What’s Your Science Fiction Pen Name?


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I’ve really been getting into ambient music lately, and I’m noticing that many ambient artists–maybe most of them–have stage names. Loscil, Biosphere, Oöphoi–many of these folks name themselves as though they were themselves science fiction characters.

I’ve also been wondering a lot about identity in my writing, whether the fact that I’ve been published many times before makes it likelier for new editors to accept a story of mine for publication (it doesn’t seem to–I’m definitely an opening act as far as magazines and podcasts are concerned). But I do like the idea of my writing having an existence which is separate from my gender and ethnic and religious and sexual identity.

If fantasy and science fiction writing were more like ambient music (or if I thought it would accomplish something for me to take on a mysterious, Banksy-esque persona), I would choose the name Gravitrope or Pánfilo for my nom de plume. Both of these names resonate with me for personal reasons: for much of my thirties I was in a band called The Gravitropes, and I feel a kind of spiritual affinity for gravitropism, which is the ability of sprouting seeds to send their first shoots away from the pull of gravity and their first roots towards it. Pánfilo is a wonderful old Mexican name pulled from ancient Greek; the name means “lover of all.” I picked the name for one of my alter egos in my next novel, Pacifica.

One might wonder whether my taking on a writing name like Gravitrope or Pánfilo would be an attempt to game the publication system of speculative fiction. To their great credit, fantasy and science fiction editors are actively working to publish voices from a full diversity of genders, ethnicities, and sexualities. Would a writer with a pen name that seemed less white and male get a little more attention from editors today? Inasmuch as I hold the most privileged identities on the planet–I definitely present as white, male, straight, cis-, Christian, and it’s not worth quibbling over ways that not all of  those labels are perfectly, scrupulously accurate when the labels are definitely more true than not and when they are really markers of social privilege that I’ve held my whole life–it’s fair to say that if I took on a name that suggested a different gender, or genderlessness, or a different ethnicity, I would be dismissed as a poseur. I also don’t want to do anything that will make it harder for people from the full spectrum of humanity to get greater attention for their work. And, if there’s something I can do to help others from that fuller spectrum get published (short of refraining from writing myself), I’ll do it.

Having said that, there is something liberating in sending a story to a magazine under a different name, or to a magazine that uses a blind submissions process (i.e. you send the story in anonymously and the editors only learn who you are if they decide to publish your work). I don’t know whether I’ve had any better luck–or worse luck–getting published in blind-submission venues than in others. But I do like the prospect of my writing being read on its own terms, irrespective of who I am or who editors think that I am. I’d like to imagine my work reaching across boundaries of ethnicity and gender and history to tap at the bedrock of the human condition–in other words, I hope that my stories might function as works of art rather than simply as statements about what it means to be white and male in America.

That’s a fantasy, I know. But hey, I’m a fantasy writer.

And you? If you were to write sci fi under a pen name, what would you choose?



Photo credit: Hierher


Towards 100 Readers


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It was a lovely surprise to see that someone new has given my book a review on Amazon. It was doubly surprising that the reviewer compared my work to Ursula Le Guin’s–for a fantasy writer, that’s like having your guitar solo likened to Jimmy Page’s work.

And triply surprising was that this review came from someone I don’t know personally. I’ve gotten several sweet and glowing reviews from friends and family who have read Stranger Bird, but it’s a different kind of cool feeling to get a review from someone who has no friendship with me to maintain. (I consider her a friend anyway).

reading sb

When I set out to self-publish Stranger Bird, I hoped out loud on this blog that I would find 100 readers for the book. A number of people–represented most vociferously by my wife–found that a preposterous and too-modest goal. I always answered that I like goals that I have some reasonable hope of meeting. What I didn’t consider when I made my rash pronouncement, however, is that it’s a lot easier for me to know how many books I’ve sold or given away than it is to know how many people have actually read the book.

I do know that I’ve moved 100 books into people’s hands. More than 100, actually. I feel increasingly optimistic that 100 people will, sooner or later, read Stranger Bird. But even sweeter than knowing how many copies are out there is that someone I don’t know at all has read the book and liked it.

