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The Madonna and the Starship

February 26, 2015

Eleanor and I started reading science fiction books by James Morrow over winter break. She read the Towing Jehovah series, which I’d read and enjoyed some years before. I read a few others, older novels. We’re studying up for our trip to Orlando (Orlando!) in March for the IAFA convention. Joan Slonczewski and James Morrow are the guests of honor. Joan asked me to come with her, and Eleanor is going with a friend whose mother is a SF editor. I’m going to be on a panel about satire in science fiction, so I’ve been on the lookout for good examples.

Morrow’s most recent novel is both satiric and contains satire: The Madonna and the Starship (2014). Set in 1950’s NYC, it evokes the wonders of the pulp science fiction era with a decidedly modern overlay of images and ideas.

Kurt Jastrow is the head writer of a weekly TV series entitled Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers. He also appears in a ten-minute epilogue called Uncle Wonder’s Attic, in which he demonstrates some aspect of the science in the episode. One day he is contacted by blue lobsters from outer space who appear on his rabbit-eared TV to say “Greetings Earthling!….Salutations, O Kurt Jastrow! We have converted your television into a pangalactic transceiver! Even as you watch this broadcast, we are hurtling toward you from our home planet, Qualimosa in the Procyon system!” The blue lobsters inform Kurt that “all the brightest people on Qualimosa adore Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” although they admit that “Qualimosa’s engineers are still calibrating our planet’s TV antennas,” so they have only seen two other shows. They announce their intention to appear on Friday’s program to give him an award “for those who champion reason in its eternal war with revelation.”

The plot grows more sinister, however, as one of the aliens informs Kurt that “Qualimosa’s engineers strive incessantly to keep the torch of reason burning…. Recently they discovered that the scanning-gun of an ordinary cathode-ray tube can be appropriated to exterminate viewers of any philosophically problematic narrative borne by the electromagnetic spectrum.”
It turns out that the aliens find anything religious to be “philosophically problematic” and they’re thinking of wiping out the viewers of a show called Not by Bread Alone, a show Kurt’s friend Connie works on. Thinking fast, Kurt informs the aliens that “Not by Bread Alone is a satiric program….It mocks belief in the supernatural.” They agree to deactivate their weapon if the next show does turn out to be satiric. Kurt and Connie then have to write and rehearse the next week’s show, and they decide to call it The Madonna and the Starship.

The actors are delighted. The one who plays Jesus
“laid a palm on his script. ‘A Messiah driven mad by his premature burial,’ he said in measured tones. Hey, Connie, hey, Kurt—this is meaty stuff. Jesus as Quixote, as Lear, Ahab, Raskolnikov. I’m salivating like Pavlov’s dog. Sure, I’ll probably get some bad press in Daily Variety, ‘Yid Thespian Ridicules Redeemer in Blasphemous Broadcast,’ but hey, I can live with it.”
Another of the actors asks “how often does an actor get to play a gorilla who introduces Jesus Christ to Charles Darwin?”

From that set-up, the action continues to get more exaggerated and funnier. Kurt’s friends try to keep the aliens busy by feeding them macaroni and cheese and playing poker with them (they explain that “the rules are so logical and self-evident that the game has evolved independently on many worlds, as did chess and mahjong.”) The aliens keep threatening to unleash their “death-ray” and explain that their goal is “to exterminate a hive of irrationalist vermin thriving on your planet.”

The Madonna and the Starship is performed, with the addition of advertising for Sugar Corn Pops and Ovaltine included as part of the Eucharist meal and a special message for the Qualimosans. It doesn’t all go exactly as planned, but in the end, Earth is saved from annihilation.

It’s my favorite kind of satire, with the silliness exaggerated in order to recommend some more moderate course of action. As a bonus, there’s some satire on the ambitions of writers of genre fiction (“Dear Mr. Jastrow, you are an intellectual snob….However, the scene of the monk sucker-punching the orangutan was to delicious to pass up. Enclosed please find a check for $120.”)

