Someday I’ll write a longer appreciation of her work in which I try to explain how meaningful her writing has been for me. For now, I’ll simply reprise the last essay I wrote about Le Guin, a post about her marvelous book The Lathe of Heaven.
As followers of The Subway Test have read before, I’m publishing a fantasy novel called Stranger Bird this year. Working with my estimable friend Erica Thomas at Works Progress Agency, we’ve landed on a launch date of mid-October. And so begins my final editing slog, getting the manuscript ready for layout. I’m surprised at how many little things (and even a couple of big things) I’m changing in response to the feedback of my beta readers and my awesome copy-editor, Ann Eames. Thanks, beta buddies!
If you’re reading this, I’m grateful that you’re reading. And if you like fantasy, I hope you’ll take a look at Stranger Bird when it’s ready.
I’ve seen the Ford Company’s Super Bowl commercial a few times now–Google has determined that I’m part of Ford’s target demographic when I choose a Philip Glass or Gerald Finzi piece to listen to on YouTube. There’s a shout-out here to electric cars, to new car-sharing economic models, to bike sharing, and to self-driving vehicles–all trends that Ford seems to be trying to get out in front of. And it all plays out over Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” one of the most beautiful and spiritual songs in American popular music. I have to say it’s a remarkable ad, even though Google doesn’t seem to know how much I dislike driving and how unlikely it is I’ll ever buy a new car as long as I live:
Or maybe that’s the point. Ford seems to be selling its brand here to people that don’t consider themselves drivers, or at least not typical drivers. It’s too early yet for me to say whether this particular piece of corporate propaganda is simple greenwashing–think British Petroleum’s laughable “Beyond Petroleum” campaign that aired in the months before the ecological crime they perpetrated with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Is it possible that Ford is really positioning itself as part of the solution to climate change, energy scarcity, air pollution, traffic gridlock–that is, all the problems that Ford hath wrought over the last 100 years?
It’s not impossible to imagine Ford remaking itself for a new transportational reality. Electric cars and self-driving cars are still cars, and Ford seems better-positioned to create them, if they want to, than many other companies trying to enter those markets. It’s a little harder for me to see how car-sharing and bike-sharing fit with the business model of Ford or any extant motor company: the whole idea behind vehicle sharing is that fewer people overall will buy cars. But I suppose there are smart people in Detroit trying to see how they could monetize car sharing in a way that beats out Uber and Lyft–perhaps the Ford of the future will be a massive car (and bike?) owner, a kind of Netflix of vehicles, renting out cars to drivers at a price that makes car ownership seem silly.
A corporation, whether Ford or BP, is an amoral kind of organism designed to do nothing more than maximize value for shareholders, in the same way that an amoeba is designed to eat rotting organic material until it’s big enough to split, amorally, into two amoebas. I wouldn’t call Ford’s move in these new greener directions a sign of Ford’s goodness, any more than BP’s greenwashing was a sign of corporate evil. Both corporations are just trying to make money for shareholders, and Ford is better positioned to handle the changes coming its way than British Petroleum has been. Solar power and wind power are entirely different industries than petroleum extraction; BP is no better positioned to enter the solar power market than Nike or Coca-Cola are.
And to be sure, Ford hasn’t transformed itself–the ad seems more aspiration than reportage. The ad slips in a decent amount of legerdemain, as when this supposedly green, forward looking new company cuts to a shot of the GT tearing along the freeway with all the subtlety of Chester Lampwick’s rocket car from The Simpsons. But the ad has beguiled my attention in spite of, or perhaps because of, my distaste for the driving experience. If a car company can do that, it’s a pretty neat trick.
My Bloggish Friends:
I’m happy to invite you to a reading I’m giving at the beautiful AniChe Cellars tasting room in Hood River, Oregon. AniChe Cellars has dolled up an old Depression-era bank at 301 Oak Street in Hood River, well worth seeing. Come taste some ridiculously good wine in ridiculously scenic Hood River while I read a ridiculous story or two.
