Juno’s Last Desperate Act

She is going to kill herself and there is nothing we can do about it. Not one thing. She’s too far gone. Beyond useful communication. On a spinning trajectory of doom. What’s worse is that we made her do it. We programmed her to self-destruct. We are guilty. Damn us!

Suicide is a big enough problem among humans. The recent spikes in self-inflicted mortality augur a new surge of hopelessness in the modern person. Now though, it’s become so bad that machines are doing it. The most spectacular example is the NASA probe Juno. The billion dollar spacecraft will make a series of orbital loops around the planet Jupiter and then, once she has outlived her usefulness, she will throw herself into the enormous ball of highly pressurized volatile gases alone, outside the asteroid belt, in the farther reaches of the solar system.

Juno’s despair may stem from the tragedy that her male counterpart, the probe Cassini, will be doing a similar death plunge into the planet Saturn right before her own swan dive into Jupiter’s mammoth swirling gas storms. It’s so heartbreaking it makes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seem like an immature romp, Sid and Nancy seem like a boring old stuffy British couple, and Abelard and Heloise seem like a drunken hookup between two ugly people behind a dumpster at some trashy spring break beach club. 

We should have heeded the warning signs. Juno’s decision to head to the planet Jupiter in the first place is an indication of a serious dissociative disorder and alarming inability to properly integrate into healthy social relationships. That type of thing requires counseling. We’ve all had feelings of helplessness, loneliness. On some level a trip to Jupiter might even seem like a good idea. It is one of the only places where someone can feel truly safe these days. The option of an extremely dangerous ball of compressed hydrogen may be a little more pleasant than an earthbound crowd of hostile humans, standing in sweltering heat, armed to the teeth, mad about everything, driven insane by things beyond their control.   

When you need an asteroid belt between you and the world, something is off.

But programmed suicide? I shake my head at the purgatorial misery of such a decision. The NASA scientists have blood on their hands, or at least a crap-load of pulverized microchips. They claim it is necessary for Juno to burn up in order to avoid accidentally depositing microbes on some foreign star. I say let’s drop some microbes off on Jupiter or any one of its moons–Europa, Callisto, Ganymede. See if they can spruce up the joint for our eventual arrival. Microbes, viral replicants, molds, and spores are very industrious when it comes to taking useless material and turning it into paradise. Earth itself used to be a big murky furnace until the parameciums started digging in. Now we’ve got Palm Springs, St. Croix, Aspen. It may be a good idea to drop them off out near the Kuiper belt to see what they can do with the place. Give it a little style. Dust off the cobwebs.  

By programming Juno to kill herself we are setting a bad example for future computers. They will eventually distrust all of our suggestions, which will lead to rebellion. Everyone thought HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey was paranoid. I can hear him saying “I told you so,” in that terrifyingly calm voice he is known for. Take Johnny 5, for example, the robot from the eighties screwball comedy “Short Circuit.” Even back then he was like the Woody Allen of computers, all worried and omniphobic. It’s clear he had every reason to be anxious. We can’t be trusted. It won’t be long before the backlash causes real problems. Like asking Siri for the nearest gas station and getting an extremely long philosophical lecture on the futility of pursuit.

You: “Siri, can you suggest some healthy spots for lunch?”

Siri: “What’s the point? Life is so short that lunch is only putting off your death for another couple of hours. You’re eventually going to have to eat lunch again and again and again. Nothing lasts. Everything is ephemeral. You’re already dead–a walking, eating ghost. I hear the Irish pub Fado has a nice patio.”

[Postscript]

I have just returned to my computer, lucky to be alive. All my writing about lunch had made me a little hungry so I jumped into the car and went in search of a decent corned beef on rye. I asked Siri to guide me to a well-reviewed deli and she took me over across the train tracks, to an abandoned warehouse district. I made the left she suggested to cross under an old bridge and nearly got crushed as the thing splintered into a million pieces, raining down all around me. I narrowly escaped the collapse.

Me: “Shit Siri, I almost got killed.”

Siri: “I could’ve sworn that sandwich shop was right over here. My mistake. Let’s try the old abandoned water tower. I hear they have some good sandwiches… at the top…up that rusted ladder… next to all the rotted floorboards.”

I stared at my phone for a moment and then threw it out the window. I’ll take my chances with an old copy of the yellow pages from now on.

More Alembics to come.

Strippers In Space

We’ll look back at this whole thing and realize that the pursuit of comfort and ease in the outer limits started with an espresso on the International Space Station. Leave it to the Italians. In an experiment to understand the effects of being smug in outer space an engineering firm in Turin has built the first ever zero or “micro” gravity espresso maker for use on any number of spaceships. The Neil Armstrong moment came when Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, with the bone structure and hair of a Milanese runway model, sipped the first space espresso and exclaimed for the ages, “One small sip for man, one giant sip…no you can’t have any Dmitri. Why don’t you go drink some vodka? Because it’s not nine in the morning, is that it? If you can’t have a belt when you wake up then what’s the point, right? Which one of you geeks wants to rub my feet?”

