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Reality By Other Means:
The Best Short Fiction Of James Morrow

Wesleyan hardcover $30

review by Steven Hampton

Knitting oversized brows, a yeti seeks enlightenment from the Dalai Lama in Bigfoot And The Bodhisattva. Although the big guy's Buddhist buddy's perspectives changes the hairy nomad's predatory nature, the abominable snowman finds no refuge or virtue in sublime emptiness. Ghosts of Dr Moreau and Animal Farm haunt chillingly absurdist horror comedy The Cat's Pyjamas, where an unsettling trivia of disembodiment snaps into focus with witty lines like, "Vickie, my brain, and I were the last to arrive..." This medical mutant combo of Wells and Orwell develops, from a grandiose experiment to create fabulistic altruistic beast-people, into scathing political satire. Unsurprisingly, the new peaceful enlightenment runs into violent opposition from offended locals on Halloween night.

Arms And The Woman is a feminist bedtime story about Helen of Troy, as the aged princess and prisoner who, upon seeing battlefield carnage beyond the besieged city's walls, wants to stop the war. An impish revision of H.G. Wells' interplanetary classic, The War Of The Worldviews pits two moon races from Martian orbit into fighting on Manhattan Island. A conflict sparked by science versus religion might only be settled by human lunatics.

I'm not sure about the suspiciously random numbering practice of Morrow's series of theological tales, but the urban-hellhole style retelling of the Ark, in Bible Stories For Adults, No. 17: The Deluge, is far closer to Darren Aronofsky's mythical fantasy movie Noah (2014) than any traditional fairytale versions of the Flood. Another one appears here, and Bible Stories For Adults, No. 31: The Covenant is about the 'ark' containing shattered stone tablets. When a newly manmade A.I. robot daringly critiques the Ten Commandments, the machine intelligence (unsurprisingly) finds fault with the pious ambiguities of god-sent morality.

Although entirely fictionalised, downbeat war story Known But To God And Wilbur Hines sets out to (informally) debunk the heroic myths of unfortunate and unknown soldiers buried in Arlington. A farmer's wife has a very odd pregnancy and gives birth to a biosphere in Daughter Earth - 9 lbs 6oz, circumference: 23½" - a gravitational curiosity with axial rotation, named Zenobia. This surrealistic bonfire of Rosemary's Baby, Larry Cohen's It's Alive, and the paradoxical star-child of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, has Morrow on primal and ironic form, exploring the "transcendental mutation" of a beach-ball sized world, an "environmental simulacrum" that scientists want to buy for their labs. But, Morrow's humorous fable has a poetical morality - so, of course, family values trump global concerns, and Zenobia's flyaway destiny is more than merely a Moses metaphor. Ultimately, it's a cosmic comedy not a hyper-tragedy, boasting an emotional happy ending of scalable proportions.

The Vampires Of Paradox is about a sect of monks defending our planet Earth from an invasion by daemons. These parasitic creatures do not feed on human blood, but prey upon philosophical considerations of logic problems. Thankfully, conundrums suggested by Fermi and Schrödinger save the day, and so the world, from both pests and pestilence. Partly a Darwinian discovery of evolutionary anachronisms, partly a Jekyll and Hyde fight club managed by uber-feminists, Lady Witherspoon's Solution tells of an upper-class Hampstead ladies society and Star Chamber making extralegal, if poetically just, use of an "antidote for masculinity." Its Nietzschean philosophy gets codified by genetic mutation in a gladiatorial hell-pit for this acute melodrama of epic tragedy.

'White-washing' for star roles in Hollywood movies recently made headline news, but there was already a long history of such casting practices, and Martyrs Of The Upshot Knothole reminds us that John Wayne 'portrayed' the Mongol chief, Genghis Khan, in The Conqueror (1956). Here, the American cowboy and his greatest failure in features are presented as victims of Nevada's A-bomb tests. Filming on location in Utah desert - a year after the programme of 11 nukes, results in fatal cancers for the cast and crew. However, in this extraordinary tragicomedy, Duke bends "the space-time continuum" of quantum flux to his conservative will, generating anti-radiation armour in the past, that shows up as rainbow shielding on a new-fangled Betamax videotape of the film.

Anti-abortion hysteria and the legal rights of the unborn leads to a crazy "doctrine of affirmative fertility" in Auspicious Eggs, where 'terminal baptism' means that babies can be drowned in church. Morrow shows how pro-life arguments escalate to extreme prejudice and he knows how to milk the source of outrage for a story that would be a likely candidate if Harlan Ellison's Last Dangerous Visions is ever published. Morrow sticks a serrated knife into the mouldering corpus of religious piety and, with a glee to treasure, gives the blade a fatal twist that's immensely satisfying.

A philosopher's clockwork bodyguard is discovered in Spinoza's Golem, and a robotic theme derived from Rabbi Loew's legendary creation is happily recycled with another slant. Although it seems to start as a steampunk Ghostbusters, Morrow's darkly weird The Iron Shroud soon turns into a Frankenscience version of Capek's influential play, R.U.R. There is an electro-plated alloy trapping lost or doomed souls in armour, and this results in an army of golems that are free to roam (and to work) but not to shuffle away in spiritual dissipation. The fierce vengeance of all these undead labourers, who have worshipped their creator, means these 'immortal' beings are driven to overthrow their maker in the pursuit of a true-death escape from a subordinate, ersatz existence. The tall tale's morality is complex and appealingly murky, with all the inherent power of cross-genre myth.

Fixing The Abyss is a fun fellowship's surreal descent into the netherworld's void for a unique audience with immortal monster Caltiki. The Wisdom Of The Skin considers the problems of resurrection by cloning when the process is applied to an alternative culture of porn stars as performances artists. A great alternative history, The Raft Of The Titanic offers Verne styled survivalism for people escaping off the doomed White Star liner, lost at sea for years until they found a floating new Atlantis, quite willing to accommodate cannibalism to remain aloof from WW1.

The joke-laden intro by Gary Wolfe trowels on references to author James Morrow's SF satires, but it's nonetheless an effective taster of the book's content. Despite the prevalence of satirical absurdity in his work, Morrow embraces the core-SF themes, in particular, to present us with atheistic views of an indifferent universe (even when malevolent creatures are somehow involved), that humanity nearly always strives to consider as sobering tragedy.

James Morrow's Reality By Other Means

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press