I call it “Bold and Brash”


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I experienced a weird constellation of three events last week. First, my editor, my agent, and I hashed out the jacket copy for my upcoming novel, Exit Black. It was weird to realize that I was basically helping write ad copy for a book that I labored over for two years. Second, I sent out a query to a literary agent for the book I drafted after Exit Black, called Pacifica. (My current excellent and extant agent, Scott, works on film and TV projects, and Pacifica definitely isn’t movie material, so I am looking for a bookish agent as well).

And third, I was driving down Broadway in Portland when I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me:

Millennials and Zoomers–and their parents who might have watched Spongebob Squarepants with them twenty years ago–will recognize this as Squidward Tentacles’ self portrait, “Bold and Brash.” I was happily shocked to see it on a bumper sticker. And I realized when I saw it that this publication process I am experiencing with my books is drawing up all of my deeply Squidwardian impulses: my vanity, my hunger for approval, my inner conflict about how art intersects with commerce. Squidward, c’est moi.

If you need a blast from the past, or you somehow never saw the original, here is a clip of me Squidward from the episode “Artist Unknown:”

New Pitkiny Fiction in Boston Review


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I’m late bringing this news to The Subway Test–a sign of the recent moribunditude of my blog. But last year I entered the Aura Estrada Short Story Contest at Boston Review and…I didn’t win. But my story, called “Nomenclator of the Revolution,” was a finalist for the award, and that means the story will be appearing in Boston Review soon!

One of the reasons I feel so proud to have “Nomenclator” coming out in Boston Review–besides the obvious, that Boston Review is an excellent publication which has hosted writing from titans like Rita Dove, John Updike, Susan Sontag, and Saul Bellow–is that “Nomenclator” had been rejected by 26 other magazines before it was accepted at Boston Review.

Which is another way of saying don’t invest too much meaning in any particular rejection of your work. When a story of mine is rejected a few times–say, half a dozen rejections or so–I do need to look hard at what I’m sending out. Maybe the piece isn’t ready. Maybe it’s not as good as I would like to believe it is. But once in a while, I scrutinize the much-rejected story and it still looks good to me. It’s hard to assess my own work honestly. But if I really believe the story is good, then I’ll keep sending it out until I find someone who agrees with me.

One of my formative memories as a writer was seeing the great poet William Stafford read at the end of his career. He would have been 75 or 76 years old at the time–a wizened, kindly fellow who I appreciated only later as one of the most important poetic voices in the 20th century. At one point in the reading, he introduced one of his poems by reciting the names of all the magazines and journals that had rejected it. The list was long–I don’t remember how many publications were on it–but, journal names being what they are, the list sounded like a poem of its own. I didn’t have the courage to tell Stafford how important his reading had been to me, and he died mot much later. But thank you, William Stafford, for reading that list when I was 19 years old.

I Used ChatGPT to Write My Novel!


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Well, not really. Or at least not in the way that you might think: I’m definitely not one of those scammy side hustlers sending ChatGPT-generated concoctions to award winning science fiction magazines.

But the novel I’m working on now, Pacifica, begins each of its 74 chapters with an epigraph. Much like the computer game Civilization, each chapter is named after one of the technologies that have made modern humanity possible. And, much like Civilization, each technology is accompanied by an apposite quote. Leonard Nimoy was the gold standard narrator for those quotes in Civilization IV (though Sean Bean has his moments in Civilization VI).

One of the most fun parts of drafting Pacifica has been finding the right quotes for each chapter. I picked from books and poems that I love (as well as a few books that I hated) to put together what I imagined as a kind of collage or mosaic of human knowledge. I imagined the task as something like a literary version of the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where The Beatles assembled a photo-collage crowd of their favorite thinkers and artists and goofball influences.

Many technologies were easy to find quotes for. Especially for early technologies like pottery, masonry, and currency, there are a thousand great writers who had something pithy to say. Mostly I would page through books in my office, or CTRL-F through digitized books in Archive.org, to find quotes that spoke to the technology in question and also, hopefully, to the action of the chapter. Sometimes I had to draw the connections myself, in which case the quote turned into something of a writing prompt; other times the quote fit the chapter in deep and unexpected ways that I couldn’t have engineered if I tried.

