Monday, 6 July 2009

The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow

The Philosopher's Apprentice was a random library selection, simply because it was on the returned books shelves at the library and the description appealed. The book starts with Mason Ambrose storming out of his PHD viva, where he is defending his thesis, Ethics from the Earth. Soon after this, as he is ruminating on where his life will take him next, he is approached to take on a job tutoring a seventeen year old girl in ethics as she has had an accident that has wiped out all traces of conscience and morality, and is running wild, with no ethics at all. This is plain to see as when he first meets Londa, she swears, storms about and nearly kills a fish by purposely removing it from it's pond and letting it flip about on the ground. She is also blessed with a photographic memory, so can read books in very short spaces of time and is constantly repeating facts gleaned from encyclopedias.

Mason and Londa embark on a whistle stop tour of the major philosophical schools of thought from Stoicism to Christianity, taking in Kant, Plato, Aristotle and Utilitarianism along the way, and using hypothetical moral dilemmas to illustrate the ideas. Londa seems to make good progress in developing a conscience to enable her to function in society. But suffice to say all is not it seems. When he is not tutoring Londa, Mason tours his surroundings and soon discovers that Londa is not the only child without a conscience on the island, and he is not the only tutor. How these children come into being, and their connection to each other is central to the rest of the story.

Mason completes his contract, moves back to Boston, gets married, opens a bookshop and avoids Londa at all costs. Londa gets an education, and founds a utilitarian type compound, providing refuge for women in trouble, taking in teenage pregnancies, abused women, and women who want abortions. Using her comprehensive grounding in philosophy she sets up a haven for troubled women, as well as using her considerable intelligence to develop cures for Cancer and smash sex slave networks.

This is when this book goes a bit strange. Facing opposition from highly Christian organisations, Mason gets drawn back into Londa's world, with her opponents using some very dubious methods, derived from the strange island of Londa's youth, to create an aggrieved army to crush Londa's compound. Londa at this point turns against the world and seems determined to create a better world, involving kidnapping and murder, all in the name of utilitarianism. It all ends with Mason facing one of the impossible moral dilemmas he used to teach Londa the basics of philosophy at the start except in a very real way, when neither decision is right.

This is definitely a book of two parts. The first part is quite light, and with it's emphasis on philosophy through the ages, remind me a bit of Sophie's World, but the second and third parts are much darker, and less realistic. With concepts of genetic engineering, Christian fundamentalism and the evils of capitalism it is almost certainly a comment on modern society. It's satire in a very in your face way, as it's all highly exaggerated and not altogether realistic. I did enjoy it though, and it was a good story, with a few 'oh my god' moments. I would say that you would probably need to have a slight interest in philosophy in the first place to enjoy this, and not be worried if things go a bit science fiction, because realism is not a strong point of this story.

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