Before I summarize The Madonna and the Starship, I have this to say: it's better than it sounds. The back of the book didn't sell me on the premise: "Will Kurt and his colleagues manage to convince the Qualimosans that Earth is essentially a secular and rationalist world? Or will the two million devotees of NBC's most popular religious program suffer unthinkable consequences for their TV-viewing tastes? Stay tuned for The Madonna and the Starship!" This pastiche of the cheesy-pulp cliffhanger doesn't work for me. It's too glib—all satire, no heart. Fortunately, James Morrow (as you may already know, if you've read his other works) has a talent for breathing poignancy and life into what might, in less deft hands, read like a ham-handed satirical lecture. The pastiche Morrow produces in the novella itself is much richer and more emotionally resonant than its description promises.
The book's protagonist, Kurt Jastro, writes pulp SF for television. He enjoys his work. He's aware of the limitations of the medium but only rarely overcome with anxiety about its lack of substance (most notably when talking to his philosophy-degree-bearing, soup-kitchen-volunteering, Christian-Television-writing colleague, Connie). His ambitions for televised SF change radically when logical positivist lobsters from space calling themselves the Qualimosans pay him a visit. They love Kurt's program. It not only includes science fiction, but also true science, in the form of ten-minute science lessons from the kindly empiricist "Uncle Wonder" at the end of each episode. What's not to love for a logical positivist lobster? But as much as they love Kurt's program, the Qualimosans despise Connie's, and they threaten to destroy all her viewers. Kurt manages to convince them that the rehearsal they've seen is not giving them the full picture—Connie's program is a satire. They agree to consider the possibility, but assure him that they will be watching the next segment of Not By Bread Alone with a skeptical eye, poised to murder everyone watching if the show affirms religion. Connie, Kurt and the actors from both of their programs collaborate to create a madcap, irreverent, genre-bending episode that will involve both the dashing space captain Brock Barton and Jesus's mother.
In a note from the author, Morrow discusses The Madonna and the Starship in terms of his new perspective on science fiction, sparked by his wife's research. He writes: "it occurred to me that by steering a path between the nihilistic and the numinous . . . even the grottiest pulp SF performs a salutary cultural function." Morrow makes this idea incredibly clear in the book itself, which is no mean feat, and even more impressively, he manages to spin a story that's much more than a vessel for this single idea. The story invites an exploration of the power of pulp SF—what it can mean to the people who love it, and what it can mean to us, his readers. It's an impressive effort, and an exciting project. Still, for me, Morrow only partially succeeds in mining the full potential of his setup.
Morrow's most effective gambit is to let Kurt tell the story. Through Kurt, Morrow shows us what he imagines pulp SF would look like to its ideal audience. He shows us a man who appreciates the possibility of the medium to marry established science, heady fantasy, and the wild ambition of portraying the human condition. And Kurt makes for good company. From the first pages of the novella to the last, he tells his tale with a distinctive voice and a distinctive sense of humor—one that does not always match with my own idea of a good joke, but which endears him to me nevertheless. I particularly enjoyed hearing from him that he tells people he came to New York for the trees, only to amend that to, "that is, the greatest of all good things trees give us . . the pulp" (p. 4). There's something wonderfully not of the present day about this punch line and this phrasing, and Kurt's distinctive voice persuades me that Morrow has his finger on the pulse of the historical moment he's chosen.
Morrow uses Kurt to particularly good effect when he describes the wonder Kurt finds in SF. He explains that he fell in love with the genre as a boy, visiting his uncle’s cluttered basement:
I was allowed to descend into the basement and pore through his literary treasures, which included not only pulp fiction but also Captain Billy's Whiz Bang, The Police Gazette, and the occasional girlie slick, featuring what we now call soft-core pornography. My uncle's grotto smelled of coal dust, kerosene, and fungus, a fragrance that, owing to its association with his moldering periodicals, was the most exquisite I'd ever known. (p. 5)
The vividness of this sensory memory makes pulp SF something more than just words on a page and conveys an experience of wonder that is physical—even visceral—as much as it is intellectual.
