The Madonna and the Starship
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?