Fiction Reviews

Reality by Other Means

(2015) James Morrow, Wesleyan University Press, £16.99, hrdbk, 298pp, ISBN 978-0-819-57594-4


I first encountered James Morrow when he killed God in his novel Towing Jehovah. In fact, not only did he kill him, he had his two mile long dead body floating in the Atlantic Ocean, where it bobbed until the archangel, Raphael, hired a super tanker captained by Anthony Van Horne to tow the giant body to the arctic where the cold would preserve it. Towing Jehovah won Morrow a World Fantasy award for Best Novel (he had previously won the same award for an earlier novel Only Begotten Daughter concerning the adventures of Jesus Christ’s reincarnated half-sister in a modern Atlantic City) and was the first of his 'Godhead Trilogy' with the other books concerned about putting God on trial for crimes against humanity, and in the last book – The Eternal Footman – God’s skull orbits the Earth with consequences for those living under this new moon.

Apart from picking up awards for novels, Morrow has also won two Nebula Awards, one of them for the short story 'Bible Stories for Adults, No. 17: The Deluge' which is one of the stories in Reality By Other Means and another one of his Bible Stories, namely 'No 31: The Covenant' also appears in this 'best of' collection.

You can imagine from the description of the contents of the 'Godhead Trilogy# and the stories mentioned above that Morrow is something of a philosophical and theological satirist ,and I started laughing on page two of the very first story – 'Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva' – told from the viewpoint of a very erudite Yeti. The reason for the Yeti’s command of the English language is that he has just feasted on the brains of a Comparative Literature Lecturer from Princeton who made the mistake of adventure holidaying in the Himalayas with the company Karmic Adventures. Thus begins a quest to overcome unfortunate dietary habits under the guidance of the Dalai Lama in a story that reminded me a lot of William Kotzwinkle’s novel The Bear Went Over the Mountain where a bear finds a novel hidden in the boughs of the tree and takes it to the city to become a best-selling novelist and all that entails.

There are seventeen stories collected here, the oldest going as far back as 1988, while the latest is only a couple of years old and it is clear that in his early career Morrow published in places like Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction before his stories appeared in more specialist markets concerned with war and alternative realities and general steampunkery. Two of these themes are evident in the very last story 'The Raft of the Titanic' where the survivors of the sinking of 'The Titanic' survive on a huge raft, which is almost its own country, a place they are content to remain on given the horrors that are unfolding on the battlefields of Europe.

Surviving water is clearly the aim of 'Bible Stories for Adults, No 17: The Deluge', a story that made me recall an old Brian Aldiss tale where Noah struggles to keep his ark afloat during the deluge and gets a glimpse of another ark in the storm, packed with unicorns and dinosaurs and all sorts of fabulous creatures which are never seen again. Like that other ark, in Morrow’s tale there is another vessel just managing to stay afloat during the flood, this one the canoe that belonged to the son of harlot, Sheila, but it is a flimsy thing, soon to sink, unless she can be rescued by the occupiers of the ark. But should they rescue her? After all, God did not say anything about survivors and weren’t Noah and his family, the rightful, chosen few? What do you do about a problem called Sheila? And Sheila hasn’t survived this long, and lost everything, including her beloved son, to go down without a fight?

While clever, and funny and with a sting in the tail, 'Bible Story, No. 17' is not as laugh out loud funny as Bible Stories, No 31: The Covenant which starts with a Series-700 mobile computer committing suicide and its whole ten million lines of code flashes in front of it as well as the history of humanity, and in particular the events following Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai with a stone tablet tucked under each arm. Moses is not too happy to see what has gone down in his absence and in a fit of anger and disgust he breaks the tablets into countless shards and the laws are lost although some rabbis do try and join together some shards, but 'Keep Not Your Ox House Holy' and 'Covet Your Woman Servant’s Sabbath' even 'You Will Remember Your Neighbour’s Donkey' do not seem very much like the guiding words of God. What the Church and the world needs is a computer like the Series-700 with the ability to scan all the thousands and thousands of shards and join them together even though it will take several years, but then another computer called the Son of Rust starts whispering into the computer’s sensors about whether or not this is a good idea, and the relevance of laws written millennia ago to the way we live now.

Biblical stories aside, Morrow flirts with history or rather her-story in 'Arms and the Woman' where Helen of Troy tries to put a stop to that war; as well as other meaty subjects like the right-to-life in 'Auspicious Eggs' where in an alternative Boston the unconceived also have 'rights' In 'Daughter Earth', a farmer’s wife gives birth to a small planet and so the fun goes on.

My only quibble with this 'best of short fiction' collection is that none of Morrow’s one-act plays are presented here, in particular The Zombies of Montrose, but maybe plays aren’t short fiction, discuss. Readable, funny, clever, thought-provoking, this is a perfect introduction to Morrow’s work if you have never read him before.

Ian Hunter

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