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Sci-fi readers urged 'to think until hurts'

Saturday, February 26, 2000

By Ken Chiacchia

You'd think Pittsburgh would be a tough audience for an atheist who writes science fiction with biting religious satire. But James Morrow is being welcomed all the same -- even by some who count themselves among the believers.

A resident of State College, Morrow is guest of honor at ConFluence, Pittsburgh's yearly science-fiction convention. At the convention this weekend, he'll sit on panels discussing science fiction, read his work at 3 p.m. today, and perform in his one-act play, "Zombies of Montrose," tonight at 8.

Two-thirds of Morrow's e-mail, he said in a telephone interview, are from "overt atheist skeptics ... saying, 'Go for it, Jim, give the carcass of organized religion a kick in the ribs.' The remaining third is from believers who say, 'Thank you for writing these books -- [they] told me it's OK to think.' "

Readers, Morrow said, don't need to give up their beliefs to enjoy his work -- they only need to examine their faith critically.

"All I'm trying to do is get people to think until it hurts," Morrow added. "That's not the same thing as being a blasphemer -- although it's sometimes entailed."

"Blasphemy" may not be too strong a word, either, for the author of the Godhead Trilogy: "Towing Jehovah," "Blameless in Abaddon" and his newest, "The Eternal Footman."

In the beginning of "Towing Jehovah," a maritime salvage crew is trying to figure out what to do with a 2-mile-long, caucasoid body that plummeted into the ocean. It might well be You-Know-Who, but He's not dead, just comatose.

In "Blameless in Abaddon," a retelling of the Job story, the Job character serves as the prosecuting attorney when the comatose deity is put on trial.

Other Morrow works include "Only Begotten Daughter," "a complex critique of Christianity that is not everybody's cup of tea," the novella "City of Truth" and the short-story collection, "Bible Stories for Adults," which retell biblical stories with a modern twist.

Morrow has a sense of humor about the irony that such a diehard atheist is making a living writing about religion. "I don't know what I'd do without God," he said. "We all kind of live off the fat of Judeo-Christianity, even as we cross-examine it severely."

In some ways, Morrow said, a kind of latent spirituality resides in science- fiction fans. Science fiction is, by his way of thinking, religion by other means. Like religion, it deals with the big questions: the cosmic picture of who we are, why we're here and whether there's any meaning to life.

Morrow didn't deny that some science-fiction readers don't read him and probably never will. Of the gigantic undertaking described in "Towing Jehovah," he said, "You're going to discover whether you buy the concept in three or four pages. Then you can either throw the book across the room, or read it."

But science fiction is, if nothing else, a big tent, Morrow said. "There appears to be room for everybody . . . There's a kind of tolerance which I admire; science fiction doesn't put on airs."

ConFluence, which is open to the public, will be held from 3 p.m. today through tomorrow afternoon at the Sheraton Inn, Mars. For information, call the hotel at 724-776-6900 or check out the Web site at

Ken Chiacchia, a free-lance writer, will be a member of a ConFluence panel discussing how technology may change the human race.

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