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 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.
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.
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.
One of my literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin, died yesterday after a long illness. In her careful, forceful prose, and in her far-reaching moral vision, Le Guin expanded for me the concept of what a science fiction and fantasy writer could be. She was not the first great fantasy writer, but she was the first fantasy writer I encountered whose work had the feel of a high-literary novel. I’ll miss her.
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.
I’ve been intending to write a story about asteroid mining for some years now. Last week I put the finishing touches on my best attempt at the topic: what started last year as a first draft of about 3,000 words plumped up over the course of a year into a 10,000 word dreadnought of a story (actually a novelette, for those of you interested in the preposterous nomenclature of fiction) about terrorism, white supremacists, and a floating mountain of pure platinum.
There aren’t many science fiction magazines that will take a story of that length, so if it isn’t picked up it may not see print until I publish a collection of my own stories. But I do hope that it is printed before then, partly because so much of what the story became bubbled up out of my struggling with the political climate of the last year.
While the terrorist enemy of the day is ISIS, science fiction looks beyond today’s social structures, refracting the view of today’s enemies and power relations into a new image that arrests our attention with its logic. What I’ve attempted to do is not exactly a bravura leap of imagination: it’s pretty easy today to see parallels between the medievalist Islamic terrorists of ISIS and their reactionary Christian, white supremacist counterparts. The greatest parallel between them is that for all the hostility they seem to have for one another, their common enemy is liberalism: both groups hate the world of globalized commerce and its perceived moral relativism; both are willing to kill innocent people in order to restore what they believe to be the proper–and long-insulted–social order.
Photo Credit: Robert Thivierge
In the last few weeks it’s been comforting to watch the total shambolic ineptitude of the Trump administration. I have some faith that Trump’s vision of a hyper-nationalist, authoritarian America will fall apart over the next two to three years, if only because Trump and his cronies seem so intent on committing impeachable offenses (and crimes) in plain view. However, Trump’s incompetence will not dismiss the anger and hatred of some of his hardest-core supporters, the white supremacists and neo-fascists who have been so emboldened by Trump’s behavior. In fact, I’ve wondered whether Trump’s inability to govern, his failure to encourage the passage of legislation even with a pliant Republican congress eager to pass tax cuts and repeal Obamacare, may lead to even greater violence and frustration among Trump’s hardest core.
When I sat down to start this latest story, called “Potosí,” over a year ago, the thought of a white supremacist terror group seemed far-fetched, a hearkening back to the worst days of the KKK. Today I wonder whether the story is a little too prescient.
My latest story, “Proteus,” is out in the May/June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact! On the spectrum of my work, “Proteus” is closer to the hard sci-fi pole–hence its appearance in Analog, widely regarded as one of the preeminent publishers of the hard stuff.
“Proteus” is the second of my stories set in the John Demetrius cycle, set (so far as I can imagine) about 100-200 years in humanity’s future. The whole cycle takes up questions of our coming experiment with transhumanism, as well as a kind of meditation on the nature of utopia and dystopia–I’ve tried to create a world like our own, in which utopia and dystopia coexist in different parts of the world and for different people at the same time. “Proteus” was also an immensely fun story to write–it involved a good deal of research into the terraforming of Venus and the nature of any possible human colony on Venus.
Photo credit Carlyn Eames
To get a promotional shot for the blog, my wife obligingly took a couple of pictures on our way to The March for Science this morning. I’m dressed as the most terrifying greenhouse gas on the planet, old silent-but-deadly methane. And given the name of my blog, I thought it best for her to take the photo on the MAX train, Portland’s closest analog to a true subway.
It’s hard out here for a simple hydrocarbon. Photo credit Carlyn Eames