What Would You Call a Martian Highball?


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I’m working on another hard sci fi story again. It’s a genre that I often make a conscious effort to branch out from–part of me feels much more drawn to writing absurdist Borgesian stories, or “The New Weird,” or whatever it’s being called these days. Yet something else draws me back, again and again, to writing hard science fiction, the stuff of space elevators and pressure domes and transhumanism.

One thing about hard sci fi that makes me feel out of my depth is the sheer volume of research that a serious hard sci fi reader expects from a story. And the research is wide ranging: it doesn’t matter whether I happen to know a little about genetic engineering; a good hard sci fi story also demands that I know something about AI and cryptography and planetary physics and orbital insertions.

That’s part of the fun, being able to research Martian concrete one day and asteroid mining the next. It’s also a little daunting to read the hard sci fi work of some of the current masters, folks like Linda Nagata and Ian McDonald and Gwyneth Jones, and see just how deeply researched their futures are, to see how offhandedly they predict something transformational about humanity 200 years in the future and make me wish I had thought of that.

Here’s a simple, dumb example. I’m writing a story set on a Mars colony between 100-200 years in the future. What do people drink there? I have a scene set in a bar, a kind of hangout that might remind people of an underground dive full of beer and curly fries. But it’s occurred to me in the last day or so that beer is a highly unlikely drink for colonists living under pressure domes on Mars: any staple crops like wheat or barley or oats would very likely be used for solid food, not beer. I’m fairly confident people will still want to drink alcohol 200 years in the future on Mars, but if it’s Martian hooch I would guess they’ll want something that yields a lot of alcohol from a relatively small biomass. What would that be? Fruit brandy? Potato vodka? Mezcal?

I still like the idea of a bunch of Martian undergrads downing beers and curly fries, so I may just leave those details in even though they make little sense. One of the characters in the scene is happy to see a Kentucky Bourbon on the menu–I suppose any society that can send 60,000 emigrants to Mars can also export Kentucky Bourbon, which makes more sense than exporting kegs of Earth beer over months and months and at fantastic weight. I’m not sure what to call the cocktail the character orders. Right now I just call the drink an offworlder, which seems a decent enough name, but I’m hoping to find a name with a little more zazz.

Hazel Nicholson

Photo Credit: Hazel Nicholson

What do you think? What would you call a Martian cocktail made with Kentucky Bourbon, perhaps distantly related to an old-fashioned?

The Big Red Carpet


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Lots of people smarter than me have written about how Trump is a pushover in international negotiations: Trump’s two week sojourn in Asia brought out a round of such analyses here, here, and here. But for me our current president’s addiction to flattery and fawning appeared in his remarks about the red carpet treatment Trump (and, well, America) was given:

“It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our county. And I’m really proud of that.”

red carpet

photo courtesy of The White House

It’s hard to watch our country get played for a bunch of suckers by the government of China, of Russia, of really any nation with leadership savvy enough to understand Trump’s fragility and neediness. I just happened to have stumbled across James Madison’s sentiments on the matter, written back in 1788:

Every nation, consequently, whose affairs betray a want of wisdom and stability, may calculate on every loss which can be sustained from the more systematic policy of their wiser neighbors. But the best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation. She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.

–Madison, Federalist #62

Madison’s remedy for our “fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs” was a brand new constitution. What’s our remedy today?

Hint: the remedy is in the Constitution!

Back at the Keyboard


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A couple of months ago, in a flash of youthful optimism, I predicted that I would be able to publish my first book, Stranger Bird, while posting regular musings and ponderation to this blog. Ah, how naïve I was at the tender age of 46…

Today, the grizzled 47 year-old me realizes what a fool’s errand it was to try and publish a book “in my spare time.” Luckily, I had fantastic people–Erica Thomas, Lauren Moran, Jeff Simmons, Gracetopher Kirk–who did practically all the publishing work for me. But even with their heroic efforts, I found that publishing Stranger Bird sucked up all of my blogging time and more.

