What I Got Wrong About Pandemics

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I’ve been obsessively trawling through news feeds for more articles about the novel coronavirus pandemic, as though somewhere in the thousandth article I will find some life-saving pearl of advice that I didn’t see in the previous 999 articles. I can see that what I’m doing is a strategy–shared by many, I suppose–to offer myself the illusion of control in a cataclysm which is fundamentally beyond anyone’s control. (Of course, while the pandemonium is beyond anyone’s control, it’s not beyond everyone’s collective control: I’m very happy to see the people in my community of Portland, Oregon, starting to close up shop, hunker down in our houses, and practice social distancing even without explicit direction from our psychically damaged and malignant president).

As I hunker down here at my dinner table, reflecting on scary days ahead, I am reminded of a pandemic story I wrote years ago, one of my earliest science fiction efforts. The piece is called “A Murmuration of Starlings;” it was my first sale to a major sci fi publication (Analog Science Fiction and Fact). While there are a few elements in the story that I would have handled differently if I were writing it today, on the whole I think it has held up quite well. And there is a lot in “Murmuration” that I anticipated correctly about what a pandemic would be like: the focus on social distancing, the eerie calm in once-bustling places, the bemused emails and phone calls.

Starling, by M. Shattock

But, now that a pandemic is truly upon us, I’m more interested in the things I got wrong about the story, the things I failed to imagine. It didn’t occur to me to write about economic collapse, though of course that’s one of the things that’s easiest to notice about our current predicament. I didn’t think at all about the case fatality rate of the disease I was writing about: in the story, 90% of people who were infected died, though it seems to me now that a disease that deadly would burn itself out very quickly. It never occurred to me how much chaos and misery could accompany an infection with a 98% or 99% survival rate. I wish, now that I’m living through a real pandemic, that I had said something about the dithering and denial of the authorities in the early days.

If you don’t happen to have the June 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact lying around, you can read the story here. I can reassure you that there is a redemptive arc to the story, just the sort of thing a reader might need while hunkering down through a real pandemic.

Thoughts on 2001: A Space Odyssey

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I had the joy of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen the first time in my life a little while ago. For those of you living near Portland, The Hollywood Theater purchased a 70 mm print of the film a couple of years back, and they show the movie to a sold-out house a couple of times every year. I had seen the film many times before on video–it’s one of the truly formative pieces of art in my life–but seeing it in a literally larger-than-life format impressed me deeply: the movie reminds me why I work in the genre of science fiction.

One of the most celebrated elements of the film has been its technological accuracy. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke, working before CGI or the moon landing, were able to predict so many of the challenges and curiosities of living and working in space. As much as I loved Star Trek and Star Wars growing up, I always had the sense that those two franchises were more science fantasy than science fiction (especially Star Wars). 2001, by contrast, looked like some thrillingly-plausible documentary footage from a future just over the horizon.

But it is not the accuracy of the film that affects me so much now. Rather, 2001 is worth watching because of what Tolkien would have called its mythopoesis: its creation of a new mythology in which we could view our modern predicament. As much as any other work of art I can think of, 2001 gets at the painfully intermediate position of our species as part animal and part divine: the film is a 164-minute meditation on Hamlet’s musing: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

(Another quote, just as apt, comes from Nietzsche’s This Spake Zarathustra, the book which also inspired the iconic theme music for 2001: “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”).

While the film is set in space in the near future, as realistically as Kubrick and Clarke could conceive of it, the setting is just as much a place of the inscrutable divine: in other words, its setting is really The Dreamtime, the Underworld, Faerie. Even though the US Space Program was deeply influenced in real life by 2001, the movie is closer to the mystical cave paintings of Chauvet or Lubang Jeriji Saléh than it is to the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Of course, there are many elements of any piece of science fiction that won’t hold up well after 50+ years. In the case of 2001, Kubrick and Clarke seriously underestimated the amount of progress our species would make in some aspects of information technology, while at the same time overestimating the progress we would make in artificial intelligence and manned spaceflight. Those are easy mistakes to make, by the way: I can’t think of any science fiction before the 1980s that successfully anticipated the internet, and of course a movie made in 1968, the year before Apollo 11, would extend the logic of manned spaceflight out to regular orbital shuttles and populous moon bases and manned Jupiter missions.

