Sunday, December 18, 2011

Philosophical Science Fiction

The Philosopher's Apprentice: A Novel (P.S.)

The Philosopher's Apprentice: 
A Novel 

"This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a Monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my apartment window, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. The butterfly mesmerized me, this Danaus plexippus with its ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned by black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket’s epiphany.
Inevitably Lao-Tsu’s famous riddle crossed my mind — “Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?” — and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the Monarch. I don’t know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet." (p 3)

This is an entertaining science fiction novel that is replete with philosophical thoughts and allusions. The Philosopher’s Apprentice, begins as Mason Ambrose, the author of an idiosyncratic, Darwinist dissertation called “Ethics From the Earth”; is offered a position tutoring Londa, a teenager whose mother is a fabulously wealthy and brilliant molecular geneticist.
Londa awaits her new teacher at Isla de Sangre, at the farthest edge of the Florida Keys. On this updated version of Dr. Moreau’s island, where a giant tree produces intoxicating fruit and a laboratory is filled with strange machines, Mason begins the process of implanting a “moral center” in Londa by preparing her with thought experiments. Should one return a borrowed ax when the lender is obviously very agitated, likely to do someone grievous bodily harm? Should a policeman arrest a woman who has stolen an expensive drug in order to save her husband’s life? From these puzzles, it’s only a matter of time before Londa encounters what is for Morrow the most vexing of thought experiments: how can one bring about justice in the modern world? This is obviously a large question — but it’s one that Londa’s fertile brain and large inheritance transform into an actual social justice project.
The narrative that follows gives us some fantastic images and ideas: Themisopolis, a shining city on a hill, built by Londa, its doors open to the abused, the abandoned and the persecuted; clones called immaculoids, created from aborted fetuses by a right-wing group and sent out to stalk their parents; a reconstructed Titanic in which the newly rich sail across the Atlantic to make obvious capitalism’s victory over nature.
Morrow’s inventiveness is intriguing and his delight in Western philosophy makes this interesting to anyone who enjoys philosophical fiction. Yet the consideration of profound ideas flounders at times when it bumps up against a rapid succession of climactic moments and abundant references to pop culture.
“Shortly after breakfast, a Jeep pulled up outside Charnock’s A-frame, driven by a raffish, safari-jacketed Latino with a drooping black mustache and olive skin, a by-God Ramar of the Jungle pith helmet shadowing his face. He introduced himself as Javier Cotrino, Dr. Sabacthani’s personal assistant, dispatched to chauffeur me to her mansion. For the next 20 minutes, Javier and I lurched and bounced along an unpaved road, descending into a verdant valley flush with hibiscus and bougainvillea, until at last we came to a high chain-link fence surmounted by spirals of barbed wire. We drove beneath a raised crossing gate, angled like a satyr’s intractable erection, then continued past acacia groves and cypress stands toward the rising sun.”
This overblown style works well in showcasing Morrow’s imaginative flair, but it diminishes the seriousness of the ideas. The novel often seems like a mere game, yet the game provides a mostly fun ride. The serious questions about poverty, injustice, biotechnology and climate change never seem to oppressive and the characters, for all their color and liveliness, never seem to gain much depth. I found myself a little let down for the last quarter of the novel feeling that its provocative and entertaining scenes had been little more than thought experiments. But most of the story was great fun and anyone who is well-versed in philosophy and literature should enjoy this thoughtful imagining of the chaos that may ensue if technology evolves in just the wrong strange way.

The Philosopher's Apprentice by James K. Morrow.  Harper Perennial Edition. 2009 (2008)

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