Now I am back at The Subway Test at last.  I’ll be making a plug for the book from time to time (like now, for instance: Stranger Bird is available here on Amazon and already has a couple of sweet positive reviews! The Kindle version is coming soon!)–but my hope is to return to the musing and the pondering about the topics that have always motivated The Subway Test: science fiction, fantasy, civil society, SETI, the republic’s Trumpist infection, AI, ecology, and mythic themes in children’s cartoons. See you again soon!


Potosi Picked Up!


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I’m happy to announce that the great science fiction magazine Analog has picked up my story “Potosí” for publication. “Potosí” will be the fifth story I’ve had appear in Analog, and by far the longest story (nearly 10,000 words) I’ve ever placed in a professional market.

As I wrote elsewhere, “Potosí” is set in a near future where corporations and countries squabble over the solar system’s vast mineral rights. It’s also a meditation on white supremacy and terrorism, an attempt to explain today’s world in new and striking clothes–much the same way that Star Trek explains the Cold War and Forbidden Planet explores World War II survivors’ guilt.

It’s been a good (and busy) week for my writerly life. One of my recent stories (another Analog pick-up called “Proteus”) is getting some very nice attention, and my quest to publish my first young adult fantasy novel, Stranger Bird, continues apace. I’m hoping for a publication date of November 3–keep watching the transom for that.

There’s also much more that I want to share here on The Subway Test, and I’m sure I’ll have some longer musings and ponderations here soon, but for now I’m pretty busy just keeping on top of my sci fi and fantasy writing.

The Founding Bloggers


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When a musical like Hamilton comes along, a rational response to the buzz is for folks to, you know, want to see Hamilton. Others might be overwhelmed enough by the positive press to look to Hamilton‘s source material, the gargantuan Ron Chernow biography of the man on the ten dollar bill.

Others, the cheapskates and musical theater philistines, might turn instead to The Federalist Papers.

Yes, I started reading The Federalist Papers because I heard Hamilton rapping on NPR for a minute and I realized that I hadn’t really read anything Hamilton had written.

I suppose if I’m really honest with myself, I do have to admit that fear for the future of America, at least as much as Lin-Manuel Miranda, is really what sent me to The Federalist Papers. As I watch the current president’s bumbling yet earnest assault on the Constitution–his flouting of the emoluments clause, his apparent ignorance of the establishment clause, his barrelling through each conversation as though the separation of powers didn’t exist–I realize that I don’t know enough about the document that the president is trying to subvert.  I have read the Constitution, and I’ve sure been going back to my pocket copy a lot lately, but like a powerless fanboy, I want to know more, to know it better. And The Federalist Papers, I’ve been told, are the inspired commentary on the US Constitution, the brilliant liner notes to that Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band of legislation.

I’m about a third of the way through so far, and it’s very slow going. All three of the authors–Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay–learned to write in an age when a man showed his genius by teasing each sentence into a froth. Each sentence has a multi-layered, architectural quality, like the 18th century wigs that Hogarth lampoons in Five Orders of Perriwigs.


By William Hogarth – Scanned from The genius of William Hogarth or Hogarth’s Graphical Works, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2714934

Of the three, John Jay is the most straightforward of the writers, the one least inclined to pile on the relative clauses. Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that John Jay wrote by far the fewest of the papers–only five of the 85–before illness forced him to give up the project. Hamilton, who wrote by far the most of the papers, is also the hardest to read. Every sentence of Hamilton’s is like listening to a Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo: his paragraphs are spattered with commas, packed with dependent clauses that double back on themselves and seem to eat their own tails. And they are also filled with some of the most brilliant and vigorous writing I’ve ever seen.

This sentence, from Federalist #29, is typical Hamilton:

There is something so far-fetched and so extravagant in the idea of danger to liberty from the militia, that one is at a loss whether to treat it with gravity or with raillery; whether to consider it as a mere trial of skill, like the paradoxes of rhetoricians; as a disingenuous artifice to instil prejudices at any price; or as the serious offspring of political fanaticism.

