I've made no secret of my love for science fiction writer James Morrow. He's one of my favorite living sci-fi writers because he uses a fantasy framework to investigate questions of theology, faith, and history. (Among other books, he's written a novel about a female Messiah born in modern-day New Jersey and a trilogy about what happens when God's dead body is found floating in the ocean.) Morrow's newest novella, The Madonna and the Starship, was published last month, and while it's clearly not one of his major works, it's still a terrific thought experiment about people who take atheism too far.
A plot summary of Madonna reads like a Kilgore Trout novel as described by Kurt Vonnegut:
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.
The aliens love Jastrow's TV show because it's purely science-based, but when they realize that earth is not entirely an areligious paradise, the aliens threaten to murder every viewer of an upcoming religious program. Jastrow, who is an atheist, is forced to team up with an agnostic colleague to try to save millions of lives by producing a program that the nihilistic atheists from another planet will enjoy. Madonna is an entertainment, a parable intended to be read in a few hours, with some twists straight out of a cheesy 1950s alien-invasion flick. Hardcore atheists might be surprised to see that Morrow doesn't side with the hardcore atheist aliens, but they're forgetting the most important rule of satire: a good satirist fires shots at everyone, not just the other side.