Reading in Hood River!

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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!

The Year In Reading: 2016

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At the end of 2015, I posted a roundup of what I had read that year, with a mini-review of each book. The post went over quite well, so I thought I would reprise this heavy year’s reading as well. Here’s the piebald mix:

Adler-Olson, Jussi The Keeper of Lost Causes.  I’m not normally a fan of mystery stories, but I was entertained enough by this example of Nordic crime fiction to keep reading and to finish it. The conceit of torturing someone through increasing the atmospheric pressure in a cell made out of a pressure vessel was both interesting and creepy, and the vibe of the book spurred my to try writing a sci fi murder mystery of my own. (The draft of that story has been disappointing, but I will see if it’s salvageable)

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles.  This story cycle had a few truly excellent works in it (I’m thinking especially of the first three Mars expeditions). Other tales seemed emotionally lame—either overwrought or full of implausible motivations. Much as War of the Worlds seemed like a meditation on British Imperialism, this book seems like a metaphor for the conquest of the American West, as well as an early work on nuclear apocalypse. I’m glad I read this book—and I feel it gives me some external validation to keep going with my own story series on John Demetrius—but overall I felt a bit flat about the experience.

Calvino, Italo. The Baron in the Trees.  One of the sweetest, most heart-warming books I’ve ever read. Baron Cosimo di Rondo climbs a tree during a temper tantrum when he is twelve years old and he never comes down. For the next fifty-odd years, through the height of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the disappointments of Napoleon, Cosimo reads, philosophizes, carries on love affairs, and corresponds with the great minds of his day, all from his home in the branches. Calvino, for much of his youth a communist, apparently wrote this book as a response to the Soviet repression of the Hungarians in 1956 (an event which caused him to leave the communist party and never join another). It’s a story of how one can keep to one’s philosophical commitments in the face of the many let-downs that the world has in store for us.

Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc.  What an inspiring book: this account of what it takes to run a creative company (in this case, two companies–Pixar and Disney Animation) filled me with ideas for my work at my own college and for my creative work as well. Catmull is big-hearted, generous, modest, and also committed to excellence in his work. I’m so glad my wife put me on to this book; I never would have sought it out myself.

Cline, Ernest: Ready Player One. This gift from my sister was a very enjoyable little read. The writing was in some ways terrible—Cline trades in clichés and underwriting—but the story is quite well-plotted and gave me many geeky moments with its references to D&D, old 80s movies and music, and early video/computer games like Zork. Good fluffy fun.

Fuentes, Carlos. La Muerte de Artemio Cruz. After four attempts over the course of six years, I have finally finished this short, sad work. I’m a very slow reader in Spanish under the best of circumstances, and this work, written with Faulknerian paragraph-sentences, unclear points of view, and unannounced time shifts, really put my creaky Spanish to the test. Yet in spite of its brevity, it’s a monumental novel, the history of Mexico in miniature, a chronicle of thwarted ambitions and broken promises and, underneath all that, an indomitable dignity. The Wikipedia page for the novel claims that the book was heavily influenced by Citizen Kane, and I can dig that, but just as much I see the influence of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. It’s a poignant and unflinching look back at the life of a tough, bad hombre.

Grossman, Lev. The Magicians. I had seen a lot of good buzz around this series, but I found this book pretty hard to like. The characters were so, so privileged and self-involved, so jaded and irresponsible with their powers, that it seemed like nobody had anything on the line in this book. The characters seemed far more Jay McInerney than J.K. Rowling—I just never felt invested in any of them.

Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood. While interesting and sometimes fascinating, this book was ultimately a big disappointment to me. I loved the idea of a primeval forest with its own mythopoetic, psychological characters drifting out of it like ghosts. Shades of Solaris, there. However, the dialogue was pretty wooden, and I was shocked at how many plot points were totally contrived or were abandoned so carelessly (I know that the book is one of a series, but still—there’s no excuse for the lame non-explanation of Keeton’s leaving, nor the off-handed dismissal of the three following warriors who had barely figured in the story up to that point). I don’t remember who put Holdstock in the same league as LeGuin, Crowley, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but this book does not lend much support to that claim.