Wow–I had to crawl through this sentence few times before I could tell what Hamilton was actually arguing: that militias are no danger to public liberty. However, one look at the rigging of this sentence is enough to warn me not to treat his ideas with raillery. A sentence like this demands to be treated with gravity.

I was also fascinated to see, in this sentence and elsewhere, how current Hamilton’s ideas are. Dust off the perriwig of his prose, and you can see that we are still  debating “the idea of danger to liberty from the militia” in this era of Cliven Bundy.

But what has impressed me the most so far about these letters is the high-wire act their authors pulled off. The three men, all writing under a single pseudonym–“Publius”–managed to pump out 85 of these essays over just ten months. That’s one letter every three or four days, each one a Niagara of commentary intended, I imagine, to bury the Constitution’s opponents under a flood of historical references, musings on American geography, and speculations on human behavior.

The newspapers these essays appeared in, The New York Packet and the Independent Journal, were two of that enormous flock of early American newspapers. I remember reading somewhere that most such papers had a circulation of about 1000. Publius was, in other words, much like an early blogger: a pseudonymous team of writers with a tiny audience, writing their asses off to produce brilliant content several times a week.

Dilettante that I am, I have nothing comparable to offer the country here at The Subway Test. I post a couple of times per month, sometimes about politics but usually not. Usually my topic is, in Homer Simpson’s words, “what some nerd thinks about Star Trek.” Yet I can reach back those 230 years to the brilliance of Publius and see that I am pushing my little cart up the great track they laid. If you want to resist the depredations of the current presidency, you have to educate yourself. Read The Federalist Papers. It is one of those books that will comfort you with the underlying genius of the republic. More importantly, it will help you understand what the hell you are defending when you stand up to the current president.

Time Is Money


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I’m back after a month away from The Subway Test, the longest hiatus I’ve given this blog in a year or more. As I wrote a month ago, I needed time to focus on getting the manuscript of my novel Stranger Bird ready for publication. It’s been a long few weeks, but the manuscript is finally in the hands of my layout editor, Erica, and I’m glad to be back working on other kinds of creative projects.

More than practically any other issue or idea in my life, I’ve struggled with time. I certainly contended over the last four weeks with a sense of time scarcity, even time starvation. Some of that feeling of lack comes from my own prodigious talents at wasting time. I’ve felt often enough that my time slips away from me like water out of a cracked bucket, lost to internet surfing and daydreaming, to chatting with colleagues and wandering about campus like a dilatory schoolboy.

Yet I don’t waste time every day–some days, some weeks even, I can approach my work with a grim and joyless puritanism, with the motto that if it’s fun, I can’t do it. I rarely feel much jealousy for the wealthy and powerful, but one thought that bedevils me with some frequency is the sense that, in spite of the fact that wealthy and powerful people have the same 24 hours a day that I do, those people have accomplished so much more than I in my 47 years on the planet. If I want to start feeling bad about myself, that’s the expressway to Self Loathington. Sometimes while I am on that expressway I can approach my work with a withering focus for a while, before my natural curiosity about whatever I’m not working on at the moment takes over once again.

One of the main characters in my novel Pacifica is a kind of spiritual self-portrait: a middle-aged librarian named Pánfilo (one of those wonderfully antique Mexican names that I love, from the Greek meaning “lover of all”). As I wrote in my first description of him,

Over the course of his forty-nine years of life, Pánfilo Gonzalez had completed seven hundred and twenty two college credits at nine universities, colleges, conservatories, institutes, and graduate optometry schools. Yet for all that, he had never taken a single college degree. He had come close several times—he would have received his Bachelor of Arts in History at Utah State University if he had just finished his physical education requirement and paid off his university parking tickets—but instead he had hired on to the Sterne College library as a janitor with nothing more than a high school diploma from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria “José Vasconcelos.”

While in real life I have (barely) managed to take college degrees, as I approach Pánfilo’s real age I feel more and more like him.


