Blue logical positivist lobster aliens give a prize to a writer of a scientific-minded kid’s show and plan to wipe out 2 million religious people from the face of the Earth. And don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine and eat your Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, with the sweetenin’ already on it.
James Morrow‘s novella, The Madonna and the Starship, manages that delightful act of being a laugh out loud funny story at the same time that it intelligently deals with serious issues. You would be excused to think that a story featuring blue lobster aliens would hardly have anything to say about religion, yet in The Madonna and the Starship, Morrow offers criticisms on aspects of how both religious and hardcore atheists behave, at the same time that he offers some meta perspectives on being an author, and how genre fiction is perceived by the public at large.
We’re in the United States, the 1950s are roaring and the golden age of television and science fiction is in full swing. Our protagonist, Kurt Jastrow, has one foot planted firmly in each medium. He is the head writer for Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers, a weekly three-part serial in which after every dashing episode, Kurt himself, in the guise of Uncle Wonder, performs a live experiment to highlight some scientific principle relevant to the episode that has just played. When not working on his television show, Kurt turns to his first love, writing science fiction stories which he sells to the magazine Andromeda, edited by the agoraphobic war veteran Paul Silver.
Little does Kurt know that his Brock Barton show would attract the attention of the Quasimodans, an alien race of blue lobsters who are grappling with a war on their homeworld between religious and non-religious factions. It is from this latter group that a trio of Quasimodans decides to head over to this marvelous rationalist planet that is able to make such wonderful scientific shows as Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers, and give the Zornigorg Prize to its creator. They establish contact with Kurt to tell him of this, which he of course doesn’t believe outright, even if he spends his days imagining wilder scenarios, but he goes along with the charade to see where it might lead. Much to his surprise, when the Zornigorg Prize proves to be an hallucinating wonder the likes of which he has never seen, the significance of it hits him like a spaceship. Aliens are real, and they look like giant blue lobsters.
It was all well and good for Kurt, he unexpectedly received a prize from an alien race and then has to grapple with the fact that oh god aliens are real, but things get messier when the Quasimodans find about Not by Bread Alone, the Sunday morning religious program helmed by Kurt’s crush, Connie Osborne. It seems the planet Earth has an infestation of superstitious people, and it’s the Quasimodans’ duty to free them from that nuisance, lest it fester. That’s when Kurt realizes what the Quasimodans mean to accomplish: the plucking from the face of the Earth of two million people who have done nothing more criminal than watching a television show when they should have been at church. Of course he must now do something to prevent that tragedy from happening, and to do that he, along with Connie, must turn next week’s episode about Lazarus into a blasphemous satire to try and convince the Quasimodans that there is no such thing as a religious person on this planet of ours. He might come to remember with fondness those dinners at the local seafood restaurant where the biggest problem lobsters gave him was how to eat the damned things.
The Madonna and the Starship is a light-hearted story where the aliens are lobsters, and they are blue. Philosophy and religion are discussed and interplanetary poker games are played nonchalantly. It’s hard to take the Quasimodans at face value: they’re fun and wacky, much like that crazy uncle that sometimes shows up unannounced. (Though your crazy uncle most likely isn’t planning to murder millions over their beliefs.)
While Kurt and Connie work over next episode’s script, the Quasimodans are entertained by a host of friends so that they do not have further encounters with religion. That might include a tour through the New York subway system, which, reportedly, is an incredible piece of art only the rational minds of the human species could ever devise. The journey through the subway system also leads to a funny mental image of these huge blue lobster aliens disguising themselves with, of all things, trench coats. From gritty noir detectives to calculating Cold War spies, the trench coat has been a staple in the art of dissimulation for long time, but surely even a trench coat can’t hide blue lobster aliens from being recognized in the streets? Then again, perhaps there really is something to the power of the trench coat that I am just not seeing.
The Madonna and the Starship stands balanced on that sharp knife’s edge of being a funny critique of sensitive subjects while not being offensive about them. From perusing James Morrow’s other works, which I now want to read, it’s obvious that religion is something that is high on his mind, but in this novella it’s not only religious people whom he criticizes, but also the craziest of atheists who think religious people are less than humans because of their belief system. I could see myself recommending this novella to people from both camps knowing that they wouldn’t see it as an attack on them, and more importantly, fully knowing that they would appreciate its cleverness and funniness. I mean, how could you not enjoy a work that is sprinkled with such laugh out loud lines such as “’I’ve heard that four out of five elementary school teachers recommend Ovaltine,’ said Jesus.”