But the beauty of 2001 is not how much the movie correctly predicted but rather how well it explores the timeless theme of what it means to be a human being. What strange gods called out of the darkness to our rude, frightened hominid ancestors to make us human? What awaits us if we can survive the deadly unintended consequences of our own ingenuity? In wrestling with those questions, 2001 is every bit as bottomless a work of art as Paradise Lost or Faust or the Popol Vuh. One can argue that there are no gods that made us, that the monoliths of the movie will never be found because they never existed in the first place. However, 2001 speaks to something very deep in our cultural DNA (and, for all I know, in our literal DNA): the yearning for our spiritual parents.

Two hundred years from now, if we somehow survive this dreadful bottleneck of overpopulation and ecological collapse, our descendants may be living in domed cities on the moon and Mars; we may be gliding in beautiful submarines through the oceans of Europa and Ganymede. We will still be looking for the monoliths.

Happy 2020

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About ten years ago, I submitted one of the first science fiction stories I had ever written to an anthology called 2020 Visions, published by the now-departed M-Brane Press. The editor, Rick Novy, was someone I didn’t know, but M-Brane had given me my first publication the year before, and I thought I would try with this new story about a plague carried by super-intelligent starlings.

Rick Novy didn’t take the story, but he gave me some excellent feedback–the piece had way too much infodump, and it took a very long time for the story’s action to get going. And he gave me a lead on another publisher: Stanley Schmidt, then-editor of Analog, might be interested in the story if I tightened it up.

Thankfully, Stanley Schmidt was interested in the piece once I had revised it, and “A Murmuration of Starlings” became the first of five stories that I’ve published in Analog. And it was through Analog that my work did get picked up for anthologies, and later how I was approached by an agent to option one of my stories for a movie.

I’ve published a lot more fiction over the last ten years, and I’m starting this decade with more hope (about my writing, anyway) than I had ten years ago. But one of the thoughts I had this morning as I woke to the year 2020 was that anthology, 2020 Visions, that I couldn’t get published in at the beginning of the last decade. I’m grateful to Rick Novy for the kind feedback and the kinder tip.

“So-Sz”–10th Anniversary Edition

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I was invited recently to join Curious Fictions, a platform for short fiction on the web. And, while I’m likely to keep writing for the magazine and podcast circuit, Curious Fictions does seem like a sweet place for me to drop my stories, especially those pieces that are hard to find elsewhere.

As I was thinking about an inaugural story for my Curious Fictions profile,
I immediately landed on one of my favorite first pieces: “So-Sz.”
I first sent the story out for publication ten years ago this month. The story
appeared in a wonderful little web magazine, 5923 Quarterly , which
folded not long after, perhaps coincidentally. “So-Sz” has been out
of print and unavailable since then.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this story. It’s one of my earliest efforts
at short fiction that struck me as mostly successful. And, while I am a better
writer today than I was ten years ago, there’s not a great deal I would change about the piece.

I was also reminded of “So-Sz” by the most recent Laika movie, Missing
Link
. Hopefully you’ll see some similarities (and differences) as well.

So, without further ado, I invite you to click over to Curious Fictions to
see the 10th Anniversary Edition of one of my favorite journeyman efforts: “So-Sz.”

Photo Credit: Steve Rotman; Art Credit: Some Awesome Graffitist

The Subway Is Running Again

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Six months after deleting my Facebook and Instagram accounts, I’ve come back to rehabilitate my blog, The Subway Test. I’ve missed writing it.

The author in the process of failing the subway test.

Without the gargantuan cave of Facebook to amplify my voice, I don’t know how many people will see my writing here. But it helps me to write here nonetheless.

Coming soon, I’ll reprint one of my favorite early stories in honor of its 10th anniversary. Keep watching the skies…

Facebook delenda est

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I’ve spent months away from The Subway Test and from social media in general, deep in the burrows of a new writing project. And, as exciting as that new project has been (it’s so exciting that I can’t really tell you much about it), I have missed the writing practice that I had before, working on short stories, my novel Pacifica, and the odd blog post that most people read when I cross-post it to Facebook.