Photo credit: TaxCredits.net

It is only now that I am halfway or so through my life that I feel some understanding of that phrase “time is money.” As a kid I always regarded it as one of those cartoonish shorthands TV writers would use to establish that a character was a successful businessman. I was not particularly interested in money, and so the phrase only served to make such characters as Mr. Slate from The Flintstones and Mr. Cogswell from The Jetsons unattractive to me. But it has dawned on me slowly over the last few years that if time is money, money is also time. Independently wealthy people may have the same 24 hours per day that I do, but they are much more able to spend their 24 hours doing only what they feel like doing. That so many of them spend their time working phenomenally hard, as though they are driven to it, suggests to me that there is something more to the “time is money” equation that I am not getting, or that perhaps they are not getting.

One of the internet wanderings I’ve made in the last few years that has had the most value for me attempts to quantify just how much money an hour is worth. The page is here at the excellent site clearerthinking.org–answer a few questions about how much you make, how busy you are, and how much you’d charge to do certain kinds of work, and the site will estimate for you just how much you should value your time. I learned a lot about myself after a few minutes at this site: it helped me realize that I’ve been way too willing to take on extra work in my job, and way too reticent about hiring out jobs like housecleaning and yard work. I have a long way to go to adjust my life so that I’m optimizing the number of hours I spend on preferred activities (primarily unpaid work like writing), but the site has really helped me understand just how much an hour is really worth to me.

The Penultimate Stranger Bird


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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.

From Poetry to Science Fiction


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While on a road trip yesterday, my wife and I listened to B.J. Novak’s hilarious and touching story “J. C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” J.C. is a skilled and thoughtful poet in an age that doesn’t value poetry (that is to say, our age). He finds fame instead by translating, first Don Quixote, and then other great works, each to greater acclaim, even as his translations grow ever more absurd. I won’t say much more about the story for fear of giving away the joke—it really is a marvelous story.

Part of why I was so touched by the story was how much I recognized myself in the character of J.C. Not that I’ve ever been famous—rather, J.C.’s inner struggle with writing poetry for small literary magazines that practically no one reads called up an old personal struggle of mine.

Not long after I started college I knew I wanted to be some kind of writer, and at that time I wrote short fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction pretty much in equal measure. Towards the end of my time at college, though, during a tough and lonely time in my life I listened to a cassette tape recording of a Robert Bly reading called “Poetry East and West,” and I decided, precipitously, that I would devote myself to poetry for the rest of my life.

I was not at that time a good poet. I became one over time, but I wrote quite a few bad poems before I wrote a single good one, and I wrote many more bad ones after that first good one. It was some years before I any knack at all for writing good ones.

What attracted me to poetry in the first place was its almost total disdain for market forces. Nobody will pay you to write a poem, and so you are free to write whatever you like, to dig down to the bedrock of existence, beneath those composting strata of life’s trivialities that we spend so much time buying and selling.

That way of writing and living still appeals to me. But it was only after years of writing poems that it dawned on me why nobody will pay you to write a poem: because nobody reads poetry much. To be a poet today is to walk away from readers and towards an absolute experience, like a monk or yogi or hermit. I could shut myself up in my cabin, in the manner of Robert Francis or Bashō or Emily Dickinson, and pour myself into work that few people would see, living a full life in conversation with an indifferent world, like a man calling down into an empty canyon or a sparrow singing for a mate in a supermarket parking lot. That would be a painful way to live, but it would be a life defined by the coolness of an uncompromised vision.

I don’t think I’m cool enough to be an artist of that type. It’s hard to imagine throwing my voice down a canyon for years like that. I want people to read my work, to ask me questions about it, to tell me how they reacted to it. This desire is not the same as the desire for fame—the idea of being famous gives me the willies. Rather, what I want is a conversation, a person who reads something I’ve written and says that was meaningful to me or I’ve been nagged by this question about your main character and I have to ask you. And to have that conversation, I need a reader.

I chose to write science fiction and fantasy because I thought they were genres I could write in, and at the time I was exploring the idea I thought fantasy and science fiction could use a more serious literary treatment than they have usually gotten in recent decades. (The fact that the world is full of literary science fiction and fantasy writers shows how dated my understanding of those genres was, as well as how many writers have been working the same hustle I hoped to, only years before it had ever occurred to me).

