The Philosopher’s Apprentice, James Morrow’s most recent book, is what can only be described as thinking man’s pulp fiction. As an ABD (all but dissertation) Ph.D. candidate at a fictitious Boston university, Mason Ambrose has dreams of a dissertation that will knock the socks off of the committee who decides his educational fate. After his defense of his work goes awry, he is approached by an emissary of the brilliant geneticist Edwina Sabacthani.
Ambrose is intrigued by the story of Sabacthani’s daughter, a girl who has hit her head and lost all ability to distinguish right from wrong, and so takes the job offer that was so generously extended to him.
Arriving on the island that houses the Sabacthani women, Ambrose is both delighted and uneasy to find that Sabacthani’s daughter, Londa, has a mind that is quite literally a tabula rasa (blank slate), and so goes about molding some sort of moral fiber for the girl.
It is only when hiking that he finds two other Sabacthani children with Londa’s same problem who are completely unaware of their sister’s existence. Who are these girls? Why do none of them have any memory of their life? And why do none of them have any idea of each other’s existence?
Morrow’s book is represented in three distinct parts, in which three distinct moral dilemmas are posed to the reader via both Ambrose and Londa at three different important stages of Londa’s life.
But don’t just assume that Morrow’s book is merely a thought experiment in a vacuum. Morrow gives the reader context for the difficult decisions in the form of Ambrose’s inner monologue, which is heavily interspersed with references to ethicists from Plato to Aristotle, from Kant to Christ. These references can bog down an amateur in the field of ethics, but that’s not the only quicksand offered.
His use of prose is alternately choppy, overfilled with verbiage that has this reviewer scrambling for her dictionary. It is carefully constructed with a sort of attention to detail that is severely lacking from modern day fiction best sellers.
To be honest, his word choices in general were a bit tedious. On average I found it necessary to look up a word every two or three pages in this book, which can be a turn off.
On top of issues with syntax, the story arc in general is a bit preposterous. This book’s clear science fiction style is obvious once the reader has finished the first hundred or so pages, however, if the genre of the book were clear beforehand, the strange direction in which Morrow took parts two and three wouldn’t be such a shock.
In all fairness, the book’s non-redeeming qualities are most obvious when one is reading it with a critical eye, but if you’re looking for a quasi-believable sci-fi novel that you can take to the beach and read relatively quickly, try The Philosopher’s Apprentice. The characters are well-rounded, the intrigue is nifty, and personally I think that any novel with a talking feathered iguana, a sentient tree and the second coming of the Titanic can’t go wrong.