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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
No matter who you are, you are welcome here, and
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.
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.
I’ve been working on novels for so many months now that having one of my short stories picked up seems as rare as an eclipse. I suppose that when you only have three short stories that you are trying to get placed, acceptances will be rare events by definition. But I did have good fortune with one of my stories recently–a little tale that is odd enough that a few editors didn’t know what to make of it. Sometimes when a story of mine has been rejected many times, I take a long look at the piece and decide that it’s just not my best work. Other times, though, I take a long look after many rejections and I come away thinking this is a good story, and someday somebody will see that.
My latest story, “The Wingbuilder,” fits into the second category. It’s an homage to Borges (especially “The House of Asterion”), as well as a love-letter to video games like The Legend of Zelda and to the classic Jim Henson movie The Labyrinth. Now that I think of it, it’s also a meditation on solitude that might speak to the condition of some isolated, quarantined readers. It appeared in the estimable magazine Aphotic Realm, and you can see it here. I hope you enjoy it.
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 (AnalogScience 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.
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 AnalogScience 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.
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 Thus 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.
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.