Saturday, January 28, at 5:00–I’d love to see you!
I’ve been sojourning two years now in the blogosphere. And slowly, very slowly, I believe I’m getting the hang of it. “Getting the hang of it,” in my case, means writing more and more what interests me, on the schedule that interests me, rather than trying to use blogging to present myself to the world as some kind of up-and-coming writer, or as a hauntingly original voice about to break through, or some other kind of self-promotional folly.
I’m happy to be here, happy to be publishing a story every once in a while, happy to share insights when they come to me. Thanks for reading, friends.
For a few years in boyhood at least, I loved science and technology. One of my fondest childhood television memories was of watching the original Cosmos miniseries with my dad, seeing Carl Sagan in his turtleneck and corduroy blazer as he traveled the universe on his “Ship of the Imagination” over Vangelis’ spacey soundtrack. I can remember my dad scoffing pretty frequently at Sagan’s goofily over-acted facial expressions–Sagan perpetually appeared to be having some kind of ineffable and mystical experience on his dandelion-seed ship–but the show appealed to the ten year-old me, so much so that I believed in 5th grade that I was destined to become a physicist.
I left science behind in junior high school for the same reasons that a lot of kids do: math and science classes were difficult (often not all that well-taught, too); I struggled with the emotions of puberty and my parents’ divorce and didn’t find factoring polynomials to provide much of an escape from my problems. For a couple of years I became a lackluster student in most subjects, but especially so in science and math, culminating in my freshman year of high school with the lowest grade I received in my many years of formal schooling (a D+ in biology).
Somewhere around age 14 I realized that the kids I thought were cool–the orchestra and debate kids who watched Stanley Kubrick movies and listened to classical music for fun–seemed to get As and Bs pretty effortlessly. And I wanted enough to be like them that I wised up in school a little. However, my perception of those cool kids was that coolness was all about literature and music, Camus and Sartre and Kafka and Stravinsky and Bauhaus (the band, not the architectural movement). Coolness had little to do with science and math beyond getting good grades. And so my trajectory through high school, college, and some time beyond kept me almost entirely in the humanities, with results which I probably could have predicted and which might have depressed me if I had predicted them: by age 24 I had a master’s degree in English and was an adjunct faculty member of a tiny community college.
Given where I ended up, how did I come back to science at all? I came back the same way that many, many young people get into the sciences in the first place: through science fiction. In 1998 I purchased one of the seminal computer games of all time: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Players of Alpha Centauri guide a faction of colonists through the development of humanity’s first settlement beyond the solar system. I was fascinated by the idea of a planet-wide university, of colonists building supercolliders and space elevators and massive ecological engineering projects.I loved the idea of a human society devoted to the acquisition of knowledge and careful stewardship of natural resources–an ideal that sometimes seems far removed from the society I actually live in.
I also realized (pretty slowly, after a couple hundred hours of game play) that all of the projects which the game modeled on this fictional alien world were projects that real human beings were actively pursuing on this planet, for good and ill. Among them, there are massive environmental protection projects, ecological restoration projects, and sustainability efforts whose success or failure will determine the future of human civilization. I realized that I wanted to live in a world of science, not merely as an observer, but as an active participant.
In years since, the burgeoning of the internet, with its powerful democratizing effects, its incubation of the citizen science movement, of “outsider science,” of the makers’ movement, has convinced me that the ideal of a human society made entirely of scientists, naturalists, and ecologists could be our society. All people can become scientists. Becoming a scientist requires time and dedication, but it requires no secret gnosis that is kept from non-scientists. Do I want to learn how volcanism works? I have only to read and observe for several hundred hours before I will know a good deal about it (ironically, that’s about how much time I spent playing Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri). Do I want to learn calculus? Khan Academy is right here on the internet, assuring me that I can learn anything, for free, forever.