Review of The Origins of Creativity


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Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, is a return to the trails Wilson explored almost 20 years ago in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. In both books, Wilson attempts to bridge the gulf between the sciences and the humanities which has opened over the last century or more. Wilson makes a heroic effort in The Origins of Creativity (touchingly so, given that the great scientist is nearly ninety years old and has given the book some of  the touches of a final work). In the end I was unpersuaded by his exertions, but I am grateful for his return to a theme which is so meaningful for me personally. And, if Wilson’s proclamation of a coming Third Renaissance doesn’t quite convince me, I believe that Wilson still does us yeoman’s service in making an attempt to unify the humanities and the sciences.

Wilson’s starting point is uncomfortable, though obvious, for English teachers everywhere: the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields have far outstripped the humanities in the public funds they receive, and STEM fields have been vastly more successful at producing lucrative jobs for college graduates. Elected officials regard the arts & humanities as luxuries whose comparatively tiny public budgets are often hard to justify.

Wilson’s diagnosis of the problem is that the humanities are stuck in the cultural cul-de-sac of present day. As Wilson puts it: “The main shortcoming of humanistic scholarship is its extreme anthropocentrism. Nothing, it seems, matters in the creative arts and critical humanistic analyses except as it can be expressed as a perspective of present-day literate cultures.”

While I do think that much of what goes on in the humanities is culturally blinkered, I’m not exactly sure how one would go about making the humanities less anthropocentric. The purpose of art is to explore what it means to be a human being–the humanities are anthropocentric by definition.

It is true that, with the exception of some artists working in the genre of science fiction, most artists and humanities scholars are not deeply educated around science. To put it another way, I think most scientists know way more about the humanities than most humanities scholars do about science. However, I’m not sure how our becoming more literate about evolutionary psychology and paleontology will make artists less anthropocentric. Art is one of the most anthropocentric activities on earth.

Would it help bridge the gulf between the arts and the humanities if the arts expressed something other than “a perspective of present-day literate cultures?” Maybe, but I don’t see it.  True, we would probably gain something by being better educated about the deep, biologically-driven ways that the lives of “present-day literate cultures” are related to the lives of the Lascaux Cave painters and the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf. It does help us to recognize (and I think most present-day literate people do recognize) that those paleolithic artists were just like us in their humanity–their emotional lives were just as rich and subtle as Margaret Atwood’s. And, I do suppose that realization helps us in humanity’s most pressing moral challenge, that of seeing all humans across time and space as part of a single family, our common fate tied to the health of the ecosystem in which we live.  

Lascaux II

But this realization will not by itself bridge the gulf between the humanities and the sciences. That gulf is there because there is simply too much information to keep tabs on in the sciences for any human being to become an expert in more than a very small number of fields. It may be that our species is gathering scientific insights so quickly now that it’s impossible for a single human to become a true expert even in a single field as broad as chemistry or biology.

I’ll be the first to argue that artists could afford to learn a lot more about STEM fields. After all, science and technology are some of the most important organizing principles of human existence today. But whatever art we produce will still be to a certain extent time-bound: we make the art we do to give our lives a some kind of shape that makes sense to us. Our art remains bound in time and place because the human condition binds us to the time and place we live in.




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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.

As with all things Scientific American, the print article isn’t available online, but this closely related SciAm blog post is.


R.I.P., U.K.L.G.


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By Gorthian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Reading Roundup 2017


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I guess I couldn’t get any later with my yearly reading roundup. And, since joining Goodreads last month, the thought of chronicling my reading habits for the last year feels a bit redundant. However, these posts have been fun to write for the last three years, and it helps me to consider in full the books I’ve read over the last year, if only to re-evaluate the stuff I’m reading.

I had a paltry reading harvest this year–13 books in all–though partly this number hides the many short stories, longform journalism pieces, and political blog posts I waded through this year. Having said that, I hope 2018 holds a little less covfefe coverage for me and a few more actual books by thoughtful people.

