

Recommended.

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

Free Radicals front cover

 

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