Some of the later technologies were much harder: for instance, no one from Homer to Virginia Woolf seems to have much to say about the superconductor. Who could I quote for a tech like that?

It just so happened that by the time I got to the superconductor chapter of the book, everybody was talking about ChatGPT. At my college, the discussion revolves entirely around students’ using ChatGPT to plagiarize their essays, an issue which seems to me as trivial, in the grand scheme of dangers that ChatGPT represents, as the crew of the Titanic arguing about a shortage of urinal cakes in the men’s rooms of the Saloon Deck.

So I asked ChatGPT to find me some quotes about superconducting. It suggested some quotes from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye. They weren’t bad references, exactly–those books do mention superconducting–but none of them resonated with me. So I asked about Arthur C. Clarke, a fave of mine: surely, I thought, Clarke must have written somewhere about superconducting.

According to ChatGPT, Clarke has written about superconducting: of the two references ChatGPT gave me, the one which jumped out at me was this one: “Clarke’s short story ‘The Ultimate Melody,’ published in 1957, briefly mentions the use of superconducting materials in the construction of a futuristic musical instrument called the ‘ultimate melody.'” Now that’s a resonant quote–that would work perfectly for Pacifica!

So I looked up the story and read it (like 90% of Clarke’s short fiction, I had never read it before). Here’s the thing, though: there’s absolutely nothing about superconducting in that story! (For that matter, the futuristic musical instrument is called “Ludwig;” the ultimate melody was the ideal music the instrument was designed to find).

And here’s the other thing, which I discovered later: Arthur C. Clarke did write a short story, called “Crusade,” in which superconductivity is a central plot point. ChatGPT didn’t think to mention it (because ChatGPT doesn’t think yet). I tracked that story down with a simple DuckDuckGo search for “Arthur C. Clarke superconducting.” It’s an excellent story, by the way–very Arthur C. Clarke. And that story had the perfect quote, which fits both Pacifica and the life I feel I am living lately: “It was a computer’s paradise. No world could have been more hostile to life.

So, for now, I agree with John Scalzi’s excellent assessment: “If you want a fast, infinite generator of competently-assembled bullshit, AI is your go-to source. For anything else, you still need a human.” That’s all changing, and changing faster than I would like, but I’m relieved to know that I’m still smarter than a computer for the next year or maybe two.

Back on the Subway


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I’ve had a long spell away from this blog while I was drafting my third novel, Pacifica. But now that Pacifica is (finally, after a thousand sighs) drafted, and as I prepare for the publication of my second novel, Exit Black, by Blackstone this year, I’m able to give a little more attention to this space. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed interacting with you through The Subway Test. I hope to connect with you a little more frequently in the coming months!

Just Call Me Mr. Gravity


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Photo Credit, Pat Rose; Image Design, Center Field of Gravity

It appears I am the winner. I am honored to be the recipient of the 2022 Gravity Award for my story “Before Concord.” I have always respected gravity, but never until now have I known that the feeling was mutual.

So, feel free to call me Mr. Gravity for the rest of 2022. Or Professor Gravity if that appeals to you more. On second thought, don’t call me that: a name like Professor Gravity suggests that I might actually understand gravity, and as my physics teacher said long ago, gravity is harder to understand than you think. Just keep calling me Joe.

Many thanks to Brad and Rob for their fine publication, Center Field of Gravity, which I hope you will check out.

New Fiction on the Tubes


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Image courtesy of http://www.centerfieldofgravity.com

I’m pleased to announce that my story “Before Concord” has been chosen as a finalist for the 2022 Gravity Award by the fine folks at Center Field of Gravity. As they say on the Oscars, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

“Before Concord” is a favorite of mine: it’s my first satisfactory attempt at a hard-boiled detective story (though, because I’m me, it’s set on the University Republic of Mars at the end of the 22nd century). With all the novel work I have been doing lately, I’m very happy to see one of my shorter pieces get picked up.

The winner will be announced this Tuesday the 17th of May, and you can read the story in all its nominated glory here.

The School Down the Hill From the Ivory Tower


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I’ve known that community college teaching was my calling almost from the moment I knew what a community college was. Working at an open door institution–that is, offering an education to anyone who comes through the door–spoke to something deep in my moral DNA.