But regarding Facebook, I have had another reason for my radio silence: I just haven’t known how to respond to the mounting news about what a monstrous company Facebook is. On the face of it, I’m not sure it should be such a hard decision for me to leave Facebook (and its horrible little sister, Instagram): a company that seems devoted to permitting, even encouraging, the spread of political disinformation, up to and including disinformation that drives genocide, is a company I want nothing to do with.

Copyright Adbusters

One of the only reasons I’ve had trouble leaving is that I don’t normally think of Facebook the company when I’m connecting with friends over Facebook the platform. That is, until about six months ago I was doing a fair amount of compartmentalization regarding my Facebook feelings: I would hear the news about Facebook’s business practices with mounting disgust, then log on and hand out a bunch of likes and haha faces and hearts to my friends’ pictures and memes and political links. Part of me knew that Facebook’s poetic PR language about connecting the world was just so much corporate bullshit. But then I would get on Facebook and act like all of that bullshit was true.

That’s because Facebook has very effectively built a business model which exploits our love for our friends and family. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a business model: a thousand major companies, from Hallmark to Hasbro to TGIFridays, monetizes our desire to connect with people we love. But I do expect such a company, if it claims to be devoted to connecting me with my loved ones, not sell my personal data to political dirty tricks operations, to voter suppression outfits, to election oppo researchers. And I definitely expect such a company to step in when their platform is being used to encourage genocide.

So, please consider this my last post on Facebook. If you are reading this post on that platform, know that I will miss you. You I like. But so long as Facebook continues under its current leadership, with its mix of smarmy public apologies accompanied by no meaningful change in policy, I won’t be back. As a small potatoes writer who would like to have more exposure, I do understand that leaving Facebook behind will mean cutting off one of the few channels by which most people see my work. But the internet is a big place–there will still be lots of places that an interested reader can find me.

If you happen to be an interested reader, feel free to subscribe to my blog, The Subway Test –you can also find the blog simply by googling “Joe Pitkin.” Until then, I’ll say goodbye and deactivate my accounts on New Year’s Day.

I’m open to coming back someday. In fact, I’ll be happy to come back to Facebook and Instagram if the company will take meaningful action to clean up its act. For starters, the Board of Directors needs to fire Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I know that Zuckerberg can go ahead and fire the board in return–he is after all the majority shareholder in Facebook–but the board needs to grow a spine and do its job. If Zuck wants to fire the board in return, let him go ahead and do that: at the very least his doing so will make public what a morally bankrupt human being he is. If the board is able to replace Facebook’s top executives with people who will shepherd a transformation at Facebook, creating a company with meaningful privacy policies, meaningful informed consent about how our data is used, and a serious effort to clamp down on disinformation and incitement, Facebook could be fun again.

Goodbye until then–much love to you, friends!


The Author Gratefully Acknowledges

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My story “Potosí” recently came out in Analog, and it’s gotten lots of the positive and negative attention that I had hoped it would. In the case of this story, I looked forward to some negative attention, as “Potosí” is a not-so-veiled indictment of the Trumpian worldview, and some readers of science fiction, unfortunately, are also white supremacists. (This is not to say, by the way, that everyone who hated the story is a white supremacist. People could have any number of reasons for disliking the story; however, a few people who hated it had objections which were rooted in a white supremacist worldview).

I’ve also been happy with how the story looks in Analog. Even though the magazine is print-only, it’s still nice in this internet age to see one’s name in print. However, I do have one regret about how the piece looks: my bio was omitted from the end of the story. That’s normally not a big deal at all for me–I suspect the editors left it off for space-saving reasons, and the folks at Analog have done more than just about anyone to promote my work. They were even kind enough to run a full page biosketch on me a couple of years ago. But there was a line in my bio for this story that I really wanted to appear in the magazine. Here is is:

“The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Phil Ekstrom in working out the physics of this story.”

Phil is a friend of mine whose knowledge of physics not only exceeds my own (that’s an exceedingly easy accomplishment), but his knowledge of physics also exceeds my knowledge of any field at all, including writing. He’s a man of great accomplishment in a wide number of fields of physics and engineering; while it’s hardly his greatest achievement, some will recognize his work in the photo below: Phil was one of the people who wired up the young Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s first computer.

young gates and allen

A teenage Bill Gates looks to the top of an imagined stack of 100 billion dollar bills –Getty Images

“Potosí” involves a decent amount of classical mechanics–most of the story takes place in the microgravity of a small asteroid being pushed this way and that by space tugs, mass drivers, and the imaginary forces of human greed and anger. I’m reasonably good at describing  the greed and anger part, but I needed a lot of help with the physical forces. I can tell Phil has years of experience explaining things to undergraduates of varying talent; he certainly needed to call on those skills in order to explain my story to me.

