When the space aliens finally come to Earth, they may utter something reassuringly peaceful—“Klaatu barada nikto,” say. Likelier they’ll say something a touch different on surveying the wreckage that Homo sapiens have made of their nest, something along the lines of, well, whatever “WTF?” might sound like in Alpha Centaurian.
Whatever the extraterrestrials say, we won’t be there to hear them. So runs the premise of Earth (The Book), whose title may or may not be subtle homage to Hot Dog (The Movie), but whose earnest goofiness is worthy of The Onion. Earth is a guidebook for those alien visitors to a planet that no longer has to worry about human infestations, the place Alan Weisman imagined in his pensive book The World Without Us, but one that’s been only freshly fumigated, so that our traces are everywhere.
Why we have created such a mess is a topic for the learned academicians of space to debate. Jon Stewart and his fellow writers at The Daily Show venture at least some explanation: “For most of our history,” they write, “we had grave misconceptions about exactly where Earth stood within the cosmos. Due partly to scientific limitations and more than a touch of narcissism, we believed everything in the universe literally revolved around us. It was a theory called geocentrism, because you can’t spell geocentrism without e-g-o.”
Continuing in the vein of their collaborative effort America, but with a touch more busy detail in both words and images, Stewart and his Daily Show comrades offer a few other answers to the matter of our absence, tucking the meatiest away in an appendix that opens, “At some point between the time this was written and the time you are reading it, we perished.” Some of those possibilities include ecological catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, disease, robot rebellion and rapture—the last with a generous 30-to-one chance of occurring and evidenced by an “overall ‘Jesus-y’ feeling in the air,” but to gauge by the rest of the book, the end may well come by dint of our soufflé-like culture’s having finally become too airy and collapsed. So it is that Earth is studded with images of all those pop-culture and media figures that one would gladly leave the planet to escape, from Bernie Madoff to Nicole Kidman and J-Lo (or, if not J-Lo, a convincing simulacrum). Stewart lampoons with a broad brush rather than the scalpel with which he dissects pomposity and prevarication on his Comedy Central show; some of his targets include creationists and school boards, fast-food restaurants, obesity, the medical bureaucracy, the Venus of Willendorf, and, not connected to the aforementioned Venus, the use of the brassiere as an instrument of social control. George W. Bush doesn’t escape, of course. But then, neither does Florence Henderson.
In the six years since America appeared, much has happened—and not just in the realm of things that will make the human species go bye-bye. For one thing, Stewart has emerged as just about the only figure on television able to get at the truth about the flood of idiocy and lunacy that has washed over the planet. Apart from being the salvation of journalism, to hear TV talking head Brian Williams tell it, Stewart has also become a pop phenom, which means that Earth is likely to be a Big Book. And deservedly—it’s a lot of fun, with a serious message or two tucked away among the japes. Regular viewers of the show will know exactly what they’re in for—and readers of whatever stripe, save those who are fans of McDonald’s and Satan, are likely to enjoy it.