Liu, Cixin: The Three Body Problem. I have mixed feelings about this one. The story is a truly original first contact tale, and I was blown away by the episodes that involved computing (both the episodes in the Three Body game and the creation of the sophon). However, I also found the characterizations wooden and the characters’ motivations at times truly unbelievable. How much of that stems from the translation, or from the different aesthetic of Chinese fiction, and how much of my trouble stems from the weak writing that afflicts so much science fiction?

Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak.  I’m surprised that it has taken me so long to read Parker Palmer, probably the most famous living Quaker in the United States. This book seemed to take the form of half a dozen loosely-related Pendle Hill Pamphlets, most of them inspiring or heartening, and none of them useless. This is a great book about vocation, looking at our work through the lens of how we can best serve others and live out of our deepest identities. This may on the face of it sound totally contrary to the advice of another book I loved, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but I would call these books complementary: Cam Newton’s focus was on building skills and getting paid for them, while Palmer’s seems to be on discernment about what our gifts are and how to use those gifts to serve others. Palmer is a true Hufflepuff—I needed his advice as I struggle with my own Hufflepuffery.

Sorokin, Vladimir. Day of the Oprichnik Near-future sci fi from one of contemporary Russia’s most celebrated authors. In the Russia of the 2020s, a Francisco Franco-esque figure has taken power, re-instituting the Tsardom and the ostentatious rites of the Orthodox Church. The oprichnina—Sorokin takes the name from the secret police of Ivan the Terrible—go about knocking heads, terrorizing people, and taking some weird-ass drugs.  The book is one part Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale one part Gogol’s Dead Souls, with a dash of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange thrown in. Violent, intense, and a solid read.

Stapledon, Olaf. Star Maker. One of the oddest works of sci fi I’ve ever encountered. This read more like an extended essay or history than like a true story. Yet this history of the universe as told through the eyes of hive mind energy beings was quite imaginative and often interesting. I can see how Stapledon influenced Stanislaw Lem, Arthur C. Clarke, and Freeman Dyson, among many others.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina.  One of the great reading experiences of my life. Slower than War and PeaceAnna Karenina took me about three months to finish—but I was amazed by the large-heartedness of the book. There were practically no unsympathetic characters at the end (except for the pharisaical religious woman who insinuates herself into Karenin’s life, I can’t think of a truly unsympathetic character). Even Karenin becomes, halfway through the book, a figure of deep love and pity. I was happy to see the book end—it’s a real emotional drain to read it—but I was amazed by Tolstoy’s powers of characterization here, as well as his plotting (the book reads like a collection of about 40 linked short stories).

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Wells, H.G. The War of the Worlds.  So different from the film treatments. But such a story! I can see why Wells was so influential. I love how the narrator characterized himself as a writer “on philosophical themes.” The whole book seems like an allegory for the failings of British Imperialism—one of the best sci fi stories I’ve ever read.

Witwer, Michael: Empire of Imagination. This was a fluffy, entertaining history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons by Gary Gygax. I didn’t realize exactly how much of a rockstar Gygax had been in the 80s (nor how much of the rockstar lifestyle he copied). I did know something of the rags-to-riches-to-rags arc of his story, but there were some wonderful details here, as well as a bit of redemption in Gygax’s later years (even if the telling of it seemed a bit contrived). A fun memory trip.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. I wrote a longer review of this book a couple of weeks ago.  While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.” It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation.

Readings for the Time of Troubles

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I was surprised to learn that the textbook my daughter was using for her US History class is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I had long been an admirer of Zinn’s lefty outlook on the world from interviews Zinn did in the last years of his life, though I had never read any of his work. Finding out that my daughter is reading his signature book was apparently the encouragement I needed to read the book myself.