The story has some (I hope small) violations of physical laws, where I did a little handwaving in order to accomplish an artistic goal. But to the extent that “Potosí” is any example of hard sci-fi–as opposed to the science fantasy of Star Wars or the kilomoles of handwavium in Star Trek–I have Phil Ekstrom to thank for giving the story some semblance of rigor. Thanks, Phil.

Loving the Alien

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but I haven’t been idle. My story “Potosi” has come out in Analog, and the story editor for the magazine, the indefatigable Emily Hockaday, asked me if I would write a companion piece for the Analog blog. I’m reposting it here. Thanks for the invite, Emily!

The Astounding Analog Companion

by Joe Pitkin

Science fiction writers love aliens. We believe in their existence; we dream of hearing from them. As a boy, I remember seeing Carl Sagan’s explanation of the Drake Equation—a string of variables that estimates the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy—and being struck both by the possibilities of interstellar neighbors and by the tremendous uncertainty in the variables.

Those of you who have spent time meditating on the Drake Equation know that its variables fp and ne, representing the number of planets in the galaxy and the fraction of those planets harboring environments suitable for life, have been pinned down with greater and greater confidence in the last two decades. You know, too, that the value of these variables is very, very high. But many of the other variables in the Drake Equation remain highly uncertain, even suspect in a couple of…

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My Autumnal Love Affair with Math

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I was an indifferent student of math growing up. I wasn’t bad at math exactly, but I didn’t much like the subject (except for geometry, which I took in high school from a brilliant and generous teacher who had left off being a rocket scientist–literally–so that he could teach young people). I pretty much stopped taking math as soon as I was allowed to  in high school–I stopped out at algebra III.

A couple of years later, in a spasm of optimism, I signed up to take a 7:00 am calculus class to meet my math requirement in my freshman year of college. I was influenced in this fool’s errand by one of my heroes, my writing professor Tom Lyon, whose hypoglycemia obliged him to teach at 7:00 and 8:00 am exclusively. I believed that something would blossom in me, and I would develop into the scholar and writer I was destined to be, a scholar and writer like Tom Lyon, if I got up every morning for calculus in the early hours.

Alas, my 7:00 am calculus teacher was no Tom Lyon: I remember her as earnest and competent, but not particularly skilled or experienced as a teacher. Probably, given that I was a freshman at a land grant university in a 7:00 am calculus class, she was a relatively new graduate teaching assistant. More importantly, what seeds of knowledge she sowed my way fell on rocky ground, or weedy ground–I remember not a lick of calculus from that class. Practically my only memory of that whole term was one morning watching the morning sun stream into the room late in the quarter and feeling the joy of being an 18 year-old in springtime.

Somehow I managed to pass that class despite all the time I spent gazing out the window. And 25 years later, somehow I managed to get a master of science degree in environmental science without much knowledge of calculus. I knew enough to be able to recognize that something was a calculus problem–the same way I might recognize that the people next to me are speaking Portuguese–but as for using calculus to model a problem or make a useful prediction about the world, the little glyphs and grammars of differential equations were utterly alien to me.

The gaps in my math knowledge were worse than this, actually: I remember as I was gathering the last data for my thesis that my classmate Alison Jacobs had to explain to me the formula for the slope of a line (y=mx+b) for about 30 seconds before I realized that she was talking about something that I had studied for months and months in junior high school. It comforted me a bit to learn later that the great E. O. Wilson had gotten his PhD in biology at Harvard without calculus–in Letters to a Young Scientist he talks about sitting in calculus class as a 32 year-old assistant professor, trying to atone for his crime of omission. But for me, it has been hard to shake the sense that however well I might use words to describe the thicket of the world,  I’ll never know the trails by which I might, using math, penetrate to the heart of things.

