Isle of Right

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Sunday, April 6, 2008


By James Morrow

Morrow. 411 pp. $25.95

James Morrow is a literary swashbuckler, his proud vessel a stalwart craft composed of rationalist thought and biological determinism, his weapons a rapier intelligence and a Swiftian gift for satire. Morrow's best novels expose the dangers of religious fanaticism while allowing a glimpse of the frailties that make us susceptible to extremes of belief. The Last Witchfinder was a rollicking tour de force, a picaresque journey through the Age of Enlightenment that contained, among other delights, a talking copy of Newton's Principia Mathematica, as well as a randy portrayal of the young Benjamin Franklin.

Alas, Morrow's new novel, The Philosopher's Apprentice, trades rapier for battle-axe in its attack on creationists, technophobes and scientists too eager to embrace the brave new world of genetic engineering. Its protagonist, Mason Ambrose, is a young doctoral candidate who is offered a job as the private ethics tutor of an amnesiac teenager named Londa, for a cool $100,000 a year. Quicker than you can say "Lost," Ambrose is whisked off to a tropical retreat, Isla de Sangre (Blood Island). There a mysterious molecular geneticist named Edwina claims her daughter's dysfunction is the result of a swimming accident on Londa's 17th birthday.

" 'Gradually it became clear,' her mother explains, 'that Londa's childhood recollections weren't the only casualty -- she'd also lost her ability to distinguish right from wrong. Depravity is not a diagnosis one makes lightly, but the evidence seems unequivocal.' " Londa spews facts like a logorrheaic Wikipedia; she also sets fire to household items, throws rocks at windows and shows grave unkindness to animals.

Amnesia-schmesia: Edwina's explanation will be suspect to anyone familiar with Frankenstein, "Blade Runner" or The Island of Dr. Moreau. Isla de Sangre provides a lush, memorably creepy setting for the book's first section, enlivened by sentient trees and the eccentric teachers hired to tend Edwina's offspring. But the spell of these early chapters is broken by a turgid course in ethics, from Aristotle to Stoicism to Epicureanism and beyond, forced upon Londa, and the reader. Somewhere in Ambrose's lesson on Sartrean existential freedom, rebellious readers may long for the "Philosophers' Drinking Song" belted out by the cast of Monty Python.

Things go all pear-shaped, as the Brits say, after Edwina dies. Londa, armed with the fierce sense of right and wrong instilled in her by Ambrose, founds a utopian community, Themisopolis (City of Justice), where she develops patents for advanced technologies that will aid humankind.

Yet humans have a habit of not wanting what others think is best for them, especially if it involves genetic engineering and stem cell research. An attack on Themisopolis is launched, and the resulting battle -- involving creatures grown from aborted fetal tissue -- spurs Londa to forsake her utopian ideals and embark upon her own crash-and-burn course in ethics. Morrow's intellectual fervor irradiates The Philosopher's Apprentice, but the warmth and empathy that characterized The Last Witchfinder is absent. Satire needs to sing as well as sting.

-- Elizabeth Hand's most recent novel is "Generation Loss."

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