“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

 

Towards 100 Readers

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It was a lovely surprise to see that someone new has given my book a review on Amazon. It was doubly surprising that the reviewer compared my work to Ursula Le Guin’s–for a fantasy writer, that’s like having your guitar solo likened to Jimmy Page’s work.

And triply surprising was that this review came from someone I don’t know personally. I’ve gotten several sweet and glowing reviews from friends and family who have read Stranger Bird, but it’s a different kind of cool feeling to get a review from someone who has no friendship with me to maintain. (I consider her a friend anyway).

reading sb

When I set out to self-publish Stranger Bird, I hoped out loud on this blog that I would find 100 readers for the book. A number of people–represented most vociferously by my wife–found that a preposterous and too-modest goal. I always answered that I like goals that I have some reasonable hope of meeting. What I didn’t consider when I made my rash pronouncement, however, is that it’s a lot easier for me to know how many books I’ve sold or given away than it is to know how many people have actually read the book.

I do know that I’ve moved 100 books into people’s hands. More than 100, actually. I feel increasingly optimistic that 100 people will, sooner or later, read Stranger Bird. But even sweeter than knowing how many copies are out there is that someone I don’t know at all has read the book and liked it.

Review of The Origins of Creativity

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Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, is a return to the trails Wilson explored almost 20 years ago in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In both books, Wilson attempts to bridge the gulf between the sciences and the humanities which has opened over the last century or more. Wilson makes a heroic effort in The Origins of Creativity (touchingly so, given that the great scientist is nearly ninety years old and has given the book some of  the touches of a final work). In the end I was unpersuaded by his exertions, but I am grateful for his return to a theme which is so meaningful for me personally. And, if Wilson’s proclamation of a coming Third Renaissance doesn’t quite convince me, I believe that Wilson still does us yeoman’s service in making an attempt to unify the humanities and the sciences.

Wilson’s starting point is uncomfortable, though obvious, for English teachers everywhere: the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have far outstripped the humanities in the public funds they receive, and STEM fields have been vastly more successful at producing lucrative jobs for college graduates. Elected officials regard the arts & humanities as luxuries whose comparatively tiny public budgets are often hard to justify.

Wilson’s diagnosis of the problem is that the humanities are stuck in the cultural cul-de-sac of present day. As Wilson puts it: “The main shortcoming of humanistic scholarship is its extreme anthropocentrism. Nothing, it seems, matters in the creative arts and critical humanistic analyses except as it can be expressed as a perspective of present-day literate cultures.”

While I do think that much of what goes on in the humanities is culturally blinkered, I’m not exactly sure how one would go about making the humanities less anthropocentric. The purpose of art is to explore what it means to be a human being–the humanities are anthropocentric by definition.

It is true that, with the exception of some artists working in the genre of science fiction, most artists and humanities scholars are not deeply educated around science. To put it another way, I think most scientists know way more about the humanities than most humanities scholars do about science. However, I’m not sure how our becoming more literate about evolutionary psychology and paleontology will make artists less anthropocentric. Art is one of the most anthropocentric activities on earth.

Would it help bridge the gulf between the arts and the humanities if the arts expressed something other than “a perspective of present-day literate cultures?” Maybe, but I don’t see it.  True, we would probably gain something by being better educated about the deep, biologically-driven ways that the lives of “present-day literate cultures” are related to the lives of the Lascaux Cave painters and the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf. It does help us to recognize (and I think most present-day literate people do recognize) that those paleolithic artists were just like us in their humanity–their emotional lives were just as rich and subtle as Margaret Atwood’s. And, I do suppose that realization helps us in humanity’s most pressing moral challenge, that of seeing all humans across time and space as part of a single family, our common fate tied to the health of the ecosystem in which we live.  

Lascaux II

But this realization will not by itself bridge the gulf between the humanities and the sciences. That gulf is there because there is simply too much information to keep tabs on in the sciences for any human being to become an expert in more than a very small number of fields. It may be that our species is gathering scientific insights so quickly now that it’s impossible for a single human to become a true expert even in a single field as broad as chemistry or biology.

I’ll be the first to argue that artists could afford to learn a lot more about STEM fields. After all, science and technology are some of the most important organizing principles of human existence today. But whatever art we produce will still be to a certain extent time-bound: we make the art we do to give our lives a some kind of shape that makes sense to us. Our art remains bound in time and place because the human condition binds us to the time and place we live in.

 

Loneliness

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all alone.jpg

Sculpture Credit: “All Alone,” by a young Gloria Pitkin

To be a modern human is to contend with loneliness.

While this insight has been with us for decades or even centuries, it’s only recently that a body of research around the causes of loneliness, as well as its effects and its cures, has started to catch the public imagination.

Folks like Kafka and Camus seemed to assume, in the previous century, that loneliness was simply fundamental, part of the warp and weft of human existence. Today, though, researchers have begun to argue that loneliness is no more basic to human existence than tuberculosis–that, in fact, loneliness is a medical condition that can be prevented and cured.

The January issue of Scientific American has an article on loneliness that really spoke to me, perhaps because I was so lonely for so much of my youth. The author, Francine Russo, argues that in much the same way that the disease of consumption was medicalized and clinicalized into tuberculosis, we may be in the process of reconceiving loneliness as a treatable and preventable disease rather than a central reality of the human condition. For an artist like John Keats in the early 19th century, tuberculosis and loneliness were existential threats that he spent his life and work grappling with. Today, TB is (for many people in the developed world, anyway) something that one is vaccinated against.

But what vaccine is available for loneliness? Russo suggests cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a technique which has had deeply positive effects on my own life. And yet, in spite of my having experienced both chronic loneliness and CBT first-hand, I lacked the imagination to conceive of loneliness as a disease rather than a consequence of my very flawed character.

The other thing that dawned on me as I read the article was just how often I write about lonely characters in my stories. I just signed off on the galley prints for my latest story, “Potosí,” and realized that the main character spends a good deal of the story in utter solitude. Just like Miranda in “Full Fathom Five,” Epic in “Proteus,” and Sandra in “Lamp of the Body.” Stories with well-adjusted characters and lots of friends seem to be more rare with me.

As with all things Scientific American, the print article isn’t available online, but this closely related SciAm blog post is.