But it didn’t take many years of actually working in a community college for me to see how far the reality falls short of the dream: there are many community colleges, including the one where I teach, where students are likelier to default on their student loans than they are to graduate on time. And, as with just about every other institution in the United States, there are serious equity gaps between how easy it is for middle class, traditional age (usually white) students to navigate the system, compared to how many roadblocks exist for first generation and other “non-traditional” students, who are disproportionately people of color.

In the twenty-plus years of my career, I’ve imagined the work of my college as analogous to the function of a large, overburdened public hospital: the community is glad that such places exist, but anyone who knows better takes their kids elsewhere if they can.

Yet the educational ecosystem of the US (indeed, of the entire world) is changing more rapidly, and more profoundly, than at any time in decades and perhaps in centuries. The ultimate driver of these changes is the internet: no information technology since the printing press has had such a seismic effect on people’s access to knowledge. And, if our society approaches the changes mindfully, I believe that this transformation will lift the stock value of America’s community colleges.

I am not speaking here of the wholesale move to online education that began to accelerate twenty-odd years ago and then sped up cataclysmically during the coronavirus pandemic. Years of teaching both online and face to face have convinced me that online learning is a pale substitute for the educational experience that many students are hoping for. But that’s an argument for another essay. For this post, I will say that the internet has done more than simply spur the growth of a million mediocre online courses; far more importantly, the internet has upended some of the fundamental assumptions of what school is for.

Before the internet, the central educational challenge for any society was access to content, whether that knowledge was locked up in books or in the experience of elders, who are limited in the number of people they can teach at one time. It is still the case today that where access to content is scarce, societies have difficulty in delivering even basic literacy to their citizens. Back in the pre-internet age, even where literacy was widespread it was hard out there for an auto-didact. Anyone who wished to know more than the barest rudiments of chemistry or mechanical engineering or ancient history or whatever had to have physical access to an institution of learning: a library, a museum, a university. Advanced knowledge in many fields was locked up in these ivory towers, preserved for the elect who had the social connections, the money, or the talent to access the lectures and the rare manuscripts, the academic journal subscriptions and the Erlenmeyer flasks. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure offers a poignant description of this state of affairs: Jude’s failed attempt to enter “Bibliol College” at Oxford because of his background as a stonemason was thought to have been drawn from Hardy’s real life experience failing to gain entry to Balliol College Oxford.

Balliol College.jpg
The Real-life Balliol College, photo by Steve Cadman. Note the literal tower.

The community college was conceived as a disruptor of this elitist system. It’s hardly the only one: the public library, Wikipedia, and the land grant university system were also developed to increase ordinary people’s access to educational content. But the community college has come to occupy a special niche in the educational ecosystem: unlike land grant universities, the community college is a truly open door institution. Pound for pound, the community college helps to lift far more people out of poverty than universities do, given the formal and informal barriers to entry at most universities. And yet, the community college is also unlike those other great open door institutions like the public library, Khan Academy, and Wikipedia: at a community college, whatever subject you hope to study, there is a knowledgeable guide there to speak with you personally, to offer you personal feedback on your writing, to help you frame your questions and offer suggestions for tracking down the answers. It is the personal relationship between teachers and students–what the parents of elite students pay tens of thousands of dollars for at small liberal arts colleges–that the community college can offer.

Of course, anyone who has actually studied at a community college knows that not everyone who works there is a knowledgeable guide: some community college teachers are lackluster, ineffective, or worse. Outside the classroom, the processes for getting academic advising or help in the financial aid office can be so byzantine that they would be at home in a Franz Kafka novel. And many college administrations mismanage their institutions with such energy that one can be forgiven for wondering whether there are saboteurs among them.

But despite these defects, many of which are the result of America’s decades-long disinvestment in public services, the community college remains one of the only institutions where an adult can walk in, without any prior credentials or letters of recommendation, and receive caring, personalized instruction in nearly any field from an experienced teacher. The community college aims to help those students who are most vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation; those most vulnerable to the predatory sales pitch of the for-profit university; those least likely to be able to afford an internet paywall, or the more consequential paywall of university tuition. The internet may have exploded many people’s assumptions about how education works. But here is one thing the internet hasn’t changed: most students still want to be seen, to be recognized, to be known by other human beings. Students with money can get those attentions at hundreds of prestigious universities. But anyone, rich or poor, young or old, neurotypical or not, can find teachers who see them, recognize them, and know them at a community college.