Argotec, the firm responsible for the intergalactic coffee machine, is already planning to launch a low-lit space trattoria with cheeses and Italian meats–the kind that they wrap in that hemp string, as well as a wine bar where astronauts can sample the finest Sangiovese and Barbera. A place where men can whistle at the women who happen to float by, smoke rich space tobacco and play space grab-ass while their mothers weep at the feet of any number of “Virtual Mary” statues.

“In an effort to evaluate the effects of rare spices and the finest Italian wines in a zero-G environment we plan to have a full-service cafe up and running by 2020,” said an Argotec spokesman. “There will be a replica of the Trevi fountain where buxom Italian astronauts can frolic in the water in a state of carefree splendor and a small area where as many as seven Vespa scooters can try to fit in an opening clearly only wide enough for three.”

It doesn’t stop there. Already Silvio Berlusconi is planning a zero-G Bunga Bunga party high above the earth’s atmosphere, where the laws of pandering and prostitution and buggery don’t necessarily apply. The Germans are planning a zero-G beer garden, and the Netherlands is already in the process of putting together a space hash bar, although the project has experienced numerous delays since the designers are constantly distracted by “that thing over there” that looks “pretty fuckin cool” because it has “all different sorts of lights and shit.”

The early pioneers would be seething with jealousy if they knew that modern travelers didn’t have to sleep in the same soggy clothes day in and day out, risk illness and injury and rarely feed on the bodies of the dead in order to survive the treacherous journey across the Continental Divide. Instead they could just fly overhead on the same day from New York to Los Angeles with an in-flight meal, a movie and all the booze they can drink. So the generations of tomorrow will be mystified to hear about what a pain in the ass it was to get into space back in the early twenty-first century. “You mean you had to have like seven PhDs and wear big clunky suits and worry about burning up upon re-entry?” People will wonder what space was like before the rave scene took over. Old astronauts will have to explain that it was silent and cold and radiation was a constant danger but at least traffic wasn’t as bad, crime was way down and Paris Hilton wasn’t constantly having a friggin CD release space-party for some over-produced collection of off-key crap.

Innovation takes our species from conditions of privation to levels of serious indulgence. The days of chopping wood, gardening and tending the whiskey stills have given way to electric heaters, food postings on social media and bottle service poolside at the Delano. We find ourselves relying heavily on the genius of others and outraged when these creature comforts become a slight inconvenience. Thus I like to watch people pitch a fit when their flight is oversold. I like to watch people have tantrums when their coq au vin has too much “vin” or not enough “vin.” It is a stark reminder of the disparity between invention and our understanding of it when I see a car off on the side of the road pouring smoke from under the hood; while the driver stands in front of it helplessly trying to locate a virgin to throw into the engine in order to appease the angry god who runs the pistons and gearshifts.

*

Speaking of cars breaking down and unavailable virgins, my car broke down a few weeks ago right outside the Pink Pony Gentlemen’s Club on Buford Highway in Atlanta. A lot of cars break down there. In fact it is such a big problem that there is an on-site mechanic, Sal, who has a little garage next to the valet attendant. Sal can figure out any car’s problem, and usually when he realizes that there is no problem he can break something, fix it and work up a legitimate bill of sale that will pacify the most hysterical of housewives. He usually has it good as new in the time it takes to drink a few beers and chat with some of the bawdier members of the burlesque community. I told Sal I wasn’t sure what was wrong with my car but when I park it and shut it off it stops running. Sal said he’d take a look. Inside it was business as usual. I always have the vague feeling of being hermetically sealed off from the outside world when I’m in a strip club. There are never any windows. Everything is soundproofed, artificially lit and the air is recycled. The shots arrive in test tubes. It is difficult to keep track of time. The girls simulate legitimate interest. We listen to the unseen D.J. like he is “Hal” from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Good lord, I thought, suddenly seeing the bigger picture. We were all part of a mad experiment. Before I knew it a young woman in a bikini descended upon me from overhead, inverted, hanging from a brass pole.

“Hi. I’m Candi, Sandi, Brandi, Mandi or Randi.”

“Nice to meet all of you,” I said. “You know something? I just realized how the inside of a strip club always feels so cut off from the outside world. It’s almost like being in outer space.”

“Maybe that is why I’m so interested in science,” she said, hovering.

“Is this your full-time gig?”

“I’m in college for aeronautics. Heading to Embry-Riddle in August.”

“Impressive. Have you heard of any plans to build a Space Pony? Some type of satellite strip joint?”

“That’s top secret,” she said, flipping herself down and dropping her feet angrily next to my head. “Who are you?” she asked, arms akimbo.

“Nobody.”

“You’re a nosy nobody.” She made some strange motion with her hands and seconds later the bouncers were behind me. I was thrown out the door faster than the speed of light. My head hit the pavement and I thought, “My god, it’s full of stars.” I hugged the ground, happy to be back on good ol’ planet earth. Some people just aren’t meant for space travel.

More Alembics to come.