Overall, science fiction might seem an earnest, geeky genre, but as “The Big Bang Theory” makes clear, it can inspire a lot of humor and satire. If you’ve already enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” you should certainly be on the lookout for the books of their contemporaries Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley, William Tenn and R.A. Lafferty, to mention only some of my own favorite authors. While Lafferty tends toward the gonzo and surreal, the others specialize in irony, the kind of biter-bit humor we associate with certain episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”
Brown, for instance, is the author of the most famous short-short in all science fiction: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” This haiku-like story sounds like a joke but has generated endless speculation, parody and extrapolation: Is that an alien outside? Or a woman? Did the man hear the knock? Are the other men living under the earth in subterranean cities? Could it be a pizza delivery robot? Or might the protagonist be a mad scientist who, after having wiped out all human life, is suffering from a guilty conscience and beginning to hear knocks on the door when there’s really nobody there?
A comparable mixture of breezy humor and provocative thinking characterizes James Morrow’s two most recent sci-fi novellas from Tachyon Publications, “Shambling Towards Hiroshima” (2009) and this year’s “The Madonna and the Starship.” Set in 1945, “Shambling Towards Hiroshima” reveals the secret of the hush-hush Project Knickerbocker: To bring World War II to an end, the U.S. Navy inveigles a Hollywood actor — the star of “Corpuscula” — to don a lizard suit, then films him breathing fire and stomping with rage on a miniature city. Obviously, the Japanese will be shocked into surrendering once they see what will happen to their country if the monster Gorgantis is really unleashed. Nothing quite works out as planned, but Morrow has a lot of fun evoking the 1940s film industry. “What Rough Beast” is even directed by James Whale, the man who gave us the 1931 “Frankenstein.”
In “The Madonna and the Starship,” Morrow turns to the so-called golden days of television. Kurt Jastrow — a name that evokes both Kurt Vonnegut and science popularizer Robert Jastrow — is the head writer for “Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers.” Each week he generates three-part serials with titles like “The Phantom Asteroid,” featuring Brock and his “fearless first lieutenant, Lance Rawlings; his prepossessing second lieutenant, Wendy Evans, a.k.a. the love interest; a slap-happy ensign, Ducky Malloy; a humanoid robot, Cotter Pin; and a talking gorilla, Sylvester Simian, whose intellect has been augmented through accelerated evolution.”
To illustrate some relevant scientific principle, every thrilling episode of “Brock Barton” also includes an experiment performed by “Uncle Wonder,” who is, essentially, “Mr. Wizard” for those readers who remember that once-famous TV scientist. Kurt himself plays “Uncle Wonder,” doing his technical research with a friend’s set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
When not working on his television show, Kurt writes stories for Andromeda, a science fiction magazine edited by the agoraphobic Saul Silver. This, like much else in “The Madonna and the Starship,” is an in-joke: Horace Gold, the editor of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, was famously afraid to leave his apartment. Similarly, one of the tech personnel at NBC is called “Mike Zipser,” a clear case of what’s called tuckerization, the deliberate naming of fictional characters after real people. (This is done out of friendship, or as the result of a charity auction — high bidder gets to see his or her name in a book — or as a way to rile enemies.) The real Mike Zipser moderates a science fiction talk show called “Fast Forward.”
Morrow has a lot of fun describing the plots of Kurt’s serials. “In our last episode,” his announcer tells the children of America, “the dastardly Argon Drakka arranged for a monstrous python to attack Brock and his crew! Coiling itself around the Triton, the serpent suddenly rammed its head through the viewport, threatening Wendy with a razor-sharp tooth! And now we present ‘Fangs of Death,’ chapter two of ‘The Cobra King of Ganymede!’ ”
Amid all this retro-fun, Morrow soon starts to complicate the picture. One afternoon, Kurt’s Motorola television unexpectedly turns itself on, then displays the fuzzy image of “a svelte blue lobster with serrated claws and a grasshopper’s rear legs. Its visual system was tripartite — three large eyeballs protruded from its brow on pliant stalks — and its toothless mouth opened and closed along the vertical axis.” The creature naturally speaks the immortal line: “Greetings, Earthling!”
As the alien soon explains, Uncle Wonder is very popular on Qualimosa. So much so that he has been chosen to be the first recipient of the Zorningorg Prize. It turns out that the outer space lobsters are all logical positivists, revering the scientific spirit and reviling anything that smacks of religious mumbo-jumbo. But as the two Qualimosan emissaries — the male is Volavont, the female Wulawand — approach Earth they grow increasingly troubled. “We are confused, O Kurt Jastrow. Your civilization stands as a bulwark against irrationality, yet we find no scientific substance in the seminars of Liberace or the symposia of Red Skelton.”
Far more seriously, they soon learn about “Not By Bread Alone,” the religious TV program written by Connie Osborne, a former Barnard philosophy major and the woman of Kurt’s dreams. “We are grieved,” says Wulawand, “to report that certain writers and actors at this network are in the grip of superstition.” The Qualimosans have determined that “a secret society, two million strong, watches the program every Sunday morning.” Fortunately, explains Volavont, there is a tidy solution to the dangerous influence of these irrationalists. It is, of course, a final solution. During the next showing of “Not By Bread Alone,” the Qualimosans will direct a death ray to shrivel every one of its viewers.
As it happens, James Morrow is not just an award-winning science fiction writer, he is also a committed atheist. Ever since “Towing Jehovah” (1994), his books have addressed questions of morality, epistemology and religious belief, and done so with a satirical bite. But can the massacre of true believers, even in the name of reason, ever be reasonable? This is, after all, just a comic novella set in an alternate 1950s — nothing to do with the real world.
Still, I know you’re wondering: Will Kurt Jastrow and a band of ragtag actors and science fiction writers prevent the destruction of 2 million television viewers? Don’t miss the thrilling conclusion of James Morrow’s “The Madonna and The Starship!” But first a word from our sponsor. . . .
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
THE MADONNA AND THE STARSHIP
By James Morrow
Tachyon. 179 pp. Paperback, $14.95