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Today the temperature on our backyard weather station topped out at 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently the reading at the Portland International Airport was 116 degrees. It was the hottest day ever recorded in the history of Portland. Indeed, it was very likely the hottest day that has ever occurred in this valley in the entire history of human habitation at this site. The second hottest day in Portland’s history was yesterday; the third hottest was the day before that.

For years, ever since I knew what climate change was–ever since we used the term global warming instead of climate change–experts have cautioned the public not to point at any specific weather event and say “See? That’s climate change at work.” With my own students, I’ve taken pains to differentiate weather from climate and to help them understand that extreme weather events have always been with us, that extreme weather is a natural consequence of living on a planet with an atmosphere and oceans and an axial tilt. However, extreme weather events do not happen by magic. And I am thankful that more and more Americans seem to have awakened to the reality that these shocking extremes in the weather are being driven by human-caused climate change.

A few years ago, I decided to devote the rest of my career to fighting anthropogenic climate change. Like a lot of people, I feel overwhelmed by how puny my influence is in relation to the scope of the problem. But I can work to address climate inaction at my college, and I can help shepherd into being academic programs devoted to restoration ecology and climate remediation and environmental policy change. And I know that I can work with students in ways both formal and informal to help them see the political and economic transformation ahead of us.

You can see the transformation ahead of us as well. It will cost you and me a good deal of money to address the catastrophe that is upon us. However, you and I will pay it: either we will pay the cost to save human civilization or we will pay for our civilization’s collapse.

I hope that a few locals who have been snookered by Fox News and its ilk into climate change skepticism (some of them students of mine) will be jostled into cognitive dissonance by the heat of the last three days. I have less hope for the cynics and nihilists that broadcast to them or who pretend to represent them politically. But it was ever so: those who today claim that climate science is unsettled are close cousins of those who used to argue that cigarettes don’t cause cancer or that black people were happier as slaves than as free people. For whatever social evil one cares to name, there is a powerful constituency that benefits from its existence and that will fight to keep it. For the last several decades, that force has been concentrated in the Republican Party and its various media outlets. The names may change at some point–just as the Republicans used to be a far more progressive party than today and the Democrats far more socially regressive–but there will always be a group of powerful people ready to defend an exploitative or oppressive status quo.

But here’s the good news, to the extent that any news about what is happening to us can be good: climate change is not going away. The problem will continue to knock at our doors more and more insistently. And in the words attributed to my favorite Republican, “you may fool people for a time; you can fool a part of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

A Message for My Students


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I found myself facing an unexpected challenge as a teacher this week: I had to make a case, for the first time in my life, in favor of democracy as a form of government. It was a hard, and surprisingly emotional, writing task. I don’t know whether it reassured any of my students or shook anyone awake, but I’m glad I wrote it nonetheless.

US Capitol, photo Robert Easton

After she read it, my wife suggested I post it more broadly. So, for anyone who happens to chance across this blog, here is what I wrote my first-year writing students this Monday:

Welcome to week 2, fellow scholars:

While I have been meaning to experiment more with video announcements, I felt that this week, given everything that has been happening in our nation, it was important to me to write out my announcement. Writing helps us to clarify our thoughts, to identify what we really believe, and I can’t think of a time in my life when it was more important to me to clarify to my students what I believe.

I have some information about how the course is proceeding, but before I get to that, I want to begin by addressing the elephant in the room. Last week’s violence at the United States Capitol is unprecedented: never before in the history of the republic has a mob of citizens taken over the seat of American government. While I am sure we all have our own strong feelings about what has happened and what is happening now, I want to make sure that students understand my values and expectations as regards this class.

Let me make my allegiances clear at the outset: I believe in democracy. I am committed to government of the people, by the people, for the people. That principle is much easier to talk about than to practice, as Abraham Lincoln could surely have told us when he coined that phrase in the Gettysburg Address. Make no mistake: our country has a daunting amount of work ahead on questions of race, of political representation, of equal justice and opportunity. But, regardless of the difficulty involved, life in a democratic republic is preferable by far to life in any of the various authoritarian or totalitarian alternatives to democracy.