Have you read any good examples of satiric science fiction that I should try to read before our trip begins, on March 18?

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2015 2:45 pm

    Sounds like a fun one but I find I really need to be in the mood for Morrow or he just doesn’t strike me as funny. Have you read Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice? Congrats on being on an SF panel! Be sure to share how it goes!

    • March 2, 2015 11:17 am

      Yes, if it’s by Heinlein, I’ve read it.
      I can see someone needing to be in the mood for Morrow. I like silly!

  2. March 2, 2015 2:38 pm

    Aren’t some of Connie Willis’s short stories satires? Of course, now I can’t remember which….

    • March 2, 2015 3:26 pm

      I am, at least so far, not a fan of Willis, so I haven’t read her short stories. Maybe I should try a few?

      • March 3, 2015 10:12 am

        Some of them are excellent. A few are too dark for me. Most are enjoyable. If you don’t like Willis, though, I’m not sure you’ll like the short stories. I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog, and I enjoyed the Domesday Book. Not such a fan of Passage or Lincoln’s Dreams, though. Depending on which of her novels you’ve tried and not enjoyed, you may or may not enjoy my recommendations. Fire Watch was a good collection of short stories, from what I recall. It’s been….nearly a decade since I read it, though.

  3. March 2, 2015 2:42 pm

    Ado. That’s the one. Plus probably others.

  4. March 3, 2015 7:03 am

    That sounds very exciting to be on a panel! I don’t have any suggestions for you, but I’m sure you’ve read plenty already! The closest thing I’ve read lately to satirical s/f would be RIngworld by Larry Niven, but not sure that would qualify as satirical. Larry Wu’s jaded attitude and the humor of his encounters with the aliens are funny, but I guess not satirical?

    • March 3, 2015 12:55 pm

      Yeah, there’s lots of funny that’s not satirical.

  5. March 3, 2015 10:14 am

    Terry Pratchett, especially Jingo. Maybe Equal Rites?

    • March 3, 2015 12:56 pm

      I know I should like Pratchett. Lots of people I like adore his writing. Maybe I’m too old, or something.

      • March 3, 2015 8:51 pm

        Maybe. I confess that I started on Pratchett a LONG time ago. 1997, I believe? The first few books in the Discworld series are…well, vaguely enjoyable. But you can see Pratchett develop in his craft through the series, and though I’d not much both with rereading The Colour of Magic or the second book (The Light Fantastic?), I do enjoy the City Watch books. (Or I did, 5-10 yrs ago, when I still read much book-length fiction.)

      • March 3, 2015 8:54 pm

        That comment was simply meant to indicate that if I’d begun reading at a later (more sophisticated? hah!) age, I might’ve given up on Pratchett based on his early works. But he honed his skills, developed his craft, etc. You might like the Discworld series from its halfway point on, and you might find it loosely enjoyable from book 3 on. (I don’t really recommend books 1 and 2 to anyone, unless they’re of a temperament to need to read a WHOLE series, just because all the books happen to exist.)

        • March 9, 2015 2:52 pm

          Starting in the middle might give me at least some appreciation. I tend to want to start at the beginning, and so I’ve never gotten into Discworld before.

  6. March 10, 2015 9:50 am

    I think the Watch novels are the best, with the Witch novels and the Death novels also fun. I wouldn’t bother with Rincewind, if I were you:
    http://boingboing.net/2007/09/30/pratchetts-discworld.html

    • March 10, 2015 10:12 am

      Hmm. The Death novels start with one called Mort. I might approve of that.

      • April 27, 2015 12:24 pm

        Have you picked it up yet? Inquiring minds want to know.

        • April 27, 2015 12:25 pm

          I have not; there are a lot of books on my list. But should I hurry? Just because you want to hear what I think?

          • April 28, 2015 12:44 pm

            Eh, I’m not going anywhere. You’ll give it a try when you feel like it. Don’t pick it up before then!

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