Yesterday, someone who I will not namedrop because they don’t read my blog said, “I’m starting to wonder what you’re for, Bob. All I ever hear from you is what you’re against.”
There’s a whole goddamned world of things to be against and only one of me, so of course I talk about it all the time. The world is such a beautiful complicated onion of stupid, it’s impossible not to peel back the layers and weep.
I almost wished he’d asked what I believe in, because I could waffle stomp any butt nugget down that drain. I believe in a thing called love, justlistentotherythymofmyheart. I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they posheshh insiiiiiiiiide. I believe I can fly.
What am I for, though?
I don’t know how I found Star Trek: The Next Generation. I want to say that I saw LeVar Burton’s Reading Rainbow episode on the subject, which piqued my interest, but I may have invented this after the fact. Mom has pointed out before, in one of our more tense moments, that I tend to hammer things into my narrative whether they fit there or not. Sometimes I’ve examined memories so much I’ve broken them completely, and there sits a square peg neatly bashed into a round hole. It looks good to me, but it doesn’t quite mesh with reality, whatever that is. For the sake of discussion, we’ll define it as “the situation as the rest of the world perceives it,” or the tyrannical verisimilitude of the masses.
In any case, I was a TNG fan by season three, at least. I had to go back and watch those beardless Riker, no-collar episodes I’d missed, but it was possible to catch syndicated reruns on one of the Memphis stations. I was familiar with the feature films already, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was probably my favorite. It really spoke to me with its 1986 setting. Time travelling by doing a gravity slingshot around the sun seemed absolutely plausible to my adolescent brain, and it was all the more real for being here.
When I was a child, I had a fever dream about falling around a star. The stretching of time seemed incomprehensible, like my mind was trying to compile infinite input. My sister said I had stood up out of bed with a blanket over my head and yelled, “LOOK AT MY CHIN. LOOK AT MY CHIN.” I barely recalled this, but later I thought Stephen King must have experienced something like it before he wrote his short story “The Jaunt” (it’s in Skeleton Crew, which you should read immediately if you haven’t already). If not, then at least he feigned a decent grasp on the madness of forever.
I’d grown up around neighbors and a couple of my mom’s friends who were huge Star Trek fans. Often, I’d hear them lament being born too soon. They’d suggest that maybe us kids would live to see it and, if we were lucky, perhaps our grandchildren would steer great ships amongst the stars.
After the prosperity of the Clinton 1990s, this seemed like a done deal. We had to admit it was getting better, just a little better, all the time (it can’t get no worse¹). It only followed that Al Gore, champion of technology and ecology, would take the reins and usher in a new era of space exploration. Instead, he grew a depression beard, did some PowerPoint presentations on glaciers, and sexually assaulted a massage therapist. In his defense, facing a coup and dealing with the mass denial of climate change can really cause tension around one’s second chakra.
I’ve known my old friend John Weems IV since the early 1980s (maybe the late 1970s), back when we splashed around in the toddler pool at the Trumann Country Club. John’s preferred Star Trek crew is the first one, led by that old space cowboy Captain James Tiberius Kirk, or as you may know him, William Fucking Shatner. This Chris Pine kid does a fine job, but he’s got about half a century to go before he lives up to the legend.
If I’m the chairman of Arkansas Space Communism, John is the founder and CEO of Arkansas Space Nihilism. I consider those two sides of the same coin. I hate to put words in John’s mouth, but I think he’d tell you that while he’d love to travel the galaxy, it’s as much of a pipe dream as thinking your closet might open up to Narnia, or that you’re finally going to get a late letter from Hogwarts (pretty sure they don’t offer Adult Ed, guys), or that Jesus is going to come back (for the first time ever).
I don’t know how or where or why we’ll figure all this out, but we’ve been in darker places. Don’t mistake this statement for silver lining. There are plenty of folks cowering under rubble or dying of malaria and to them, it is the darkest place. It is a prison of our making, one from which we could have already sprung. There are issues not as insurmountable as intergalactic travel, or even curing cancer (the catch-all term for a thousand diseases), things we absolutely have the technology for now, and they aren’t achieved because killing is too profitable and saving lives isn’t profitable enough.
American conservatives and liberals, two sides, again, of the coin Two-Face flips to seal our doom, would exploit homeless veterans in an argument against advancement or quote “Whitey on the Moon” and ask how I can be a Space Communist without thinking of the poor. I’d say they’ve been misled on both counts. The machine that bombs hospitals and builds walls has plenty of wealth for carnage and cages, so they could probably spare a pittance for you. Problem is, they don’t give a fuck.
Likewise, we’ve only experienced Space Capitalism, or in the Soviet or Chinese sense, Space State Capitalism (no true Communist!), so I can’t refute Gil Scott-Heron. It is the experience of many that we build billion-dollar machines while humans choke to death in the gutter. Who am I to pitch an idea from a television show while lives hang in the balance?
Whatever our path forward, it has to have something to do with getting off this rock. Whether we end up on asteroid colonies, dug in beneath the surface of Mars, or rocking Heavy Metal style in our cool robot bodies, we have to escape somehow or risk having all our eggs in one basket here, as Space Capitalist Elon Musk has repeatedly pointed out.
While I admire the fuck out of that man’s endeavors, I’m also afraid of what his success will bring. Will we all be able to exploit the freedom of the wide-open solar system? Will we have anarchist enclaves on Titan and hippie communes on Europa? After hearing plans for super-expensive tourist flights around the moon, I’m not so optimistic. We’ll likely face the same pitfalls with a modifier. Space Slavery. Asteroid Miner’s Lung. Interplanetary War. There’s a poetic sequel to be written there, and unfortunately Mr. Scott-Heron isn’t around to do it.
If the Federation could be classified in our terms, it would be Space Communism, and it’s necessary we get the noun correct before we slap a fantastic adjective in front of it. Space Fascism isn’t going to fly unless you’re a fan of Warhammer 40k. Space Capitalism, well. You’ve seen the Alien franchise. I hope you’re familiar with Blade Runner, or the various works of Phillip K. Dick.
If I yell too much about humanity, it’s because it disappoints me. I’ve seen our potential on screens small and large. I’ve read about it in books, fiction and not. Pioneering mathematician women and steely-eyed missile men took us to the stars in reality, while people like Gene Roddenberry took us there in our hearts.
On some hard drive there exists a photo of me standing next to the original Enterprise model from the 1960s television show. Back then, they had it shoved in the back of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum gift shop. They’ve since removed and refurbished the model, but at the time it was almost hidden. When I stumbled upon it by accident, I was overcome by emotion, and it was all I could do to squeeze the flood back into a manly single tear or two. In that place, among experimental jets, space capsules, and the Wright Flyer, I was verklempt over a prop from a cheesy scifi show, but those other things represented our past. This was our future.
Perhaps I am the most virulent virus. More than anything else, I always wanted to be a father. I want my children to fly. Propagation has always seemed important on micro and macro levels. Hell, the fact that a little group of amino acids made little copies of themselves is why I’m writing this. Still, I’m always reminded the monologue Agent Smith delivered when he tortured Morpheus. If we’re nothing more than a complicated disease (I’m going to say probably), maybe it’s best we’re snuffed out on this rock. That’s what I say when I’m in the dark.
But when the Enterprise emerges from a planet’s shadow and glides out into star’s light, I wonder, guys. I wonder.
¹ If you are the special type of fuckhead who wants to grammar Nazi this shit, it’s a Beatles song.