It is this commitment to democracy that brought me into my career: I would not teach at a community college if I didn’t believe that people can learn how to participate fully in a democratic republic. We study rhetoric, the ancient art of argument, for many reasons, but chief among them is so that we can learn to represent our interests with dialogue rather than with violence. If we do not have enough citizens who can make that simple—yet very difficult—commitment to dialogue over violence, the country will falter. We will not recognize the country that results, I promise you.

What does all of the above say about what happens in this class? In this class, I will guide my teaching practice by the following value: Every student, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, sexuality, ability, or political beliefs, is welcome here, as long as they conduct themselves with respect for all other students in this class community. In other words, I am making two commitments to you:

  1. No matter who you are, you are welcome here, and
  2. I insist that you treat one another with mutual respect.

Much of what we read, write about, and talk about in this class will relate to social or cultural issues which are by their nature political. Whether your political beliefs on these issues are similar to mine, or similar to the beliefs of others in the class, will have no bearing on your grade or your place in this class. As I said above, all are welcome here. However, I also expect that when you encounter someone else in this class with different political, cultural, or social beliefs than you, you will speak with that person as an equal, as someone worthy of your respect, as one who has as much right to participate in this classroom community as you do. Because part of my job is to maintain this classroom community in a way that provides a healthy learning environment for all, I will not tolerate behavior that belittles, ridicules, or otherwise disrespects any student or their beliefs. I trust you, as fellow scholars and as decent human beings, to commit yourselves to an environment of mutual respect.

Cataclysm 2020


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It’s hard to have much love for 2020. This year–which, I remind myself when I am feeling down, is only about 77% finished–feels like a self-reinforcing system of catastrophes. I suspect I would find this a tough year even without the basso continuo of a global pandemic: the corner of the world I live in has suffered the most ruinous wildfires in decades; the president of the United States has announced his intention to replace democracy with authoritarianism and minority rule; his party, long ago one of the great intellectual traditions of the country, has shown itself to be led by nihilists, cynics, time servers, and predators. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night more than once this year overcome with the thought that life as we know it is ending, to be replaced by something more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Perhaps my 3:00 am dread is an accurate picture of what is to come. Perhaps, like Job, “the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me” and we are watching the collapse of the American experiment. Or, perhaps, what we are witnessing are the beginnings of the wholesale collapse of the entire human experiment, as the planet’s many life support systems go offline one by one. These outcomes seem possible: the beginning of the end of the republic by next month, the end of human civilization by the end of my children’s lifetimes.

And yet, what wakes me at 3:00 in the morning is not the certainty that those are our fates. Rather, what wakes me is uncertainty, the sense that much of what I could count on for the first half of my life can’t be counted on today. A related dread is the knowledge of the limits of my influence: I can work towards a civic renewal and towards ecological restoration, but the outcome of my work is out of my hands.

Paradoxically, this cloud of unknowing is also where I have taken some comfort. Old things are passing away–because of the pandemic, because of climate change, because of the presidency of an authoritarian strongman. It does not necessarily follow, however, that what will follow must be worse. The United States of America still purports to be a democracy. It is not impossible–if we vote, if we participate, if we work towards it–to build a more just society than the one we live in today, a healthier society, a more sustainable economy, a restored ecosystem.

By whatever name you care to call it–providence, karma, feedback loops–we are in a moment when the world itself seems to be pushing back on the outrages of the last four years, or four centuries: not just the fires and the supra-alphabetical roster of hurricanes, but Donald Trump’s own infection with COVID-19. Because he is a public man, his illness and suffering take on symbolic dimensions, as though he were a character being punished for his hubris in Dante’s Inferno or the Book of Daniel. Trump’s posturing about his strength, even when it’s obvious that he is in pain and struggling for breath, only goes to show that he is as unprepared for his life as a metaphor as he is for his life as President of the United States.

The times are cataclysmic, but they will pass. A new day may be closer than you think. And there will be a moment on the other side of the cataclysm that calls for new balances. It’s time to vote Donald Trump and his enablers out of office. It’s time to push. It’s time to work.