James Morrow, Reality by Other Means: The Best Short Fiction of James Morrow (Wesleyan University Press, 2015, 318 pp, $30.00)
Reviewed by Molly Cobb
A myriad of thought-provoking, ingenious tales awaits the reader in this collection. Indicative throughout of Morrow’s wide-ranging interests, each story features his sharp wit and penchant for satire. Often coupled with theology, Morrow holds up for examination the self, society, and human thought or action to invite changes in perspective without ever devolving into simplistic attacks which serve no purpose. As such, Morrow’s satire is always intelligent and adds a dose of seriousness into stories that often delight through absurdity.
By reimagining genre clichés and conventions, Morrow reshapes sf tropes to suit his own imaginings. In ‘Fixing the Abyss’, he both literalizes the metaphor and then subsequently destroys it while simultaneously satirising academic groupthink and dualism. That he does all this concurrently, and does so successfully, demonstrates just how adept Morrow is at producing satire which works both with and within the sf genre, and within his own reinterpretations of what that genre is capable of.
Morrow’s most recognizable feature is his utilization of the satiric-theological mode. He demonstrates how science fiction is capable of examining the future of religion and conversely what religion would be in the future, if it exists at all. The short stories share the desire to invite the reader to re-examine what it means to be human and how religion does or does not play a role in individual expectations of humanity. Stories like ‘Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva’ or ‘Bible Stories for Adults, No. 31: The Covenant’ question whether enlightenment and knowledge require an external source or whether the individual is capable of understanding and fulfilling these concepts themselves. By questioning the place of religion in terms of humanity, ethics and logic, Morrow does not pin blame on religion itself but rather examines the idea that prescribed ethics can allow for ‘re-interpretation’ that alters original intention. The role of humans in this is also held up for examination. In stories such as ‘Spinoza’s Golem’, Morrow portrays individuals providing for themselves what others cannot, and specifically what he feels religion cannot. Through this, Morrow presents individuals holding their own against war, natural disasters, manmade disasters, the folly of others, politics, and society as a whole. Stories such as ‘Known But to God and Wilbur Hines’ and ‘The War of the Worldviews’ specifically utilize war to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of perceived differences between individuals as externally prescribed and that humans separated by thought and practice are not actually distinctly different except in belief.
By employing tropes often found in early sf, such as framed/found narratives, Morrow is able to rework these concepts into contemporary science fiction and demonstrate that, though we may have moved past these approaches narratively, they can still be used to examine contemporary issues in new and relevant ways. Stories such as ‘Arms and the Woman’, ‘Lady Witherspoon’s Solution’ and ‘Spinoza’s Golem’ all utilize the story-within-a-story approach for various reasons. The first employs the trope to present a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, resulting in a female-empowered alternate history. The second centres around the discovery of a journal which tells how Neanderthal-like individuals have come to populate an island in the Indian Ocean, and the use of eugenics to both progress and regress the human species. The third utilizes a found journal to explore the human need for compassion and emotion, even if coming from a machine.
If robots, eugenics and alternate history are not enough for the reader, Morrow also has on offer environmentalism (‘Daughter Earth’), philosophical absurdities (‘The Vampires of Paradox’) and cloning (‘The Wisdom of the Skin’), among others. Nevertheless, the reader may find themselves questioning what exactly makes some of these stories science fiction. It is clear that Morrow does not cater to genre lines and, though all his stories are sfnal, as a result of his penchant for satire and desire to play with convention, these stories are not clearly labelled as belonging to sf. This weaving across genre lines is often what makes some of Morrow’s short stories so important to the field of sf and their significance in examining exactly what sf is. By playing with genre in such a way, Morrow is expanding, reworking and reimagining the boundaries of sf, and how genre lines are defined. Morrow’s work is therefore useful for exploring definitions of sf and what constitutes the genre. With his ability to combine early and contemporary sf, Morrow’s work not only feeds into this discussion but also re-evaluates how sf has or has not changed throughout its history by actively reworking the genre through his stories.
The stories collected in Reality by Other Means offer a range of narratives across genre lines, themes, tropes and concepts, all well-crafted by Morrow to lend both a satirical edge and a humorous tone to both recognizable and inventive reimagining of sf. Key to any discussion of religion in sf, whether it be the use of religion by the genre or how the genre perceives the role of religion, this collection offers a multitude of examples of the connections and interactions between progress, technology, humanity, the future, dystopia/utopia and religion. Underpinned by satire as these stories are, Morrow’s works perhaps fit more closely with sf that aims to eschew religion or demonstrate its lack of usefulness in the future. However, the range of sf tropes and themes with which religion is intertwined throughout this collection serves to demonstrate just how versatile sf can be when it comes to imagining the place of religion within society. What it also shows is how versatile Morrow himself is, not just when it comes to writing religious satire, but with all aspects of sf, and his ability to tackle serious concerns with just the right amount of humour and wit.