WTF Weekend: The Madonna and the Starship by James K. Morrow (@jimmorrow11)

Only Uncle Wonder can save us from the death beam of... 

New York City, 1953. The golden age of television, when most programs were broadcast live. Young Kurt Jastrow, a full-time TV writer and occasional actor, is about to have a close encounter of the apocalyptic kind. 

Kurt’s most beloved character (and alter ego) is Uncle Wonder, an eccentric tinkerer whose pyrotechnically spectacular science experiments delight children across the nation. Uncle Wonder also has a more distant following: the inhabitants of Planet Qualimosa. When a pair of his extraterrestrial fans arrives to present him with an award, Kurt is naturally pleased—until it develops that, come next Sunday morning, these same aliens intend to perpetrate a massacre. 

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!


Equal parts satiric, philosophical, nostalgic, and humorous, The Madonna and the Starship is an irreverent look at what happens when any belief system - whether it be based in faith or rationalism - is taken to the extremes. James K. Morrow clearly had a lot of fun writing this, and that blasphemous joy is something I shared through every page.

It all begins with a 1950s children's TV show called Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers. The stories are pure pulp sci-fi cheese, complete with in-character advertisements for Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops (remember, kids, it’s got the sweetenin’ already on it!), but they're framed by an educational bit where Uncle Wonder demonstrates a science experiment related to the show. It's so educational, in fact, that a pair of aliens who picked up on the transmission announce their plans to bestow upon Under Wonder the Zorningorg Prize.

Pretty impressive stuff, until you discover the aliens are still calibrating their equipment, and the only other shows they've seen are Texaco Star Theater (hosted by a boisterous comedian who dresses in women’s clothes!) and Howdy Doody (featuring a mentally defective child!). Kurt Jastrow, who both writes Brock Barton and plays Uncle Wonder, is understandably skeptical, but he's well-and-truly convinced when the 2 crustacean-like aliens actually do arrive with a wondrous kaleidoscopic trophy. Unfortunately, they caught a rehearsal for Not By Bread Alone on their way in, and they're so very displeased by the Easter Sunday reenactment. So, next Sunday, they plan to broadcast their death-ray through the TV and cleanse the planet of its secret cult of two million irrationalists. Faced with danger the likes of which not even Brock Barton himself has ever faced, Kurt must join forces with Connie, his would-be girlfriend, to hijack the show and broadcast an over-the-top, ridiculously satirical take on the resurrection of Jesus to convince the aliens that Not By Bread Alone is really not purveying metaphysical drivel.

Most of the story revolves around the desperate race to come up with the perfect script, convince the god-fearing actors to betray their audience for the good of the world, and deal with the logistics of keeping the aliens occupied while they do it. It makes for some very funny, yet also very deep, stuff. On the one hand, you have a pulp sci-fi magazine editor who hides under his desk with a pair of rubber love dolls (fully inflated, life-size, all pink flesh and voluptuous parabolas) to stave off agoraphobia and, on the other hand, you have Kurt and Connie engaging in rather spirited debates about irrationality, logical positivism, and nihilism. Then, of course, you have the two crustacean like aliens, disguised by nothing more than old fashioned sandwich boards for a made-up seafood restaurant, playing poker (Seven-card stud, I daresay, is a universal constant, rather like electron mass and the speed of light) and studying the the New York subway system (the most impressive sculpture on the planet).

It's the actual broadcast that really steals the show, however. It's really quite brilliant the way Morrow brings it all together, with each scene and each line of dialogue topping the last for blasphemous irrelevance. Mary no sooner laments Jesus' childhood (As a little boy, you were quite a handful, especially compared to your two brothers) when Brock Barton arrives, having traveled an entire light year to prevent yet another religion from contaminating the Milky Way. Due to contractual requirements for the actors, Morrow even works the commercials into the satire, with Jesus offering up a kid-friendly Eucharist (Eat these measures of Sugar Corn Pops, for they are my body), and commenting to Brock Barton that "four out of five elementary school teachers recommend Ovaltine." The best part of the book - which I won't spoil - is the final twist that Morrow throws at the reader, with a typical 50s sitcom blunder threatening to negate everything Kurt and Connie have worked to accomplish.

The Madonna and the Starship is a very funny, very clever look at philosophy and faith, couched in a comfortable, loving homage to nostalgia for a simpler time. It's ridiculously blasphemous and completely absurd . . . and that's entirely the point.

Paperback, 192 pages
Published June 24th 2014 by Tachyon Publication

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