So, without further prologue, here is my crop of 2017 reads:

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  This is one of the most inspiring high-wire acts I’ve read in all of fantasy fiction. Actually, I’m not sure exactly how the book is marketed—it’s an alternate history detective story—but here Chabon manages to weave a truly absorbing and moral tale set in a counter-historical Jewish homeland (which happens to be Sitka, Alaska). Also, Chabon’s writing is much like Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing for me: while it’s often not exactly to my taste, every page or two I find myself asking “how did he do that?” as Chabon drops off another metaphorical description of the Alaska sky or a tough chess move.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There’s a rough-cut, coarse grained quality to PKD’s writing that gives this book the feel of a brilliantly inventive first draft. For all I know, perhaps it was: PKD was forced by poverty to churn out pulp books at a fantastic rate, under the influence of a good deal of amphetamine. The book is different in almost every way from Blade Runner, the film that was based on it and which provided my first exposure to PKD’s work. The book has a bit more of a Ray Bradbury-ish quality—sci-fi objects like ray guns and electric sheep are not portrayed as believable objects so much as mythical symbols, the kind of objects one would find in a dream. Blade Runner has a good deal more world-building in it. However, the book is the dream that the movie was made from.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle This granddaddy of “what if Hitler had won?” novels is my favorite Philip K Dick book. The novel follows the loosely connected stories of several Americans living in a California that has become a protectorate of Imperial Japan. The story has the kind of trippy plot twists that Dick was famous for, but this story seemed tethered enough to a believable reality that it was much easier for me to inhabit this world than, say, Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book is a creature of its time and some of the characterization of non-white peoples—especially the Japanese imperialists—hasn’t aged well; however, I would argue that those depictions are more ham-fisted than aggressively racist. While I’m not normally a fan of alternate histories, this one really got to me.

Dozois, Gardner, editor. The Year’s Best Science Fiction #33. It’s been years since I’ve read a “year’s best” anthology; however, I read this one cover to cover in hopes of learning more about the field I’m writing in. As with any book by a medley of writers, some of these stories spoke to me more than others. There were some good stories from writers I knew about—Kelly Link, James S.A. Corey, and Pablo Bacigalupi all had solid entries—but I was more blown away by several new (to me) writers: Ian McDonald, Gwyneth Jones, Carter Scholtz, Chaz Brenchley, Nick Harkaway, and Kelly Robson. The best of these stories do what I hope (and often fail) to do in my own work, bringing believable characters and well-turned dialogue to stories with the whiz-bang plots and settings of sci-fi. I have such a broad reading appetite, and I’m such a slow reader, that I probably won’t read another best-of anthology in the coming year. However, I have learned a lot about the short sci fi market here, and I do hope to come back to Gardner’s anthology again.

Dungeons and Dragons. Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual (three books). I’ve been a Dungeons & Dragons player since Christmas Day 1980. However, this is the first time that I’ve read the three core reference books for D&D from cover to cover. At the time, I had some hope of writing a set of longer and more involved posts about D&D (in addition to this one and this one), and so I told myself that I was doing research. It helped, too, that the books are generally quite well-written and that they provide an old player like me some insight into the evolving sociology of D&D.

Overall I loved most of the changes that these 5th edition books bring to the game. There is a long-running tension in the D&D community between those who like their games full of rules and statistics and those who favor the role-playing and interactive story-telling aspect of the game. (Of course, there are also many gamers, perhaps most, who play somewhere between these two extremes. As you can probably imagine, as a sci-fi and fantasy writer I play D&D for the story-telling). To my great joy, 5th Edition D&D is clearly an attempt to make role-playing and story-telling the center of the gaming experience. The focus on characters’ backgrounds and motivations and personal flaws, the reward of “inspiration points” to players who engage in particularly good role-playing, the inclusion of a more nuanced and morally complex alignment system—all of these innovations have turned 5th edition D&D into a game about inhabiting a character and playing a role. Yes, there are a few ways that the game has had its rules overly stripped down and simplified, but overall I’m much happier to see D&D moving towards a model of interactive storytelling.

