by Rob Callahan
An email from my editor posed the titular question and, as I pondered its relevance to a culture/current events article, I found myself asking not just what Starbuck would’ve done, but what other notable figures out of the science fiction lexicon would think of our modern approximations of their realities. We all know that John Galt would roll over in his grave if he knew what the Tea Party are saying and doing in his name, but how would some of our other beloved Sci-Fi icons fare in our real, modern world? No need to ask, dear reader. I already have. Then I answered. Yes, I sometimes talk to myself. Deal with it.
What Would Starbuck Do? (The Red Bull Stratos Jump)
If you didn’t watch the jump live, you can watch the archive here . Go ahead. Watch it. We’ll wait.
“Fearless” Felix Baumgartner floated up to about 128,100 feet, then jumped back down. At first, he tumbled aimlessly for a good long time. After a while he hit atmo, as they say, and was able to steer himself a bit. He nearly passed out at one point. Or maybe he actually passed out. No one can be sure. There was a period where he wasn’t responding to his ground crew. When he finally did respond, he said he felt like he was losing consciousness. So maybe he passed out, or maybe he was just too distracted by his imminent death to reply. Regardless, he soon righted himself and started falling gracefully. Then his visor fogged up. Not only couldn’t he see, but his ground crew couldn’t seem to relay adequate data about the wind speed and direction. All that in mind, he decided it was probably safer to pull the cord than to trust what might be the last few minutes of his life to someone who doesn’t know his East from his West.
It was a big feat. It broke two of the three records it aimed to break. It advanced space suit technology. It cemented Red Bull’s place in the world of extreme extremeness, well ahead of both Mountain Dew and Doritos. It was also just really, really cool.
Starbuck, however, makes being extreme seem tame and sensible. She does it in every aspect of life. She isn’t living unless she’s risking (or at the very least ruining) her life for no good reason. If Starbuck were around today, she wouldn’t drink Red Bull. She’d mainline it.
Starbuck would’ve made the jump, kept free-falling when her visor fogged up, taken a few power naps just to mess with her ground crew,opened her chute at the last possible moment and shouted “WOOOOOOOOOOO!” all the way down. Because Kara Thrace will be damned if any man or woman, living or dead, past, present or future is going to hold a record she can’t break. Ordinary daredevils simply can’t compete with self-destructive psychotics. After landing, she would have slept with the helicopter pilots who came to pick her up. Then she would have punched out her mission control guy. Probably a few reporters, too. And slept with them. Starbuck is all about the carnal.
None of which would have been newsworthy, because that’s just the sort of thing one expects from Starbuck.
What Would Spider Jerusalem Do? (The Information Industrial Complex)
Your average news anchor has a job to do, and that job’s probably got very less to do with delivering news than you’d think. This isn’t the anchor’s fault, mind you, so don’t blame them. In any “shoot the messenger” analogy, the anchor is quite literally the messenger. They’re fairly beholden to the editors and reporters who either line edit incoming press releases or get their news from an offshore content mill.
Not that those guys are necessarily being evil for evil’s sake, either. Quick, cheap regurgitation is the new “reporting” and “news” is a quick, cheap product you get for free in exchange for viewing ads and generating revenue. (Sometimes, the ads themselves are the news. Even other times, news is just the announcement that a new ad is on the way.) News is a business and the customer is not the consumer. The customer is the company buying ads between human interest stories, sports and the weather. In any business, the customer is always right. Sometimes, the customer is a good friend of the boss. The consumer is the viewer, sometimes known as the product. That’s us, and we consume news a lot like we consume free mobile games with embedded banner ads (except that there are some quality, well-made free mobile games to choose from) by choosing the easiest and most exciting thing we can find within the top two slots in the app store. So we can’t blame news organizations for being easy and exciting. That’s just what sells.
The occasional entertainer has been known to subvert some of the more unpleasant side effects of the information industrial complex. From John Stewart to the late Bill Hicks and George Carlin, all the way back to Will Rogers, the painful pill of reality has been most successfully sugared with humor. As Rogers once famously said himself, “People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke.”
This is where Spider Jerusalem would have fit in. A highly recognizable, distinct and inexplicably charismatic figure, he puts universal frustration into the words his readers lack, then disseminates it like so much wallpaper over the ugly, ugly wall of truth. The discerning reader merely has to peel that paper away to get to the cold, hard drywall below. He also carries a weapon called a bowel disruptor. It has many settings, all of which do what you’d think. One of them is lethal.
