A pair of fresh-faced young writers working in the brand new medium of television face off against homicidal lobster-like aliens in James Morrow’s The Madonna and the Starship, a light romp which celebrates Golden Age SF, logical positivism, and the undisputed value of keeping an open mind.
The heart of the story is Kurt Jastrow, an aspiring science fiction writer. Kurt has all but fallen into a job as the do-it-all creative force behind an inexpensive gee-whiz TV show called Brock Barton. This is exactly what it sounds like: Brock heads up a plucky ship’s crew and they bounce about having adventures. In space! Which always looks like the studio back lot!
Not only does Kurt write every episode, taking care to ensure that his heroes drink Ovaltine and eat sponsored cereals on cue, he wraps up the weekly offering with a personal appearance as Uncle Wonder, a fatherly scientist type who walks audiences a home science experiment. Each experiment demonstrates real scientific principles for the kids back home, while touching upon whatever happened in the preceding Brock Barton episode.
Working in TV isn’t necessarily where Kurt saw himself when he chose his profession. He has a true love for prose fiction, and has had some success selling stories to the eccentric, shut-in editor of Andromeda Magazine. He is also nursing unrequited feelings for one of the TV station’s other writers. His crush object? A literature-loving woman named Connie Osborne who helms the Sunday morning religious program, Not by Bread Alone. Connie’s relationship with her faith is complicated, but that doesn’t keep her from writing a teleparable every week while she grapples with her spiritual issues, her career and her love life.
It is the Uncle Wonder segments at the end of Brock Barton that attract the attention of an alien race, the Quasimodans. The aliens make contact with Kurt after work one day. They are from a world in the grip of a war over the validity of religion, and their particular faction is materialist: they denigrate all spiritual beliefs as superstition and revere the realm of the provable. Uncle Wonder’s no-nonsense science experiments have caught their attention. They love how Earthlings are so rational and devoid of magical thinking! As a result, they’ve decided to give Kurt a little trophy they call Zornigorg Prize.
Kurt spends seven days worrying that he’s about to become the butt of an elaborate practical joke, but a week later, right on cue, the creatures show up to make the presentation. The trophy itself is a brain-altering marvel, conveniently able to convince anyone who sees it that the aliens and their technology are real.
Learning that sentient offworlders exist is more than a little exciting, of course, and there are some tricky moments when it turns out they look like giant talking lobsters and have to be disguised. First contact is going beautifully when Kurt and Connie make a tragic misstep by giving the alien representatives a tour of the NBC studio. Volavont and Wulawand, staunch logical positivists, are horrified when they see a rehearsal in progress for Connie’s show, Not by Bread Alone. Oh dear! Humanity may be contaminated by wrongheaded spirituality after all! They hatch a scheme to fry the entire Bread Alone viewing audience next time the program airs.
It falls to Kurt and all his friends to convince the two lobster beings that Connie’s Lazarus episode is a blasphemous satire of antiquated Christian beliefs. If they can’t, an entire demographic segment will be wiped off the U.S. map.
James Morrow’s The Madonna and the Starship is, at least on the surface, a light-hearted romp. In its architecture, it has similarities to Ray Vukcevich’s brilliant “White Guys in Space,” wherein the Sixties are repealed and lobstermen come to Earth looking to grab up some women. The comedy is broad, with wacky lobstermen, neurotic magazine editors, intergalactic poker games and lots of talk of philosophy and religion. Morrow always serves up plenty of laughs.
Like many a great comedy, The Madonna and the Starship also has a dark underbelly. Volavont and Wulawand aren’t kidding around when they set out to destroy all the wholesome TV viewers thinking to tune in on their favorite religious program. They’re wacky and delightful. They might be your zany aunt or otherwise adorable neighbor. But they’re also so committed to their beliefs that they’re willing to murder millions over a TV show.
Much of Morrow’s work combines this sort of high-flown comic action with the possibility of a harrowing disaster. I didn’t feel this book struck as much of a nerve as some of his earlier novels, though, and in time I worked out why: the potential danger and suffering in The Madonna and the Starship are at something of a remove. In Only Begotten Daughter, Julie Katz suffers a horrific ordeal. In Blameless in Abbadon, Martin Candle’s troubles are immense, his fury at his Creator wholly justified. This latest novel doesn’t take us to quite so dark a place. It’s not froth by any stretch of the imagination… but it feels brighter and cheerier than some of its predecessors.
To say that a book is different from what its author has written before, of course, isn’t really a criticism so much as it is an observation. And this is a fun novel, easy to read, with a message that is quick to sink in and lots of nods to early science fiction, its practitioners, and its fans.
Even so, I had to think a bit about whether I liked The Madonna and the Starship as much as I did those earlier works, or considered it as meaningful. It’s a good book, but it doesn’t rank among my all-time favorites, as do those others.
It may be that Kurt, Connie and Planet Earth get off just a bit lightly in this novel, somehow—that by declining to put them through a wringer, Morrow lets his cautionary tale about zealotry slide off us a bit too easily.
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her most recent appearance is in “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” the second of a series of stories called The Gales. Both this story and its predecessor, “Among the Silvering Herd,” are prequels to her upcoming Tor novel, Child of a Hidden Sea.
If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.