While the first edition of People’s History was written nearly 40 years ago and the last edition is over ten years old, the book is timely, and oddly comforting in these last weeks before the inauguration of Trump. I came away from People’s History with two guiding consolations. First, Trump is no aberration. His misogyny, nativism, racism, and venality have deep roots in the history of the United States. If this doesn’t seem like much of a consolation, I might put it another way: the country has been through crises like Trumpism before. Second, for all the suffering the Trump administration will cause millions of people, for all the theft of public goods that is coming, there is a countervailing force of decency in the American character as well. The courage of Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer, of Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, of Daniel Berrigan and César Chávez–and of millions of others–is available to us as well. We can fight, in many small and powerful ways, if decent Americans are willing to give up their self-satisfaction and passivity and security to stand up for our country.

While I was familiar with every period Zinn wrote about in People’s History, I don’t think I had ever seen all these periods stitched together into a single overarching vision. Basically, Zinn’s contention is that the true history of the United States is not defined by the actions of presidents and congresses who have worked at practically every turn to enrich a tiny economic elite–by preserving slavery, by massacring the natives, by invading Mexico and Cuba and The Philippines, by overthrowing democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and Iran. Rather, American history is made up of the often overlooked struggles of the oppressed, the working class, the unrepresented. It is a history of people fighting, over centuries sometimes, to be included in the opening phrase of the Constitution: “We the People.”

It’s an inspiring–if sometimes flawed–vision. I believe that what it offers, in a crowded field of history texts, is a truly alternative analysis of the history of the nation. Many critics have accused him of bias, though I would argue that what Zinn has done instead is abandon the pretense of objectivity that sometimes smothers the work of other historians. No historian, no human being, can be a thoroughly objective observer of the human experience. In telling any history, we leave neutrality behind as soon as we decide which events we will focus on and which ones we will omit.

And so many history texts, even those informed by the counter-cultural critique of history that came out of the 60s and 70s, still focus the actions of “the great men,” the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts, with entire social movements of millions of ordinary people receiving comparatively little mention, or in some cases no mention at all. Zinn’s timely contribution is to argue that US History was not made by the Jeffersons and Jacksons and Roosevelts–that our elected leaders were responding to massive social and economic currents that they could barely influence, let alone control.

Presidents and congresses and supreme courts are led by the people, not the other way around. Unfortunately, according to Zinn, our elected leaders have usually been in thrall to what Occupy Wall Street popularized as “the 1%”: industrialists, financiers, speculators, robber barons. But frequently enough, a demand for justice will rise up from the roots of society with enough force that the elected leaders must listen and the law responds. The end of slavery, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, the civil rights movement–all of these changes came, not from the courage of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Grant, or L.B.J., but in response to the demands of ordinary Americans. Those demands took decades to make themselves felt sometimes, and the success of those demands depended on the tremendous courage of millions of people, but nearly every advance that the US has made in social justice has been led from below, not from above.

One can work towards neutrality and fairness in writing by committing to telling as many sides of the story as one can–a very common, and admirable, approach among the historians I’ve read. But it’s also valuable to have someone standing outside that system, observing from without, making no claim to neutrality–someone who pulls back the curtain on the mainstream view of American history to expose the so-called historical consensus as a fiction. Zinn’s book has helped me see my country in a new way.

And he’s helped me get my game face on for the time to come: if I want a humane minimum wage for Americans, if I want truly public college education and single-payer health care, I have to fight for those things. Not because I expect the hamfisted con man we just elected to respond to my demands, but because he may make enough people angry enough to care. The day will come when we have a free and equitable society, ruled by justice and reason. It’s up to us to make it.

 

Happy Birthday to The Subway Test

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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.

We Can Remake the Electoral College

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Friends all over the place are talking about how and where to support civic engagement with their time and money. The ACLU tops the list for many of my friends–as well as for a whole lot a friends I didn’t know I had.  There’s good reason today to support The Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, The Sierra Club, The Council on American-Islamic Relations–all places to devote your efforts if you are interested in preserving civil society during the Time of Troubles. I’ll be giving loved ones memberships to these for Christmas.

And there’s at least one more that deserves your support, even though the issue it covers–electoral reform–may seem like small potatoes compared to the threats we are facing. FairVote.org has been doing the quiet, patient work of improving the way elections work in the United States since 1992. And, among the many forward-thinking reforms that they have advocated, one of the most timely is the reform of the Electoral College.

