I have recently read and reviewed Mortal Gods which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was also intrigued by the book and how it dealt with a lot of modern themes: racism, religious intolerance, consumerism, celebrity deification, terrorism and political corruption. I was so intrigued how a novel this unique from the 70’s could still hold up against modern scientific knowledge. To quell my intrigue, I recently had the pleasure to interview Professor Jonathan Fast about Mortal Gods and to discuss some of the elements within this book.
In my correspondence with Jonathan Fast I found him very polite and most accommodating. He was very open and willing to talk candidly about his book and himself, and I got the impression that here is a man that, even though he no longer writes fiction, the stars and planets still spin within him. I have provided the interview (below) in full, with only some minor editing:
What are your favorite elements in Mortal Gods?
You have to remember that I wrote this book about 40 years ago and my recollections of it are a little fuzzy. I remember falling in love with the alien, and the fact that she was happy to eat the flowers he gave her, two cultures (or biologies) incidentally coinciding to his dating advantage. I remember liking the idea of the Lifestylers because it seemed like something new in a field where every sort of strange culture had been already been created by the previous generation of science fiction writers. This was before Cyberpunk. It still seems like a good metaphor for pop stars. At the time I liked the idea of many of the politicians being “already dead” but now it seems kind of adolescent.
Do you read your own fiction once it’s published? Do you have any desire to re-visit the worlds and characters you’ve created, or is it cathartic to be done with them once completed and published?
I never read my novels after they are finished. On a couple of occasions, I have tried. The beginnings are always strong but then I come to something that makes me cringe and I put them aside
What aspects were you the unhappiest about with your book? What changes would you make now if you decided to re-write it?
The one thing I remember disliking was Nick’s mentor telling him that he was listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. So heavy-handed! I’m sure the book had a number of other weaknesses but that’s the one the one that sticks in my mind.
These days it’s easy to search for information on the internet. Did you have much consultation with specialists or educators to flesh out the science of your world?
I read a great non-fiction book about DNA by Robert Silverberg (?) and that inspired many of the ideas in Mortal Gods. Then I was extremely lucky to run into a friend of a friend who was getting her doctorate at Rockefeller University in genetics. She read through the manuscript and liked it. It’s funny because now that I write “scholarly” non-fiction, I spend years (literally) researching my books and read (literally) hundreds of articles. My latest book, Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Bullying, Shame & Violence, (Oxford University Press, 2015) has over 300 citations.
What was the initial reaction from publishers to your manuscript? Was there much (if any) rejection before being published?
It was immediately accepted by New American Library which immediately sold hardcover rights, so I was pretty happy. Its predecessor, The Secrets of Synchronicity, had a dozen rejections and never appeared in hardcover.
You are an Associate Professor at Yeshiva University – do your colleagues or students talk to you about your science fiction books? Do you have any fans that track you down to share their thoughts on your books?
The daughter of one of my colleagues was a huge fan of my novelization of the Disney film, Newsies. Other than that, none of my colleagues has ever mentioned any of my work in any context that I can recall. It’s as though my life before social work, my nine novels, never existed. However: I learned a few years ago that the gossip was that I had written the original book for Newsies, which is now a hit Broadway musical, and that I was fabulously rich on account of it. This did not help my popularity.
According to the Bibliography on Wikipedia your latest book, Beyond Bullying, is your 11th publication. Is this accurate? Have you written anything that you never got published for any reason?
I think I wrote six or seven novels that were never published because they were TERRIBLE! The less said about them, the better. I consider them the cost of my apprenticeship as a fiction writer.
In Mortal Gods, one of the over-arching themes is xenoracism. Was this story about the Black-American rights movements of the 60’s and their ‘entering society’ for the first time? Was Hali a metaphor, or was she a parody of society’s ‘perfect woman’ – exotic, lithe, plays hard to get, gifts Nick with sexual pleasure, and then leaves with no obligations or repercussions?
I was going out with a black women a year or two earlier and she was clearly the model for Hali. She was from Hawaii, pursuing her PhD in psychology at NYU. It was the first time I had ever been intimate with a black person, or a native Hawaiian. She referred to herself as a Hapa-Hauli which is Hawaiian for half-white. I moved to California and she went back to Hawaii. It seemed like another planet. Hali = Hauli! The unconscious is a remarkable thing! I don’t think I was aware of this while I was writing the book; it certainly would have interfered with the writing of it.
Another common theme is Hero-worship, or perhaps exaggeration of worth (of the self, and of others.) The Lifestylers are an eerie prediction of modern society’s cults of hero worship and celebrity deification. The Lifestylers don’t seem to discriminate whom they give gifts to, and their gifts seem to be without limitation; most importantly there is no expected cost or consequence for these gifts. Who or what was the inspiration for the Lifestylers?