As there is in most science fiction, there’s a lot of hand-waving and pseudo-scientific ersatz explanation in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Some of the hand-waving, now that I know a little more about science, seems pretty laughable in retrospect. But that hand-waving got me in the door, years after I’d thought I’d closed the door. People like Gene Roddenberry and Sid Meier have done as much to recruit scientists as anyone on earth.
For all the time my daughter attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, I talked about riding my bike up from Portland to visit her. I have the dream of one day riding across the United States over the course of a summer, and a ride to Olympia, which I initially estimated at a little over 100 miles, seemed a low-stakes training run, a kind of exploratory sally for this larger dream. Google Maps quickly disabused me of the 100-mile estimate–the distance on a bike is closer to 130 miles–but I toyed with the idea during all of Gloria’s student years.
Now, in late spring of 2016, my daughter is nearly a year out of college and planning to move away from Olympia for good. And so I recognized a few weeks back the familiar sight of my dithering, the ease with which I spin up romantic, poetic dreams and the difficulty I have seeing them through. I realized that if I was going to pay my inner guide any mind, the time to ride out to my daughter was now.
I bought a few supplies–bottle cages, bottles, new cycling gloves–and asked the mechanic at Community Cycling Center to true up my rear wheel, in hopes that the long-suffering rims would roll another 150 miles. “This wheel won’t go another 150 miles,” the mechanic said. “In fact, I advise you to stop riding on it today.” So that weekend, after buying a new hand-built 36-spoke rear wheel, I set off at 6:51 am on May 29 to make a 137-mile ride, ideally in a single day.
Such a ride is about twice as far as I’d ever ridden in a single day. I knew that many people ride the 205-mile Seattle-to-Portland in a single day every year, but generally on unloaded road bikes rather than on cyclocross commuter setups with fenders and racks and stuffed panniers. However, I started with the best attachment to non-attachment that I could muster: either I would finish in a single day or I wouldn’t; I could stop when I got tired and stay in a motel somewhere along the way. The stakes, therefore, were pretty low.
The day was gorgeous, mild and mostly cloudy, with a decent tailwind, and dry for the first 4/5 of the ride. I was anxious because the ride was a journey into the unknown for me: I worried about being run off the road, about being run over by a back-roads pot smoker, about hitting a physiological wall and bonking.
And, as is so often the case in my life, none of what I feared came to pass. I stopped every twenty miles or so to stretch and have a Lara Bar. I was surprised at how well, and how easily, I rode. With very few exceptions, I had generously wide shoulders to ride on, though for many hours I was surprised at how often I had the road to myself for as far as I could see and hear.
In both physical and mental ways, it was easier to ride between the towns than through them: the only wrong turns I took, and the only times I tired of riding–because of the constant starting and stopping–came as I went through Longview and Kelso, Chehalis and Centralia, and very late in the ride going through Tumwater.
I have driven along I-5 from Portland to Olympia dozens of times. And riding along the back-roads–the Westside Highway along the Cowlitz River, Military Road, The Newaukum Valley Road, Old Highway 99–I was rarely more than three or four miles from that motor-clogged artery that is the Interstate. And yet, close as I was to the freeway, I was in a different world: quiet and peaceable, breezy and bird-filled.
Some of the places where I-5 had taught me to expect ugliness, like the approach to Chehalis, were beautiful and tranquil and friendly. And, while I rode through some of the most conservative country in the state of Washington, I saw only a single Trump sign along the whole 137 miles.
I remember standing in the pedals to get up a short hill at the end of the day and feeling the wonderful deep soreness that comes from a long contest, and I felt a euphoric gratitude that my body had done everything I had asked it to do that day, hour upon hour, for more than 130 miles. I was too tired and out of it to hold the camera steady when I arrived at Capitol Lake, but I managed to snap one blurry shot of the capitol on my arrival, like a personal grainy Loch Ness Monster photo, to show my wife and daughters that I had arrived.