What Kurt's narrative voice can't always do, though, is give depth to the Qualimosans, the pulpier elements of Morrow’s story. These creatures are often amusing, but I want them to do more. We can't read the stories that move Kurt. We're in essence witnessing half a phone conversation (though Morrow does give us fragments of Kurt's own work). We see the reaction, but we don't see the stimulus. Morrow's own use of the tropes of pulp SF could, in theory, complete the picture—those aliens could be our version of a trip to Kurt's uncle's cellar, a chance to fall in love with pulp. My sense, though, is that Morrow isn't that seriously invested in selling this part of the story as compelling SF. Kurt's narration, so riveting when turned to the subject of pulp, leaves me cold when he treats the alien threat:
"But if the program is in fact purveying metaphysical drivel, Wulawand will order Yaxquid to call down the death-ray. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," I said, raging internally. (p. 66)
Perhaps this understated narration is meant to create wry detachment, but at this moment I want a serious look at what it would mean to hear that aliens from another planet mean to kill millions if you don't comply with them. I want to be sold on this premise.
I find that Morrow's jokes at the expense of pulp SF at times interfere with his own efforts to build a compelling SF story. Nowhere does this problem strike me more clearly than in the scenes in which we hear about the Qualimosans' world:
"On Qualimosa the science-fiction authors are stuck in a rut," said Wulawand. "Last month Rocket Sagas and Comet Angst both published stories that end, 'And her name was Eve.'"
"You have an Adam and Eve legend on your planet?" asked Saul.
"You would be surprised how many Milky Way bards sing of a primordial sexually-reproducing couple," said Volavont. "On Qualimosa we call them Filbone and Fonia. The irrationalist faction in our civil war regards them as historical figures." (p. 111)
Here, Morrow seems to want to have both the quick joke, the laugh at the expense of pulp SF and its often-repeated tropes, and the more thoughtful exploration of what his own aliens might be like. If he'd just wanted a laugh, there would be no need to follow up with Saul's question and the Qualimosans' answer, after all. The two aims don't seem to me inherently incompatible, but I would need more discussion about this alien culture for the scene to play this way. What, I want to know, is the same in this alternate creation story? What's different? What in it compels Qualimosan writers of SF?
Morrow has a gift for tying up loose ends in a rapid-fire staccato. Despite the speed of the resolution, I think some of the most genuinely moving, funny, and engaging writing is to be found in these last pages. One of my greatest disappointments, however, is that a great deal of the resolution depends on not telling us how his aliens think. The book works like a certain type of mystery novel, where we're allowed only limited access into the thoughts, beliefs, and motivations of a large proportion of the cast so that in the end we can be dazzled by the resolution. The problem is that it makes the Qualimosans feel flimsy. I find myself wishing for a more fully realized alien culture.
As a vehicle for a rigorous, original philosophical argument about how to steer a path between faith and religion, the nihilistic and the numinous, the novel doesn't work for me. I'm not moved by the pronouncements embedded in the teleplay, voiced by Kurt's intrepid space explorers. For example: "if God is a bad idea, then playing God is a worse idea" (p. 136). I'm not convinced, though, that Morrow's project is to ruthlessly drag "good ideas" out of a mess of silly pulp, like chipping a diamond out of the rock around it. And since I don't think that’s what he's trying to do, I'm not about to turn around and do it to his book. Morrow is interested in where certain ideas that he likes can be found, not so much in finding new ones. And Morrow takes pains to put lines like these in context, to show what they do for the individuals who've written them. One actor in the teleplay remarks, "A messiah driven mad by his premature burial . . . hey, Connie, hey, Kurt—this is meaty stuff. Jesus as Quixote, as Lear, Ahab, Raskolnikov. I'm salivating like Pavlov's dog" (p. 101). His enthusiasm is contagious. I very much enjoy the giddy rush that Connie and Kurt get from bashing out these lines, I enjoy the fun they have writing, and in the way it brings them together.
On that note, I have only one reservation about the human element of this story. Connie is a wonderful character, but Morrow, in addition to glossing over the deep structures of the Qualimosans' worldview, also passes over how Connie Osborne comes to marry our hero. Where last we've left her, before we move into full throttle loose end tying, she has turned Kurt down in favor of developing her career. He then tells us that they're now happily married, without telling us how that came to be, or why. I think this does Connie a disservice as a woman and as a character.
Ultimately, Morrow's book is not a love letter to the Golden Age of Science Fiction. (If that is your interest, you might check out Felix Gilman's The Revolutions.) He often sends the stuff up. It's worth remembering that he took an interest in pulp SF because of its "cultural function," not its merit on its own terms. I would have liked to love the pulpy elements in this story more, but Morrow does succeed in making me love the people who love pulp, which I believe was more important to him. Well, as Kurt and the Qualimosans might say, "fair enough." It's an enjoyable read—funny, thought-provoking, and memorable.
Molly Katz is a graduate student at Cornell University. She has taught courses on Shakespeare and fanfiction. She is currently working on her dissertation.