Novella: The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

The latest from James Morrow is The Madonna and the Starship (2014), another zany, energetic spin down the author’s favorite streets. Much like his excellent Shambling Towards Hiroshima, this one blends history and show business; from the Los Angeles film industry of the 1940s, we shift here to the New York TV business of the 1950s. The resulting novella is bracing, but ultimatley pretty slight.

Kurt Jastrow is a young writer in Manhattan who’s found a strange niche, both writing and appearing in a live sci-fi TV show called Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers. His fictional alter ego, Uncle Wonder, ends each episode with an educational science experiment. It’s a gig that gets him unexpected notice: a crustacean-like alien race from the planet Qualimosa, impressed by his “logical positivism,” comes to Earth to present him with an award. Unfortunately, these science-based rationalists are frightfully intolerant of spiritualism, and Kurt soon realizes that if they find out about Earth’s troubled history with religion, they will commit a horrible atrocity. The solution: put on a show!

The Madonna and the Starship does nothing to mitigate my enthusiasm for Morrow, but I must admit I found it a lesser entry in his canon. It does have a fun screwball energy to it, and recaptures its historical milieu entertainingly. (Old-school SF fans will enjoy Jastrow’s sideline as a pulp era science fiction scribe, selling inventive novelettes to Andromeda magazine.) It’s also pretty silly: a goofy alien invasion plot, serving as fun backdrop for arguing genre-familiar science-versus-religion themes. Morrow is usually pretty sure-footed with this type of material — there are few authors I’d prefer to see write this kind of thing — but the result this time is mixed: agreeable but unsubtle, fun but not quite clever, and perhaps a bit too slyly recursive for my tastes.

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