I don’t remember anything about them giving gifts to their followers without consequences, but I like it. From my current POV it sounds like “swag” for everyone. What could be sweeter? In Star Trek there is no money as I understand it. No currency. An economy free of poverty and want. So I guess if it’s in Star Trek it must be possible.
Gratification and reward without cost is another over-arching theme. It is played out in various sex scenes – each one varied and often imaginative. Every sex scene involved some element of discomfort and non-consent (whether physical or mental/emotional,) and in the one truly consensual coupling between Nick and Hali, we have Althea kidnapped and watching, so there is still an unwilling element present. Was this a deliberate statement about human sexuality, or a statement on the human need for gratification and fulfillment, irrespective of the cost?
His relationship with Althea was decadent, and his relationship with Hali was authentic. I remember the part where she takes a bite out of his ear during their climax. I read that somewhere and I liked it so much I borrowed it–but I forgot to give it back.
The end of the book was bitter sweet – Hali doing the right thing by her people, and sacrificing her love. Is this representative of the social criticisms of inter-racial relationships at the time? Or was this the books way of redeeming humanity’s culture of gratification and excess without cost – when something meaningful is finally discovered, and had to be earned (not instantly gifted from the gods) and then is taken away at the end so that the only true ‘reward’ is internalized.
The ending just felt right. He needed to get his heart broken, and she needed to get home and back to her job as whatever-it-was she did for (a) living.
The Alta-Tyberian’s genetic deformities were described as being a form of mongolism. Why was this chosen as their downfall? Why not something more exotic, or dramatic? Was this a response to social attitudes towards the handicapped during the 70’s?
Remember that DNA was not yet in the public discourse in the 1970s. I may have chosen it because it was something I thought the public would know about.
This book is heavily layered with race-relation issues. It holds up against the decades because today, instead of race we have ideological/ intolerance, and discrimination of status. It seems that as soon as we could accept race we had to find some other aspect of each other to be intolerant of. Even the politics in the story are still relevant. The ‘us or them’ attitude in the story reminded me straight away of Bush Jr and the ‘age of terrorism’. If this book was written today, Nick would be a terrorist.
Are you surprised that unlike a lot of semi-vintage science fiction, your book has weathered and remained relevant?
Very, very rarely, but it does happen. I have mixed feeling about the old out-print copies of my SF (all my fiction is out-of-print) that get resold on Amazon for 20 cents. But that’s capitalism for you.
Your questions are very, very kind in that they assume a degree of literary self-consciousness that was way beyond what I had at the time. Most of Mortal Gods just felt right. When I wrote it, I still didn’t have a publisher for Secrets of Synchronicity, (or the six or seven terrible novels I had written prior to it). In other words, I had not yet published a book-length work. I was determined to write a science fiction work that would get published. What was on my mind was what do people look for in good SF (back in 1978)? The answers were exploration of emerging fields of science, a good love story, a mystery and some Swiftian social commentary.
Mortal Gods seems to use shame a lot as a driver of plot and character development. Was this a social commentary at the time, or was this your own personal interest peeking out, and the segue into your current career in Psychology and Social Sciences?
My new book, Beyond Bullying, is non-fiction and draws on evidence from anthropology, sociology, psychology and history to support the argument that shame is the “master emotion.” The great literature of the 19th century is all shame motivated. Shame is the engine that propels the plot.
On the website for your book, Beyond Bullying, you describe shame as ‘the feeling we have when our membership in a group is at risk.’ Also you suggest that ‘bullying happens when a bully intentionally uses the power of shame to hurt us. The best way to deal with this is to recognize bullying for what it is: weaponized shame, and manage it as we would any other kind of shame.’ These ideas are quite clearly represented in the way the characters motivate themselves and respond to others in your book. Were these ideas around bullying already developing at the time, or did these ideas come later in life?
I had no clue about this 40 years ago. If my characters were propelled by shame, it was because, during the writing of that book, I brushed up against the Muse–however briefly and lightly.
Mortal Gods is a classic that remains modern, not so much for the thought put into the book, but for the heart and soul put into it. Like any decent work of fiction, if the author lacks passion this is conveyed in the writing, and thus tarnishes the reader’s experience. This book does not lack passion; I shared a genuine interest in seeing the characters resolve their conflicts, and shared in their heartbreaks and their triumphs.
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Jonathan Fast (born April 13, 1948) is an author of eight fiction books, has worked as a screenwriter for various companies, has won awards for scripts he has written for educational films, and has written numerous articles in the field of Social Work. He has written two major books on Social issues: Ceremonial Violence, and Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Bullying, Shame & Violence, (Oxford University Press, 2015).
He currently works as Associate Professor at the Wurzweiler School Of Social Work, New York.
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