I’m also pleased to see that the creators of this edition have worked hard to remedy the racist and sexist depictions of the first editions of D&D. So far as I remember, not a single illustration from 1st edition D&D depicted a non-white adventurer, and the descriptions of “savage” humanoids like hobgoblins and orcs were full of signifiers that associated these evil creatures with Asian hordes and African tribesmen (some of this racism was inherited directly from D&D’s source material. It’s no coincidence that the only African-American actors in The Lord of the Rings movies played orcs). Similarly, depictions of females in 1st edition D&D were almost always of the “chainmail bikini” variety—for example, on the cover of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide here:


5th edition has thankfully put real armor on the women, and the illustrators have broadened the color palette for illustrations, including (at last) for dwarves, elves, halflings, and all the other good-aligned creatures that might take up arms against a sea of goblins:


Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I’m generally skeptical of self-help books (especially those that are given to me at work), but I really loved the authors’ light tone here, as well as the well-researched underpinnings for what they were suggesting (hint: it’s in the title). I’m going to try these precepts in my own life and at work.

Kawasaki, Guy, and Shawn Welch. APE: How to Publish a Book. One of the best books on writing that I’ve ever encountered. Very different from the Brenda Ueland/John Gardner types of writing books, this one really focuses on the business end of publishing and promoting a book. I’ve built my publishing plan for Stranger Bird around these guys’ suggestions.

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and Hames Madison: The Federalist Papers. Reading these fabulous essays was a bit of a slog, owing to the authors’ 18th century style. They were also at times hilarious: I wish I had counted the number of times Hamilton accuses the opponents of the constitution of wantonness, calumny, affectation, or speciousness (in the end he half-apologizes for his “intemperances of expression”). More importantly, though, I was struck by the genius of how the Constitution was framed, how an entire government could be brought about with so few moving parts in it. Of the three authors, Madison was my favorite: a gentle author, brilliant and deeply read, but also horribly compromised by his own slaveowning. Here (and elsewhere) we learn about Madison’s wish that slavery be abolished as inimical to a republican form of government; yet, like Jefferson and almost all the other founders, he did not free his own slaves in his lifetime or in his will. His Federalist 54, where he tries to explain the Three-Fifths Compromise, is one of the most fascinating and troubling things I’ve read from any of the founders. I have another take on these remarkable essays here.

Miéville, China. The City and the City.  I liked this book pretty well, though it suffered somewhat in comparison to Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I had read the month prior. Miéville turns in an interesting murder mystery in one of the most compelling imagined settings I’ve encountered recently, a double city in the Balkans somewhere where the inhabitants of each half are required by law not to see the inhabitants of the other half. Equal parts Kafka and Philip K Dick, this book offers a thought-provoking meditation on life in the Balkanized spaces of the world, the Jerusalems and Berlins and El Paso-Juárez double places.

Newton, Cam. Deep Work. I loved this book on first reading, though as Newton’s ideas have sat with me some of them haven’t aged well. I definitely agree with his overall thesis, though: that people who are able to focus for long periods of time on truly “deep work” (i.e. work that would be hard for others to do) can find themselves in great demand. This kind of focus is an increasingly rare skill. It is definitely having an effect on my work and home life.

Rulfo, Juan. Pedro Páramo. This slim story took me forever to finish, pokey as I am at reading in Spanish. I found the style much more accessible than Fuentes’ style in Artemio Cruz, and Rulfo’s story is both hilarious and frightening, like a gothic Poe tale retold by a Mexican John Kennedy Toole. The story was difficult, too, though—lots of unannounced time shifts, POV shifts, moments where it was unclear whether the speaker was living or dead. I may well teach this book sometime for my sci-fi and fantasy class. Anyone who liked the movie Coco should read this darker take on the subject.

Garamendi--de Pedro Paramo

Photo: “De Pedro Paramo 1/3,” Antonio Garamendi


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.