Democrats have ample incentive to support Electoral College reform: Democrats have won the most votes in four of the last five presidential elections, yet we’ve had a Democratic president for only two of those electoral cycles. One can be forgiven for believing that, along with persistent gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, the Republicans have used the Electoral College to hold on to power despite being a minority party in the United States.

Yet, the Republicans have just as many reasons to support the reform of the Electoral College. Yes, over two recent cycles (2000 and 2016) the Electoral College has favored the Republicans, but there’s no structural reason that this should be so. Indeed, some of you remember the scenario (and personal fantasy of mine) that in 2004 John Kerry would win the Electoral College in spite of losing the national popular vote. If I remember correctly, he came within 70,000 votes of winning Ohio (and hence the election) that way.

I had hoped in part that the election would swing that way in 2004 because I believed (and still believe) that if the Republicans had suffered the same kind of defeat that the Democrats had in 2000, there would be a bipartisan consensus to do away with the Electoral College.

But for better and worse (mostly for better), it will be extremely difficult to do away with the Electoral College entirely. Doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution, and that’s a pretty high bar to clear: the last amendment to the Constitution(the 27th) occurred nearly 25 years ago, 202 years after if had been proposed in 1789.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way to reform the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution? It turns out that there is such a way. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has just the kind of wonky name that puts people to sleep. However, it’s one of the most fundamental advances we could make to our presidential election system today. And we can make it law without having to amend the Constitution.

Here’s how it works. The Constitution is helpfully vague about how states choose who their electors will be:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…

In other words, individual state legislatures have wide latitude to decide how electors are appointed. And, if a state legislature decides that electors should be appointed on the basis of whoever wins the national popular vote, there’s nothing in the Constitution to forbid it.

Yet, what would be the incentive for a state to give up its influence over the electoral process by choosing its electors that way? That’s a good question, and certainly swing states like Ohio and Florida have little incentive (beyond an interest in democracy) to do so. Those states receive millions of dollars in ad revenue from the presidential campaigns every four years–they have a much greater stake in the status quo. However, the so-called “safe states” like California, New York, and Oklahoma–states which are reliably red or blue in every election–have less influence over presidential elections today than they would have if they simply banded together and agreed to choose electors on the basis of the national popular vote.

And that’s what the compact aims to do. As soon as enough states agree to appoint their electors that way–that is, as soon as states representing 270 electoral votes agree to it–the compact would go into force.

I’ll write more later about the benefits of such a plan, as well as about its constitutionality. But for now, check out the map of states which have already voted to implement the compact. Check out the states where the compact has almost passed–that is, where the compact has a reasonable chance of passing in the future. Check out how many times it took some of the states to pass the compact into law.

One of the beauties of this kind of work is that it is a concrete step for the public good that can be accomplished in state houses, where individual voters can bring more pressure to bear. Friends in Oregon, friends in Colorado, friends in Oklahoma and Tennessee: find out what your state legislator is doing to support this compact–which is to say, find out what your legislator is doing to support democracy in the United States. FairVote.org can help hook you up with this project.

On the Election of Donald J. Trump

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Like so many folks, I have felt dazed and heartbroken about the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I’ll speak plainly: while I believe the United States will survive this demagogue, no president has been a greater threat to the republic than Trump will be. Ever since Plato, political scientists have recognized that the greatest danger to democratic forms of government was demagoguery: and, in his cynical and phony populism, in his breezy dishonesty, in his breathtaking appeals to xenophobia and racism, Donald Trump is the most demagogic person ever to have been elected president of the United States.

SelfAwarePatterns, a WordPress comrade I admire, has posted a very thoughtful reflection on Trump’s win. He notes that while racists and nativists have helped to elect Trump, it does not follow that all—or even most—of Trump’s supporters are racists and nativists. Indeed, at least some of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 came to support Trump in 2016. To ridicule these voters, to call them racists and haters or dupes, is to mistake the nature of Clinton’s loss and to further alienate those voters whom Clinton failed to reach.

