I don't think I've ever had a book that challenged me more than this one. I found so many new layers that I double down on how phenomenal this book is. For a few in the book club, they loved the first half and hated the last half. Nevertheless, it's one you should read - at least the first part of the book.
In The Philosopher's Apprentice, nothing less than the foundations of human morality and ethical decision-making, encompassing a review of pretty much the entirety of Western philosophical thought, are hoisted up like the Jolly Roger on the Titanic to see who will salute, and who (or what) will be left standing. Morrow used the device of Newton's Principia Mathematica as the narrator to voice his big questions and themes in The Last Witchfinder. Here, in The Philosopher's Apprentice, we have Mason Ambrose, the former Ph.D. candidate who has tried and failed to wrestle an ethics framework from another foundational treatise of science, Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. That said, Morrow gives Ambrose an apolitical, amoral voice in some ways, enough that there are times when I found myself annoyed by this character who was not behaving at all psychologically realistically when faced with some fairly significant ethical dilemmas of his own. Do you: a) call the authorities; b) take matters into your own hands and destroy the tools of reproduction and/or the scientist herself; c) accept $100K to tutor the cloned spawn, Londa, of aforesaid mad scientist, and hope to instill a more just and compassionate ethic in her because, well, if you don't, who else will? And while the outcome is positive, in that the novel's plot gallops along through set-piece scenes that have, underlying them, a Big Philosophical Question or Ethical Dilemma to be solved, the flimsiness of the set-up always threatens to bring the plot down like a house of cards. The Philosopher's Apprentice is more ambitious, and has more room for slippage in the sensibility and logic of plot and character, but these flaws -- and they are definite flaws -- are easily overlooked when there is so much going on, and when the satire is this delicious. So again, while good-and-evil; right-and-wrong was clear in The Last Witchfinder, here the very point is to show that ethical questions and behaving in line with their answers, if you can even arrive at them, is complicated, and growing more so in a world where philosophy and those who practice it with discipline and depth have been replaced by right-wing zealots; and where scientists who pursue knowledge and discovery as ends in themselves have become pawns to greedy, immoral capitalists (a dynamic that Morrow takes delight in reversing on the inaugural voyage of the new-and-improved Titanic -- wanna take a guess at how that turns out? The best comparison is to Vonnegut: there is the same 'of the people' tone; the same politics; the same humour and satire; the use of fantastic plots, characters and settings, where necessary, to convey theme (you'd not call Morrow science fiction any more than you'd call Vonnegut that, would you?).
The write-up suggested it was kind of a cerebral "Island of Dr. Moreau", but he only wishes he had such a plot...or any plot at all.
The great characters from the beginning are still there, but I sort of hated the narrator for the rest of the book, and especially the end was pretty terrible, to the point I don't really know what Morrow was thinking.
And not good odd, like Christopher Moore or Nick Harkaway or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. All of those authors writing has something in common with James Morrows slightly absurdist deconstruction of Western morality but they manage to create a coherent story while they are being absurd, whereas Morrow seems more interested in sandwiching in yet another layer of plot twists. Its one thing to write a book steeped in philosophical thought that also stimulates a readers own thoughts. And while this is consistent with the idea of Masons characterone wouldnt expect a doctoral candidate in philosophy to explain the nuances of various philosophers when he is narrating his life storyit does the reader no favours. I dont really feel sorry for any of the things that happen to Mason, as absurd and undeserved as they might be. I want to call The Philosophers Apprentice allegorical, because thats the only way to excuse the naked characterization that happens here. But I want to believe that, issues of accessibility aside, the story within this book just isnt very good. There are far better books that manage to mix philosophy with good story tellingjust indulge in a little of The Name of the Rose , Foucaults Pendulum , or Sophies World to see what I mean.
This a story of modern morality that makes you laugh and cry at the same time, and challenges your notion of civil society. The first act of the book is a brilliant adaptation of the Pygmalion story, complete with feather covered iguanas, a brief history of moral philosophy, and the corruption of childhood at the hands of the Marin Heidegger.
Following this, the plot unravels into the even more absurd or weird, depending on your point of view, and provides a scathing satirical comment on certain aspects of our society, and its ability or lack thereof to apply certain ethical principles we accept in theory in our actual policies and actions. If one accepts that Morrow is providing satire for discussion, I imagine one will enjoy the book immensely (as I did, but also in part because of the plethora of philosophy references).
After he has succeeded and left the island, the student and philosopher meet again after several years.
In the opening pages of this novel, I thought I was back in the magic land created by John Fowles in "The Magus." A young philosopher with a rebellious bent is recruited to go to a secluded island and tutor a teenage girl, daughter of a billionairess. It transpires that the billionairess, stricken by an incurable cancer, has hired a mad scientist to clone three versions of herself -- one aged 16, one 11 and the third 5. But the mad scientist from Part I has now fallen in with crazed anti-abortion activists and they begin to clone thousands of aborted fetuses to form an army. Some of the characters in this book come to life through weird science but none of them live convincingly in a literary sense.
Upon reaching adulthood, Jim produced nine novels of speculative fiction, including the critically acclaimed Godhead Trilogy.