When Spider Jerusalem’s writing was D-Listed (censored), he started to lose it. He took it out on the crooked powers that were and, eventually, beat them senseless at their own game. That probably wouldn’t happen in the real world. The Chair Leg of Truth would probably never come out. The bowel disruptor would, sadly, never be fired… It’s not that real world journalists don’t have it in them. It’s just that real world journalism is set up to crush them early on. In Amber Lyon’s case, a government allegedly strong armed CNN. Real world facsimiles Laurie Penny and Matt Taibbi come close to Spider’s vitriol, yet survive by staying below the mainstream media consumer’s radar. (For example, a good number of readers just asked, “Laurie and Matt who?”) This is all especially sad when the comic’s co-creator has keenly observed, “The future that Spider inhabits in Transmetropolitan seems more likely every year.”
There are no closer comparisons to Spider because, frankly, there are no journalists able to take his approach and still draw a living wage paycheck in exchange for their efforts.
What Would Vincent Do? (The Mole Men and Other Homeless Undergrounds)
Most of us don’t notice the homeless. They’re out there, but homeless people are pretty hard to track. Their numbers go up and down (with a longterm trend toward up) and you just don’t see them much unless you’re actively looking for them. Let alone that they’re hard to spot during the day, when some 160,000 workers are walking the streets, or on the weekends any number of the 2.5 million surrounding suburbanites flock into the bars, stadiums, theaters and concert venues. Sometimes, the underground nature of the homeless keeps them well out of sight. Literally underground, as it were.
When you can’t get your hands on private shelter, you turn to public spaces. From the “Mole Men” of New York City who live like Marvel’s Morlocks beneath the city’s streets to the unseen haunters of San Franciso’s BART stations, an amorphous unseen chunk of humanity lives within the refuse of the rest. And speaking of refuse, everybody’s got to go somewhere. Here in the Twin Cities, were not much better off. Yours truly has seen such innocent aspects of homelessness as people sleeping under blanket newspapers in bus shelters, to less desirable things like muggings, crack and heroin in those same bus shelters. They happen all over town, from Lake Street to Richfield and downtown Saint Paul. Hiding in plain sight from the dude driving by, worrying about making the mortgage. There’s also the occasional pile of poo at a bus stop, left wherever the depositor happened to be standing before they wiped with their own underwear and then moved on into the night, like some sort of animal.
Enter Vincent, the half-man/half-beast who earned the envy of an entire generation of pubescent young Terminator fans by getting it on with Linda Hamilton. He also managed to fall in with a society of underdwellers who transformed the trash and sewage around them into a proto-steampunk paradise. If only those who oppose genetic engineering could come to terms with its proponents just long enough to splice a lion with Cyrano de Bergerac, we could release our creation into the sewers and finally clean up this mess.
What Would Cpl. Joe Bauers Do? (Dumb is the New Average)
So we’ve established that the news isn’t quite adequate, unless what you really want from the news is Taylor Swift’s informed opinion on the difference between pop music and Nashville country music. (SPOILER: The difference is a steel guitar.) If that’s what you’re into, the news is entirely adequate. If you wanted more, good luck sifting through tumblr for someone with both the requisite insight and free time necessary to research and report on the issues of the day without any corporate sponsorship. (see above, re: Spider Jerusalem)
Of course, the for- and non-profit news organizations of the world are only part of the equation. If hitting harder and offending the big guys were more profitable than not, they’d go that route instead. If citizen viewers cared more about not just the ills of the world but their possible cures as well, the news would care more about delivering. Any ills in question who happen to be paying the bills might get offended, and even pull their ads, but if it were profitable enough to replace those sponsors with some of the less ill variety, it could happen. It isn’t, though. Generally speaking, the viewing public are not deep, critical thinkers. The masses like their information easy, shallow and self-affirming. And that’s kind of how we’re all raised…
Schools don’t typically nurture intelligence. If anything, they devote more attention to the lack thereof. (Not that this is a necessarily bad thing. If a student is struggling with math or reading comprehension, we should probably put some time into helping that student overcome his struggle.) Still, there are few options out there for the genius to pursue her genius. Genius children of moneyed families have options, but there are far fewer moneyed individuals than there are not, so the statistics tell us there will be far fewer moneyed budding young geniuses than impoverished ones. We can also look around at some of our most prominent moneyed individuals and deduce that money alone doesn’t guaranty smarts. The subset of really smart people within the set of really rich people is relatively small.
So, among those financially able to advance their own intellect, few are actually intellectually able. Among those intellectually able, few have the fiscal means. These ratios yield a general population that is overwhelmingly dumb and, as the population continues to increase while educational and intellectual resources do not, the inevitable end is a planet swarming with dummies. This doesn’t speak well for our future, but it does indicate a future in which entertainers, politicians and other public figures don’t have to try very hard to impress us.