I had to climb over my own emotional palisades, then, to set out on a journey to teach myself calculus at age 45.  For me, coming back to differential calculus via Khan Academy has felt less like atonement and more like the discovery that someone I had regarded as homely in high school showed up at the 30 year reunion looking like a knockout. Somehow over the thirty years since I first sat in that 7:00 am calculus class, I have discovered that I’m in love with mathematics.

So far as I can tell, there’s no direct benefit to me in learning calculus or any other kind of math. No matter how good I may get at it in middle age, there will always be others around me who know math better and who use it more naturally than I. And what would I use calculus for anyway? I’m no better an English teacher or outcomes assessment specialist because of it. One could argue that I’m a worse English teacher because of it, opportunity costs being what they are–every hour I spend learning about limits and differentiation is an hour I don’t spend honing my knowledge of composition theory or something else I might actually use in the classroom.

But I don’t want to stop myself: I study math because math has become beautiful to me. Perhaps it seems more beautiful to me because it has no obvious use to me. I’m long past the spring term of my life now. Perhaps I can love math now because “the heyday of the blood is tame”–though in so many areas of life I feel I am entering a second youth, or even a long-delayed first youth. I never became, never will become, the scholar that Tom Lyon was in my life. But I’ve come back to scribbling out derivatives at 7:00 in the morning as I did when I was 18. The morning sun in springtime fills me with a different kind of joy.

10 000 Year Clock Badges Khan Academy

Screenshot credit: Khan Academy

What’s Your Science Fiction Pen Name?

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I’ve really been getting into ambient music lately, and I’m noticing that many ambient artists–maybe most of them–have stage names. Loscil, Biosphere, Oöphoi–many of these folks name themselves as though they were themselves science fiction characters.

I’ve also been wondering a lot about identity in my writing, whether the fact that I’ve been published many times before makes it likelier for new editors to accept a story of mine for publication (it doesn’t seem to–I’m definitely an opening act as far as magazines and podcasts are concerned). But I do like the idea of my writing having an existence which is separate from my gender and ethnic and religious and sexual identity.

If fantasy and science fiction writing were more like ambient music (or if I thought it would accomplish something for me to take on a mysterious, Banksy-esque persona), I would choose the name Gravitrope or Pánfilo for my nom de plume. Both of these names resonate with me for personal reasons: for much of my thirties I was in a band called The Gravitropes, and I feel a kind of spiritual affinity for gravitropism, which is the ability of sprouting seeds to send their first shoots away from the pull of gravity and their first roots towards it. Pánfilo is a wonderful old Mexican name pulled from ancient Greek; the name means “lover of all.” I picked the name for one of my alter egos in my next novel, Pacifica.

One might wonder whether my taking on a writing name like Gravitrope or Pánfilo would be an attempt to game the publication system of speculative fiction. To their great credit, fantasy and science fiction editors are actively working to publish voices from a full diversity of genders, ethnicities, and sexualities. Would a writer with a pen name that seemed less white and male get a little more attention from editors today? Inasmuch as I hold the most privileged identities on the planet–I definitely present as white, male, straight, cis-, Christian, and it’s not worth quibbling over ways that not all of  those labels are perfectly, scrupulously accurate when the labels are definitely more true than not and when they are really markers of social privilege that I’ve held my whole life–it’s fair to say that if I took on a name that suggested a different gender, or genderlessness, or a different ethnicity, I would be dismissed as a poseur. I also don’t want to do anything that will make it harder for people from the full spectrum of humanity to get greater attention for their work. And, if there’s something I can do to help others from that fuller spectrum get published (short of refraining from writing myself), I’ll do it.

Having said that, there is something liberating in sending a story to a magazine under a different name, or to a magazine that uses a blind submissions process (i.e. you send the story in anonymously and the editors only learn who you are if they decide to publish your work). I don’t know whether I’ve had any better luck–or worse luck–getting published in blind-submission venues than in others. But I do like the prospect of my writing being read on its own terms, irrespective of who I am or who editors think that I am. I’d like to imagine my work reaching across boundaries of ethnicity and gender and history to tap at the bedrock of the human condition–in other words, I hope that my stories might function as works of art rather than simply as statements about what it means to be white and male in America.

That’s a fantasy, I know. But hey, I’m a fantasy writer.

And you? If you were to write sci fi under a pen name, what would you choose?

 

hierher

Photo credit: Hierher