Friday, July 04, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #184: The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow

Minor writers have tics; great writers have obsessions. And, looking at his career to date, it's clear that James Morrow both is a great writer -- of searing books like This Is the Way the World Ends, City of Truth, Only Begotten Daughter, and Towing Jehovah -- and utterly obsessed with the same ideas, which show up in his work over and over again.

A Morrow book is about guilt, and morality, and eschatology -- about the way the universe really is, hideous and numinous, knowable and ineffable, in equal parts -- written with a rationalist's mind and a mystic's eye. He's not at all fond of institutional Christianity, but keeps turning to the question of God and universal truths, over and over again. Sometimes those obsessions overwhelm him, but at his best Morrow wrestles them down into audacious plots with awe-inspiring premises: the life and teachings of Jesus's younger sister, the trial of the last living humans after a nuclear war by the souls of the generations never to be born, the sudden appearance of the floating immense corpse of God.

The Madonna and the Starship is Morrow's third short novel -- or novella published as a book; choose your way to describe it -- after 1990's brilliant City of Truth and 2009's less-successful Shambling Towards Hiroshima. Its concept is purely Morrovian: a race of advanced lobster-like aliens have reached earth in 1953, with the usual knowledge of humanity entirely drawn from watching TV broadcasts. And they want to do two things on our planet: first to honor Kurt Jastrow, head writer of the space opera Brock Baron and His Rocket Rangers, mostly for his ending segment on that show, where as "Uncle Wonder" he presents simple science experiments to the inevitable wide-eyed boy. And, secondly, they want to use their death-ray to kill all of the viewers of the bland Christian apologetic shop Not by Bread Alone, because their world is being torn apart by a civil war about the existence of the supernatural and these particular lobsters are from the rationalist side.

Kurt is happy to get his trophy -- as usual for a story like this, he also writes SF short stories for a Horace Gold figure and his magazine Andromeda, so Kurt and his friends are ready to believe in advanced aliens given half-decent evidence -- but also wants to avoid alien-inflicted genocide if at all possible. Even worse, the head writer of Not by Bread Alone is the pretty Connie Osbourne, part of Kurt's writing circle and his would-be inamorata.

Kurt and Connie try to convince the lobsters that Not by Bread Alone is actually a hilarious satire of religious belief, but they'll need to quickly write and have performed a script in that mode in place of the usual broadcast for the coming Sunday morning. Luckily, this is the Fifties, so that's the speed scripts are written anyway, and the shows are all produced live. So they rush off to combine the casts and styles of Brock Barton and Bread Alone into a stew that will send the lobsters away happy and move their fingers away from that death-ray button.

Madonna is another retrospective novella in the SF world of the past, like Morrow's Shambling Towards Hiroshima (and like a thousand other stories of the past two decades), but it's not about SF the way so many of those stories are. It's also not marinated in self-loathing and alternate-world angst the way Hiroshima was, much to its benefit. And the solution Kurt and Connie eventually find is much more Hegelian than usual for Morrow -- more measured, more even-handed. For a long time, Morrow seemed to identify most with Job: raging at a God he conjured up in story after story, castigating the Supreme Being for His own flaws and those of mankind. Madonna transfers that anger to the alien lobsters, who are the antagonists, to move beyond that dichotomy. So this book shows us a Morrow still obsessed with the same questions, but not as angry about them -- still deeply concerned with the place of spirituality and the religious impulse, but not as accusatory or partisan. It's a fine short novel, funnier than you'd expect and full of a great-hearted love for all mankind.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment