Ray Bradbury - The Cat's Pajamas
William Morrow hardcover - copyright 2004
Cover art by Ray Bradbury - 234 pages
Rating: 5/10 (Mildly Recommended)
James Morrow - The Cat's Pajamas
Tachyon hardcover - copyright 2004
Cover art by John Picacio - 209 pages
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Reviews by Aaron Hughes
No doubt some of you reading this have never heard of Morrow, but stumbled onto this review looking for information about Ray Bradbury's new book. Perhaps you used to read science fiction from the Golden Age of the 1950's and 60's, but eventually moved on to more "mature" mainstream fare. You are unfamiliar with the science fiction writers who have appeared in the past umpteen years, but every now and then you get an urge to read one of your old favorites, Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. To you I say, go ahead and enjoy Ray Bradbury's The Cat's Pajamas, BUT DON'T STOP THERE! Get yourself a book by one of the newer generation of talented science fiction and fantasy writers, something like James Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas. You will find that the field of science fiction is much stronger today than it was fifty years ago when Bradbury and Asimov had their heyday, and far more entertaining than most of that tedious mainstream stuff you've been forcing yourself to read.
The twenty-one selections in Ray Bradbury's The Cat’s Pajamas: Stories are evenly divided between stories Bradbury has written in the past two years and stories he wrote between 1946 and 1952, with just a single 1980 tale and a 1997 poem thrown in for good measure. Of the pieces from Bradbury's early career, only one was published at the time ("A Careful Man Dies", in the November 1946 issue of New Detective). One must wonder how so many Bradbury stories could sit on the shelf for over a half-century. I suspect the reason has less to do with their quality than with the fact that most of them are mystery, suspense, and mainstream, rather than the science fiction that was Bradbury's bread-and-butter early in his career (the most notable exception being "A Matter of Taste", about mankind's first contact with a race of very friendly giant spiders).
Most of the stories in Bradbury's The Cat's Pajamas - both early and recent - are short vignettes, rather than fully fleshed out stories. As such, none of them ranks with Bradbury's best work, but they do illustrate what makes him a great writer. For example, "I Get The Blues When It Rains" is merely a remembrance of an evening singing with friends, yet Bradbury conveys the simple joy of the occasion in a way that few authors could. Bradbury always finds a colorful way to describe everyday scenes, and he fires off some memorable one-liners, such as this one from the 1951 story "Triangle": "You be happy by being happy. I'll be happy by being cynical, and we'll see who's happiest in the long run."
The highlight of Bradbury's collection is his early fiction addressing race relations. Bradbury does not get the credit he deserves for writing about issues of race before it was fashionable, for instance the excellent story "Way in the Middle of the Air", collected in The Martian Chronicles. Examples from The Cat's Pajamas include "The Transformation", written in 1949, in which some unusual vigilantes turn the tables on a Southern racist, and "Chrysalis", where a white beachgoer working on his tan strikes up a friendship with a young black man hoping to use skin cream to turn himself pale (written in 1947, long before anyone heard of Michael Jackson).
Unfortunately, the stories from 2003 and 2004 are unimpressive. A couple are worth your time - the title story, a simple tale of two cat-lovers arguing over who should keep a stray they have found, which carries an emotionally satisfying payoff, and "Sixty-Six", a wistful story set on old Route 66 - but as a group they do not compare well to Bradbury in his prime.
James Morrow, on the other hand, is in peak form. Morrow is the pre-eminent satirist in science fiction today. At his best, including in his World Fantasy Award-winning novels Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah and Nebula Award-winning novella City of Truth, he is simultaneously hilarious and thought-provoking. Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas and Other Stories, from San Francisco's excellent small publisher Tachyon Publications, collects ten of his stories and three short plays. Although the pieces go back as far as 1988, most are from the past five years, including three original to this book. While the quality is a bit uneven, there is more than enough evidence here of Morrow's many talents for me to heartily recommend this collection.
The first thing you'll notice about James Morrow is what outrageous ideas he concocts. If you're a sports fan who has ever been needled about wasting time on such unimportant matters, you'll love "The Fate of Nations", in which we learn that the future of the galaxy rests on the ball games you watch. "The Zombies of Montrose", my favorite of the three plays in this collection, gives us Arabella LeGrand, a voodoo queen who resurrects the dead and tasks the (surprisingly articulate and philosophical) zombies with helping the needy. The wealthy citizens of the town resent that they are excluded from the benefit of Arabella's zombie labor. It is a literal case of, that's right, voodoo economics.
If you have an offbeat sense of humor, Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas will have you in stitches. My personal choice for the funniest story is "The War of the Worldviews", in which Manhattan is caught in the crossfire of a violent battle between two tiny races from the moons of Mars locked in a philosophical dispute.
Even the goofiest stories here have a point to make, but some of the tales take a more serious tone to drive Morrow's points home. Thankfully, The Cat's Pajamas grapples with a broader range of subjects than many of Morrow's books, and only two or three of the stories center on the issues with the Catholic faith that have been the focus of much of his work. In "Fucking Justice", for instance, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, who engineered the infamous Dred Scott decision, gets a memorable comeuppance. This story is quite similar in theme and tone to Bradbury's "The Transformation" - unlike the authors' respective stories called "The Cat's Pajamas", which could hardly be more different.
While I was glad to see Morrow explore other subjects, the most powerful story in this collection is one with a religious theme. Nebula nominee "Auspicious Eggs" presents a future in which the Catholic Church dominates the post-global warming Isle of Boston. The Church has expanded its battle to protect the unborn to encompass also the unconceived. Thus, for example, it is deemed a mortal sin for a husband and wife to waste sperm cells by having sex when the woman is not ovulating. You may call this absurd, but you will then be asked to explain the Church's current positions on masturbation and contraception. Certainly Morrow does not play the idea for laughs; rather, he includes some very disturbing scenes to raise questions not only about abortion, but about the potential of religious doctrine for evil or for good. As with most of Morrow's works about religion, it is no anti-religious rant, for instance portraying one of the Catholic priests very sympathetically.
A couple of Morrow's stories fail to follow through effectively on an interesting premise, such as "The Wisdom of the Skin", in which sex has become a performance art, and the title story, in which a seemingly mad scientist feeds bits of his victim's brain to his mutants to teach them ethics. Overall, however, James Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas is a strong collection, certain to make you laugh and to make you think.There is plenty to enjoy in both Ray Bradbury's The Cat's Pajamas and James Morrow's The Cat's Pajamas, but the Morrow collection is the more exceptional of the two.
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Copyright © 2004 Aaron Hughes
James Morrow - The Cat's Pajamas
book back cover and spine
Cover art by John Picacio (right)