While I don’t think that analysis tells the whole story, there is much to agree with here. I’ll start by saying that nothing good will come of trying to ridicule Trump voters. A huge part of Trump’s appeal came from his understanding that millions of Americans feel ridiculed already, feel looked down-on by liberal coastal elites. Trump’s harping on “the rigged system,” his invitation to rally-goers to heap abuse on the button-down liberals sitting in “the press pen,” were ways of blaming working class people’s losses on the kind of people that stereotypically vote for Hillary: those smug, expensively educated NPR listeners whose life is a kind of running Portlandia sketch.

Of course, Trump doesn’t just blame rich liberals for the problems with middle America; he blames Mexicans, “welfare takers,” Muslims. His racism and nativism are far more troubling because he can hurt and bully those target populations so much more easily. It’s the racism of these positions that has convinced many on the left that Trump’s voters must also be racists.

Doubtless some of them are.  Other Trump supporters, I’m sure, are troubled to some degree by Trump’s attitudes and statements, but not enough to consider his racism a disqualifying factor for his candidacy. Still others have been convinced that Trump’s xenophobic positions are the correct ones, even though they could have been convinced otherwise, and perhaps were convinced otherwise by Barack Obama. Are all of these stances equally blameworthy?

Perhaps approaching the problem from a different angle would yield better results. Years of teaching at a community college have taught me that ridiculing a person for their choices marks the end of all dialog. If I believe my choice for president is a better, saner, more moral choice than Donald Trump, I can’t hope to convince anyone of that by shaming them and telling them how stupid they are, as though I have some special insight into stupidity.

However, we can and must critique the system of racism: we can work to help working class whites see that their economic interests align with working class people of color, that modern racism is not some natural human state but rather a conscious political strategy. Racism is in fact a relatively recent political program, designed during the colonial American period by economic elites to divide and conquer the dispossessed that lived here: black slaves, white indentured servants, landless white tenant farmers, Native Americans. A white indentured servant in colonial America may be landless, may be exploited, may be helpless to resist the depredations of creditors and masters and landlords, but he could believe at least that he was better off than a slave or an Indian.

Of course people of color are the primary victims of this control strategy, just as they will suffer disproportionately in this Time of Troubles. All of us who consider ourselves allies have to work together to provide safe havens where we can and to bear witness.

But working class whites do not escape the system of racism without injury. To the extent that working class whites have been bamboozled by elites to believe that their problems are caused by the marginalized, powerless other, rather than by the elites themselves, they too have been made victims. They may escape the brutality and savagery that has been visited on immigrants and people of color—indeed, working class whites will often be the perpetrators of that brutality—but working class whites are lashing out at their own victimization: the hollowing out of their towns, the loss of the dignity of work, the replacement of main streets with pill mills and payday loan shops.

Muslims and Mexicans are not to blame for that victimization. Hillary Clinton is not to blame either, though Trump actually made a fair critique that Clinton represents an investor class which does bear some responsibility for the offshoring of jobs and the decimation of main street. That may be the only fair critique Donald Trump has made in his life.

Those who were convinced that Donald Trump is a regular guy, that he is somehow not part of that controlling elite himself, will perhaps fare better than immigrants and Muslims. But the voters of Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania that elected him won’t fare well: Donald Trump and his gang of goons are predators. Someday, perhaps in two years or four years or 24, there will be an opportunity to drive them out again. I hope when the opportunity comes we take it, and we have an honest conversation about racism. Not racists, but racism.

Pitkin’s New Fiction

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I’m happy to pass along the news that one of my favorite stories, “Count Eszterházy’s Harmonium,” has come out in this quarter’s edition of Kaleidotrope. This was my first attempt at an epistolary story, and I think it turned out pretty well. I have written so little fiction about my time in Hungary, and I had a great time imagining the waning days of Hungary’s life as a world power in this piece. I invite you to read, and I hope you enjoy!

Science Fiction: the New Philosophy?

