The Subway Test is the name of this blog. I didn’t feel right calling it JoePitkin.com or anything else with my name in it. When I was cooking up the soup bones of the blog, I stirred through different ideas in my stories for a blog name. The Subway Test seemed like a decent provisional name, and the longer I post here the better the name feels.
But what does it mean? It comes from one of my favorite stories, an early one called “So-Sz,” which explores the musings of Sasquatch after he has learned to read and write by studying the encyclopedia. The narrator references “the subway test,” which I read about 20 years ago in Scientific American, as a thought experiment about how much like modern Homo sapiens were the Neanderthal. Take a Neanderthal man, dress him in a three-piece suit, give him a briefcase and a haircut, and put him on the subway. Will anyone notice that he is not like the others? If not, then he has passed the subway test.
(As an aside, this article and the concept of the subway test came out long before Svante Pääbo’s work showing that all Eurasians carry a significant number of Neanderthal genes. I suspect Neanderthal would pass the subway test because a lot of people on the subway are at least part Neanderthal themselves.)
Anyway, the idea appealed to me because, as I’ve said before, the function of all art is to explain to ourselves what it means to be a human being. One of the things I most love about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres spend a lot of time working with creatures that are clearly non-human, as well as creatures that are almost human, half human, or human only on first inspection. Scratch the surface, and many sci fi characters are actually gods or demons or monsters of some kind.
But, scratch the surface a little further and you will find that those gods, demons, aliens, dragons, sentient planets, etc. are really humans in alien masks, like the characters of an ancient Greek play. As Stanislaw Lem says in his amazing novel Solaris, “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.” All that traveling, all those robots sent sojourning across the cosmos, all that scanning of distant stars for Dyson Spheres: all we are really looking for is a mirror. Put on a suit and board the subway. Will anyone notice who you really are?