Beware the Dream Killers!

I’m a space nerd. 

When I was thirteen I went to Space Academy in Huntsville, AL, (NB Space Camp was just what they called the kiddie camp, for us teens it was Space Academy).  I remember the hope that maybe, just maybe, if an astronaut got sick, they’d call on one of us to take his place.  That didn’t happen. 

What actually happened was stranger:  my bunkmates were huge The Little Mermaid fans and having never seen the movie, I was inducted into the cult of Menken by unending choruses of “Les poissons, les poissons!  I went to get an education about the shuttle and left with the lyrics to Under the Sea.

Space ignites the imagination and some dreams won’t be extinguished easily.  In 2002, I attended NASA’s Aerospace Medicine clerkship.   I’d contend that there is no better way to learn physiology than to learn about a body in an abnormal physical environment.  Puking when you burp?  Moving forward feels like diving?  Face swelling up?  It all makes sense, but only when you really understand how the body works on Earth.

I started to think:  hmmm, maybe I should try to become an astronaut.  After med school, I’d probably need a mechanical engineering degree and start doing triathlons weekly, but it could be done.  I bought the Star Trek concept of “the final frontier.”  I blew off concerns that a Mars trip would be dangerous (psychologically or by radiation).  I wanted to conquer the unexplored, the daunting, the harrowing.

What killed the dream?  The only thing that could kill something that exciting:  the really, really mundane.  Dreams of rocketing into space and exploring distant worlds thrive on the abnormal, the special.  They must remain separate from the dull and the ordinary.  Unfortunately, education makes the unknown known.  Beware learning, for it can kill the special.

After a month at NASA, living in space became decidedly not sexy.  For bureaucratic reasons, it is extremely loud, to the point that hearing a co-astronaut (never mind accents and different languages) can be nightmarishly challenging.  In practice, space pharmacology is more DIY than you’d ever expect for pilots of a billion dollar enterprise.  Panel-wiping is a full-time job on the ISS to keep the slime growth in check. And when you’re not up there, being an astronaut sounded decidedly like a job.

They say a little learning is a dangerous thing, and when it came to space, I wish I’d remained ignorant.  God speed, Endeavour.  I hope you get home safely.  I will be watching, just from a distance.

Perfection, anyone? Why not?

We are ambivalent about performance enhancing drugs.  Not just illicit kinds, but even those that reduce sadness, anxiety, or tolerate reality more effectively.  Of course there are those people that are too eager to take medications, classifying every twinge into a disorder that demands a google-able treatment, but by and large, as a psychiatrist, I see the opposite.  People want to be “better,” however that may be defined, while skipping reliance on a therapist or medication.

Skip B, go directly to F.  If only that were possible.

I was interested that this theme is reflected by two recent entries into the neurothriller sci-fi genre—Limitless (the Bradley Cooper movie) and Harmony (the Project Itoh novel, and winner of the PKD 2010 Special Citation).  Both of these works wrestle with a basic question:  to accept or eschew technology that allows for betterment? 

In Limitless, Cooper’s schlub is transformed into the uber-renaissance man through a mind-altering pill.  The movie is that surprisingly rare occurrence when good casting, performance, script and cinematography collaborate to tell a story.  Tension builds though toward the end of the movie:  the character is soooo much cooler on drugs, we don’t want the schlub back.  Faced with this dilemma, what ending to give?  A “just say no to drugs” ending is disappointing, but a “drugs are cool” ending feels morally…what?  Cheating?  Illegal?  Dangerous?  Or just wrong?  I’ll avoid spoiling.

Harmony is a journey that starts with a health totalitarianism and ends with the question of whether imperfect health (and mentality) isn’t the very essence of humanity. The world built, and the choices Itoh made, explore discomfort with government mandated-health and biological improvements in decision-making. In a world where perfection is possible, choice is the true essence of humanity.

While Limitless glorifies the quest for betterment through pharmacology, Harmony warns against it.  Yet, they share a similar message:  control is more important than health, perhaps more valuable than life itself. 

There seems to be no argument that we’re perfect.  Clearly, we all accept that we’re being beta-tested, and there’s room for improvement. However, we will accept technology-assisted upgrades as long as no one’s addicted (or can be your own dealer), and no one mandates the upgrade.

Perhaps the universal human experience isn’t the longing for happiness or immortality, but primarily the desire for control.  In which case, as we increasingly enter a world of technological advances, whom will we ever trust enough to accept them?

The Man from La Mancha

December, 1989.  I was in ninth grade.  A little show called Quantum Leap was getting a lot of buzz.  I taped it on our Betamax.

Sam leaps into the body of an off-off-broadway actor playing the title role of Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha.  In a manner that would not be limited to this instance (as my brilliant attempt at an Ewok-heavy Return of the Jedi sequel had proved), I was inspired to engage a work of art not as observer but as participant.

I watched the tape until it got all weird and staticky.  I bought the soundtrack to the musical (and through repeated listening, used what I learned to nab a choice role as a Shark in West Side Story).  I read the Cervantes novel three times (it should be more, but it’s a long chunky book).  I saw the musical at a revival.  I own ten copies (in English and Espanol), including a vintage edition with the gorgeous Dore engraving above.  I own three statues, and multiple paintings of that poor deluded knight.

Why?  Don Quixote is the patron saint of readers and writers.  He is a fictional character who becomes so obsessed with the art of fiction, that he loses his grip on reality, choosing the fictional world over the objective.  And he would be a tragic figure, were that the end, but instead the world around him mutates into the world he wished it were.

Don Quixote is the ultimate fanboy, the ultimate cosplay enthusiast, who turns the world around him into his fetish.  We should all be so lucky as to have our fictional passions come to life.  

But he is also the artist, preoccupied with his own fantasies that he writes reality to match his dreams.

So, it’s probably not that weird that Sam Beckett inhabiting a man who is inhabiting a role of Cervantes acting out his character Don Quixote, would inspire some Canadian lad to go to MIT (Sam Beckett’s old stomping ground), study theater, and try his hand at bringing his own fantasies to life.

There’s just a whole lot of meta going on.