James Morrow has made eschatological science fiction and fantasy his domain over the past ten years. He started with the short stories “Bible Stories for Adults,” which garnered him a Nebula award, then quickly followed up with a novel in the same vein, 1990’s Only Begotten Daughter, in which the second coming of God comes in the female form. His latest novel, Towing Jehovah, continues his study of modern religion with the ultimate test of faith–the Death of God.
Anthony Van Horne is a disgraced oil freighter Captain who lost his post after a disastrous collision with a reef in the Gulf of Mexico that spilled crude over a 20 mile stretch of Texas coastline. His ablutions prove fruitful, because it is he who the archangel Raphael chooses to helm the most important salvage operation of all time. Yes, God is dead and floating supine in tropical waters. The angels, who are dying of empathy, have carved him a tomb in the Antartic and want Van Horne to take control of his recently repaired oil freighter, find the Corpus Dei, and tow it to its icy grave.
Joining Van Horne is Thomas Ockham, the controversial New York priest cum physicist, personally selected by the Vatican in consultation with the archangel Gabriel to be the spiritual leader of the expedition. The Vatican has its own goal–due to the calculations of its powerful computer OMNIVAC, it has determined that due to the size of the corpse, brain death may not have fully occurred, and the faster the corpse is frozen, the better the chance that God’s neurons might be saved. Along the way, Van Horne rescues Dr. Cassandra Fowler, adrift in the tropics due to a failed trip to the Galapagos Islands in a recreation of Darwin’s famous voyage in the Beagle. Unbeknownst to Van Horne, Fowler is a member of a radical feminist/atheist organization and is determined to sink Van Horne’s cargo instead of taking the chance that the current patriarchal system use it as proof of the gender of the creator just as feminist advances had made such inroads against the system.
Morrow’s novel is both audacious and extremely funny. While some find his eschatological studies sacrilegious, I do not think that is his intent (beyond the obvious establishment nose-tweaking). Morrow, in true science fiction fashion, is postulating “What If,” but instead of writing about starships and aliens, Morrow examines culture and religion. For his background sources he utilizes the work of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Moore, and Friedrich Hegel, following the long tradition of philosophers trying to explain the ultimate mystery of creation. While Morrow’s text is serious in its intent, it remains a modern novel, full of character and events, some of which may also offend gentler sensibilities. For those willing to play what if, however, Morrow has found his niche, and he continues to mine gold.
[Finished November 1996]