Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review - Only Begotten Daughter

Only Begotten Daughter
by James Morrow
Tied for 1991 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I thought after the run of pretty good novels followed by two exceptionally weak ones that the World Fantasy Awards might have been entering the 90's slump that the Hugos and Nebulas had where it seemed like every winner was worse than the last one (well, except for The Terminal Experiment; you can't get worse than that). Well things have perked up again starting right here with Only Begotten Daughter.

Through a set of circumstances too unimportant to recount here a sperm donor finds that one of his samples has spontaneously started growing a fetus. He names the child Julie and she is the daughter of God. Julie's mother won't talk to her and her father is terrified that she will repeat the life of her half-brother and forbids that she perform miracles. An old friend of the family is lurking around, though, and wants Julie to do what comes naturally to her.

Religious parody is a tricky thing to do well; far too much of it comes across as a fifteen year old who has just figured out that he can shock his parents by saying that God doesn't exist. It's not enough to just trot out the same complaints of hypocrisy and illogic in Christianity (which is the target of 99% of the religious parodies that I've encountered). The author needs a sharp wit and a distance from the material to avoid turning into an angry, boring rant. Morrow for the most part succeeds in this by using a strawman religious cult as his foil and the only onscreen representative of religions which can occupy the niche of all the bad things in organized religion while only having the slightest resemblence to any major modern religions.

That isn't to say he does it perfectly. There are chunks of the novel where I felt he did descend into childish mocking. It's the kind of thing that someone who already doesn't believe can only nod their head to and it doesn't connect with those who do believe. Simply saying, in effect, "Ha ha they believe that!" doesn't really add anything.

It also helps that Morrow emphasizes the human over the divine. It is a major point in the novel that divinity is unfathomable and the characters (both natural and supernatural) struggle with that. Dealing with the tension between omnipotence and humanity is a driving force in the novel as Julie wants to help but fears losing her humanity to the obligations of power. I can't say that I agree with how the characters interpret the situation but at the same time I understand why they choose the paths they take.

The plot is a high speed dance that rapidly moves from structure to structure never dwelling in any one place for long. It dashes from set peice to set peice skipping forward in time at a breakneck speed. Morrow does an excellent job of capturing Julie's life in these vignettes and by avoiding padding the book it doesn't ever drag.

In the end I have to conclude that Only Begotten Daughter is effective. I have read better religious parodies, ones that are lighter in tone usually, but rarely one that is as effectively philisophical. Morrow has written many of these books and his similarly themed Towing Jehova won the World Fantasy Award a few years later. Just on the strength of this novel I am looking forward to reading it.