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One of the best books I’ve read in a while–and one of the most engaging graphic novels I’ve ever read–is Logicomix. It’s one of those books that seems so improbable that I think a lot of readers probably picked it up just to see how the authors would carry off a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell and his quest to systematize all mathematics in Principia Mathematica. Frankly, the topic sounds about as dull as Principia Mathematica itself–I’ve always thought of Principia as being one of those books that people refer to in order to sound educated but which nobody has actually read. And, after learning that Russell and his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, spent several hundred pages of densely-packed logic script in order to “prove” that 1+1=2, I suspect I won’t be reading Principia Mathematica anytime soon.

But Logicomix is about so much more than Bertrand Russell’s monumental (and ultimately failed) endeavor to create a self-contained logical system for all maths. Really it’s a surprisingly engaging story about how human beings make meaning out of the universe. I loved the book and will be giving it to loved ones that are into that sort of thing. And, the book made me curious about Russell, whom I’d never really encountered very deeply in college, even though I spent a couple of meandering years as a philosophy major as an undergrad.

I looked up this delightful little interview with Russell, filmed near the end of his life, one of the millions of forgotten treasures on YouTube. In front of the curtain painted to look like a library of ancient books, Russell holds forth in his high-pitched, elfin voice on the uses of philosophy. His basic thesis is that science deals with questions of “how things are” in the world, while philosophy serves to speculate about “how the world might be,” that is, to ask questions which science is not yet prepared to answer.

I think that’s a pretty solid explanation, though it immediately got me thinking that Russell’s definition could just as easily apply to science fiction. Perhaps it applies to science fiction even better: far, far more people read and watch science fiction than philosophy. The field of philosophy has ceded much of the intellectual territory that it occupied in Russell’s day: topics like metaphysics and epistemology get much more airplay in fields like theoretical physics and cognitive science than they do in traditional philosophy departments. Even in 1960 when the interview was filmed, Russell was speaking of the retreat of academic philosophy from topics that could be properly answered by science. But I think even in the realm of thought experiments and counter-factuals, science fiction is adding at least as much to the questions of “how the world might be” as philosophy–or any other academic subject, for that matter.

I know that not all science fiction is Stanislaw Lem and Margaret Atwood–there’s still a huge body of science fiction that doesn’t even try to concern itself with serious questions, science fiction whose sole purpose is an escapist entertainment about laser guns and robots with big boobs. And that stuff can be fun–I’m not too much of a snob to enjoy a Guardians of the Galaxy-type confection. But as we explore the deep stuff, the nature of our universe and of the human predicament, it’s hard to think of a question of metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, ethics or aesthetics that hasn’t been explored at least once by some pretty great science fiction.

I’m sure someone who sees this post was a better philosophy major than I. Can you think of an exception to my claim in the paragraph above?

Publication Updates

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I got some good news last week: Trevor Quachri, the editor of the venerable Analog magazine, has decided to pick up my story “Proteus.” I’m not sure when it will be coming out, but it’s been wonderful to have a little run of acceptances after such a long dry spell of rejections last year. I’ll keep you posted when “Proteus” is due to come out, as well as when my story “Count Eszterhazy’s Harmonium” will appear in Kaleidotrope.

“Proteus” will be the 15th story I’ve published. In other words, I’ve published 1.66667 stories per year since I started writing science fiction in 2007. What seems like kind of a paltry rate of publication will still, eventually, yield a decent sized harvest of stories. If I’ve learned nothing else from writing, I’ve learned to be patient.

In other publication-related news, Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Third Annual Collection is on the shelves now, as is Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 Edition. My story “The Daughters of John Demetrius” shows up in both of them. It was a wonderful experience to stumble across the Dozois anthology on the “What’s Hot” shelf at Powell’s City of Books last week. Going to Powell’s is often a bit depressing for me: I often come away feeling overwhelmed by how many great books are out there, that feeling that there are way more good books to read than there are days in life to read them. Other times I go in and feel like I don’t amount to much as a writer as I stroll among the towers of great authors and literary hucksters and folks who just got lucky in the publishing game. It was a sweet moment to see that I too get lucky once in a while.

joe with Dozois

The author in his natural habitat. Photo by the lovely  Carlyn Eames.

Science Fiction As a Gateway Drug

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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.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri - PC - IGN

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.

You Can Learn Anything | Valley Oaks Charter School Tehachapi

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.