Someday I may hole up in the cabin and write poetry for the rest of my life. But not right now. Right now, I’m grateful to have a handful of readers. Every once in a while someone will email me about how much they got out of a story of mine, or with a question about something that didn’t make sense to them, and it’s that feedback from a few readers that keeps me writing.

The New Yorkering of Science Fiction


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A couple of weeks ago one of my writing group comrades passed along to me this Laura Miller article from Slate on the incursion of “literary novelists” into the field of science fiction. I often find the premise of such articles cringeworthy–that there are good, serious writers out there who used to write good, serious fiction about failing marriages and suburban malaise but who now have decided, who knows why, to write crap about lasers and robots with big boobs.

Hajime Sorayama--Sexy Robot

Hajime Sorayama, Sexy Robot–photo credit Moody Man

Miller’s article is more nuanced than that–it acknowledges that the line between literary fiction and science fiction has always been blurry, and that calling a book “literary fiction” is no more a guarantee of its quality than calling a book “science fiction” guarantees that it is trash. Miller’s basic argument is that life is changing so quickly now that a contemporary story is dated almost before it is finished: if I am a literary novelist writing about a Tinder romance that goes sour, who knows what online romance trend will have replaced Tinder by the time I finish my book five years later? Wouldn’t it be better for me, then, to imagine a near-future dating app, so that when my book comes out I seem “buoyantly dystopic” and “a literary polymath” to reviewers?

I don’t dispute Miller’s reasoning: I hadn’t thought about it before, but surely some of the near-futuristic “serious fiction” out there is meant as a commentary on the pace of change in our lives and how maddening it is for us to try and keep up with it all.

But I’d like to suggest another hypothesis to explain the huge influx of Columbia MFA grads and New Yorker raconteurs into the slums of science fiction. Part of the shift, I’m sure, is that the last two generations of writers have grown up watching science fiction movies and TV with good production values and believable special effects. Science fiction was often regarded as shlocky in the pre-CGI era, and certainly before the breakthrough of Star Wars, partly because so many sci fi movies looked so clunky and fake. (Of course, there were excellent exceptions in the years before Star Wars, movies like 2001:A Space OdysseyForbidden Planet, and George Pal’s War of the Worlds, but these were rare glints of gold in a sea of Plan 9 From Outer Space dross).

Today, however, it’s possible for even a modestly-budgeted TV show–to say nothing of a big budget movie–to have the kind of truly believable special effects on which good sci fi viewing depends. And the existence of commercially successful, well-made science fiction movies catalyzes the creation of more such work, attracting writers and filmmakers with serious artistic chops–no one needs feel ashamed anymore that they like science fiction (at least the highbrow literary “speculative fiction” of Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon).

One might argue that the crossover popularity of a writer like Vonnegut is what opened the floodgates to good science fiction. I disagree: Vonnegut was regarded for most of his career as a literary oddball, someone who would be a major writer if only he didn’t write science fiction. And Vonnegut’s popularity in the seventies did not facilitate the mainstream popularity of other science fiction greats like Ursula Le Guin and Stanislaw Lem (both of whom, thank goodness, have since received some of the attention they deserve).

The fact is that until recently, practically the only speculative writers who were unequivocally welcomed into the literary canon were authors from the non-English speaking world: people like Kafka and Borges, and later García Márquez and Calvino. And some would still argue that their inclusion in the canon is proof that what they were writing was something other than sci fi or fantasy–if you want to make a college English professor flip out, try calling “The Metamorphosis” or “The Library of Babel” a science fiction story.

Am I bitter about it? I suppose I must be–why else would I write 700 more words in defense of science fiction writers? In the long run, though, if David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Egan get the highbrow readers to crack a science fiction novel, if that brings them to look, eventually, at Octavia Butler or John Crowley, then who am I to complain?


A Story for the Time of Troubles


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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.

Robert Thivierge

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.