I’m speechless. I’ve not had so much true enjoyment reading a story in some time: aliens come to Earth to eradicate non-rationalist thinking, and space rangers save the day—all presented to the reader in intelligent fashion. I don’t know if I’ve ever said such a thing about a story…
James Morrow’s 2014 The Madonna and the Starship is simply one of the most intellectually fun pieces of science fiction I think I’ve ever read. Humor a fickle thing, of course, Morrow’s erudite mix of situational comedy, cultural irreverence, and pulp parody is apparently right up my alley. Somehow able to mash the ideas of Christianity and Buck Rogers into a weighty yet amusing tale with humanity’s future (figuratively) at stake, it’s a feat I only a few writers with such scalpel-sharp style and wit could pull off.
Kurt Jastrow, despite being known to millions of children for his science experiments as Uncle Wonder on Saturday morning tv, earns a living writing tv scripts for Brock Barton and his Rocket Rangers. Aliens contacting him one night, they alert Jastrow to their impending arrival on Earth. Atheist rationalist logical positivists (yes!), the aliens find Uncle Wonder’s use of science appealing. They want to see more, and so schedule a date with him. Trouble starts, however, when the aliens catch an episode of By Bread Alone, a conservative Christian show run by Jastrow’s network. The aliens putting into action a tv death ray that will exterminate every viewer of the following week’s episode, it’s up to Jastrow and his limited talents to somehow put aside his own atheist leanings and save humanity—at least the 2 million watching on Sunday morning when they should be in church.
My plot summary falls quite flat compared to the vigor Morrow brings to the table in The Madonna and the Starship. In the Acknowledgments he describes the novel’s impetus as: “At one point it occurred to me that, by steering a path between the nihilistic and the numinous—those dubious worldviews Western civilization so relentlessly recommends to its adherents—even the grottiest pulp SF performs a salutary cultural function.” And grotty, so grottily sweet, it is. Complete with Crunchy-Pop ads and fanged alien puppets, Morrow fulfills his mission: to strike middle ground between religious fundamentalists and the most die-hard of atheists. The pulp aspect allowing him to go beyond maudlin sentiment (“Why can’t we all just get along?”), he arrives at a spot of 50s Americana that utilizes both Christianity and corny space adventure to speak a truth—a colorful, wise truth.
Like seemingly all of Morrow’s work (that I’ve read), there is not one word out of place in The Madonna and the Starship. As precise as precise can be, it gives the humor the sharpest of edges and the religious, social, and personal commentary the deepest cut. Wisdom is sometimes captured in humor, and Morrow’s interweaving of aliens and Christianity proves it. Smashing good fun—no, smashing good intelligent fun—no, smashing good atheist rationalist logical positivists fun, yes…
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