The Marquis de Sade comedy hour? Adolf Hitler touching base with his inner child? A casual discussion of pillage and plunder with Genghis Kahn and Attila the Hun? John Altson’s Does Harry Dream of Electric Sheep? An Adult Social Satire really can lighten any subject. At its core, Altson’s book is a fun riff on Jonathan Swift’s classic satire of the human condition, detailing Harry Enlightenment’s voyage from Earth (circa 3000 A.D.) to Cetus-2 and the civilization of Baa—the Land of the Sheep
What Harry Enlightenment finds there is frightfully similar to life in the U.S.A. circa 2014: politicians run amuck; climate change deniers in charge of atmospheric research; a culture permeated by guns and violence, unable to take even the most basic legislative action to control the prevalence of weapons or the entertainment industry that popularizes their use.
I give you the Speaker of the Baaner (not Boehner!) House of Representatives:
“Last week’s school shooting saddens me. As I understand, the perpetrator obtained his weapon legally, so there is really nothing we can do about it, other than making sure that the Mouthies discuss the negatives of random Sheepicide. We cannot change our Second Amendment and the Ohmys producing our weapons would become angered by any manufacturing restrictions. We need the Ohmy financial support.”
Unfortunately for the citizens of Baa, the law clearly states that Baaners may obtain any weapon for their personal use. And with laws permitting absolute freedom of speech, the violence permeating their media cannot be checked, “…So another heated debate persisted, ending in no resolution.”
But why (other than a Mohamed cartoon convention in Texas) harp on this societal deficiency alone when Altson holds up the mirror to so many others? Harry’s travels are rife with religious zealotry; Baaner bigotry; technological insanity; atmospheric degradation; bad popular culture (Lady Baabaa…); so many things, including the most important: commerce!
Altson’s at his playful best when Harry arrives at the land of the Ohmys, with their penchant for business. Wordplay and naming conventions are his weapons of choice, with manufacturers that include sheep-person clothier RalphLawn; Baaweiser, makers of “haykick”; Poppyco, with products to make you thirsty and products to quench your thirst; a cigarette producer called Flipped Moss and a furniture company called Lazy-Baa. Why, there’s even a town called Baaston with a bar called Shears.
Yet even amid this fun we’re reminded of some pretty messy earthling habits. Harry visits Hormal and observes their process for turning Baa’s ape-like Jabbers into food. Steps one-three might not be so bad (a quick death, hair removal, sectioning). But steps four-six will put you off tube-steak for months:
Skull, bones, brains, feet, hands, and viscera are put into our chopper… Preservatives are added…. Output goes in four directions: One stream of jabber output goes into casements for our sausage products. A second stream is canned as “Spum”. The third stream is dried and bagged as fertilizer. The fourth stream is dyed pink and sold as a meat supplement.
Altson paints a broad brush against this alien—and primitive—society. A few brilliant conceits drive the narrative (talking sheep with brains in their asses; the larger the bottom, the smarter the sheep). But clever and amusing as it is, there’s a degree of tedium to the tour-guide nature of it all. There is very little plot, save for a few moments of high conflict, and almost zero characterization. Harry all but leaves behind his initial reason for traveling to Baa—to establish a quack psychiatric practice for aliens—in exchange for what becomes essentially a catalogue of ridiculous laws, nutty inventions, and rampant commercialization, all wrapped up in Jabber skin. But he does come around in the end to cure the “Evil Eight” imprisoned on Nowhereland.
Despite these deficiencies Altson’s book entertains. He manages to make our society look absurd, without making it look like the most absurd in the universe. It gives one hope to think that a thousand years from now, we might advise our alien neighbors on climate change, and reprimand their decadent methane-dependence (including cars that run on the “natural gas” of its passengers via a tube plugged into the rectum).
If that’s the case, we’ll be Earth’s Ambassadors, briefcase in hand, communicators on repeat, dialed to the loudest setting.
CreateSpace (October 19, 2014)