Someday I’ll write a longer appreciation of her work in which I try to explain how meaningful her writing has been for me. For now, I’ll simply reprise the last essay I wrote about Le Guin, a post about her marvelous book The Lathe of Heaven.
I’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.
I’ve been meaning to post this note for a couple of weeks, but weariness at day’s end has constantly gotten the better of me lately. I’m excited to share that my story “Nonesuch” has come out in Britain’s great dark fantasy magazine Black Static. I’m quite taken by the layout, and the illustration is the best I’ve seen of my work.
“Nonesuch” is a very meaningful story for me. I set out to write a Bernard Malamud-ian, Marc Chagall-esque collage about my grandparents’ farm in Dayton, Oregon, and what I ended up with was both darker and more frightening than I had anticipated. I realize in retrospect that the story is a meditation on the loss of my brother, my father, and my grandfather, as well as a look at the theft and violence that lies at the root of all land ownership if you dig deeply enough into a family’s history. It was a hard story to write, but I can’t think of anything I’ve written that I feel more proud of. You can pick up the issue at the 800-pound Amazonian gorilla. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to give a reading of the story sometime.
I’ve written before about my childhood love of Dungeons & Dragons. When I was 11 years old, D&D transformed me from a kid who loved The Hobbit and the D’Aulaires’ books of Greek and Norse myths into someone who wanted to make his own mythic stories. D&D (and related role playing games like Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia and Traveller: 2300) were one of the few ways I interacted with other human beings during a challenging early adolescence: my friends and I would gather in my dad’s basement to roll dice and shout about spells and orcs for entire weekends, for long, oppressively hot summers.
I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I tell people that I play D&D every Sunday evening. Anytime I mention my adult D&D habit to a casual acquaintance, I fight the urge to explain that it’s not what you think. Thanks to the Internet’s capacity to link the shy and geeky with one another, we celebrate nerd culture today in a way that I could never have imagined when I was 13; however, Dungeons & Dragons has remained a cultural signifier of beyond the pale nerdity. We’re all nerds for something, for Star Wars or Game of Thrones or Fallout, but the ones who play D&D, they’re, well, nerd nerds.
Popular culture has never been very kind to D&D players, holding us up for a special kind of ridicule:
One might argue that the treatment of D&D in shows like Stranger Things is more sympathetic and sweetly nostalgic, and I suppose that’s correct as far as it goes. But even here the Duffer Brothers built their series opener around D&D as a canny quotation of the D&D scene in the movie E.T.–and in both E.T. and Stranger Things the D&D scenes serve to establish the main characters as misfits and somewhat ridiculous young nerds:(Viewers who rolled a successful spot check also noticed that the Stranger Things lads were playing an adventure in which the characters were facing the awful demon prince Demogorgon, a name-check which also dredges up the old 1980s terror of D&D as a plot to involve children in devil worship. D&D thankfully survived that literal witch hunt.)
Why do I continue to play a game that people typically regard as an obsession for socially awkward tweens? The short answer is that it’s great fun, and I suppose I need no more elaborate an answer than that. But as I reflect on why I still have fun playing D&D, it occurs to me that tabletop role playing games mean something more than nerdly entertainment. Role playing games represent a distinct art form, a mix of fiction and theater and puzzle that is hard to appreciate as a spectator. But when it’s played well–and I acknowledge that D&D is often not played very well–the game can be transformational for participants.
D&D is a kind of collaborative storytelling in which each of the participants plays the role of one of the characters. Players choose to a large extent the characters they want to inhabit–their backgrounds, their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses. The Dungeon Master acts as a kind of stage director and omniscient narrator, describing for the characters what they can see and hear, acting out the reactions of the characters’ enemies and friends and environment.
It’s a historical accident that these stories generally take place in a Tolkien-esque (some would say highly derivative) fantasy world of elves and dwarves and dragons. Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons, tried adding a Tolkien-influenced “fantasy supplement” to his tabletop medieval warfare game Chainmail, largely in an attempt to boost his game’s popularity. The first role playing game could just as easily have developed from a science fiction concept, or from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, or from film noir. It just so happened that Gygax was obsessed with medieval warfare and that his players were Lord of the Rings addicts (ironically, Gygax hated Lord of the Rings–he considered it bloated and lacking in action).
The key to Dungeons & Dragons is not the dungeons or the dragons. It’s the idea of a person creating a story whose outcome can only be determined by the others at the table, those people who in ordinary storytelling would be the listeners or the readers. If the Dungeon Master is a good storyteller, and if the players are decent actors–or at least willing to play along with a bit of enthusiasm, the experience is, well, magic.
I’ve been trying to learn a little more about graphic novels–a literary genre that I have almost no experience with–and pulled from the public library shelf Gilgamesh: A Graphic Novel by Andrew Weingarner. I have always been fascinated by the epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story known to humanity: I loved the old John Gardner translation of the story, and I had a good time with this graphic retelling. The various cosmic monsters that Gilgamesh battles are drawn very well–they’re intense, original, but also evoke a Mesopotamian vibe.
The central partnership in the story–the ur-dynamic duo that informs so many later character dyads–is that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu: Gilgamesh, the civilized, anxious, ambitious king, and Enkidu, the wild and natural “hairy man.” The duo appears later as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, as Prince Hal and Falstaff, as Han Solo and Chewbacca.
And, I realized a little later, as Finn and Jake from Adventure Time.
Besides the cosmetic similarities of the two pairs, Finn the human boy and Jake the magical talking dog are also spiritual and characterological siblings to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Finn and Jake are perfectly matched combatants, each unable to defeat the other, whether in combat, in their long-running pranking competitions, or in their frequent video game and Card Wars match-ups. Like Gilgamesh, Finn is a rambunctious upstart, eager to attack real or perceived injustice head-on, usually through violence. Like Gilgamesh, Finn is also beset with anxiety–often as a result of his phobias or bad dreams–yet Finn and Gilgamesh are also paradoxically able to set aside their nagging dread and fight fearlessly, even foolhardily, in battle.
Jake is a striking modern recreation of Enkidu, literally a magic talking animal. In much the same way that Enkidu advises and guides Gilgamesh, Jake is wiser and more experienced than Finn in most matters, especially those relating to the basic animal appetites for sex and sleep and food.
Both duos spend their time hustling from cosmic battle to cosmic battle with monstrous or demonic antagonists. It’s easy to imagine Humbaba, the earlier epic’s demonic guardian of the cedar forest, as a creature drawn for Adventure Time (even Humbaba’s name would fit well in Adventure Time); it’s just as easy to imagine an Adventure Time antagonist like Hunson Abadeer appearing in a sculpture from some Sumerian ruin.
The mapping of one duo to another isn’t perfect–Gilgamesh is a character rooted in a 3000 year-old value system that doesn’t translate well to our own. He is cruel by our standards: violent, an abuser of women, a despoiler of the environment (ironically, the pre-civilized Enkidu is much easier for contemporary readers to sympathize with). But the Gilgamesh-Enkidu pairing still speaks to us in much the same way that Finn and Jake speak to us, because the relationship is archetypal. The relationship speaks to our odd predicament as creatures that are both animal and transcendent of our animal nature: we are, as Hamlet says, “in action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god,” yet we are at the same time deeply aware of our brutish status as just another mammal, tied down to the “Four Fs” of feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproducing that govern all animal life. For both Gilgamesh-Enkidu and Finn and Jake, we are promised that all good things in life–justice, mercy, peace, love–come to us when these two natures are reconciled and act in partnership. We are warned that madness follows when we act in opposition to it.
Tomorrow I’ll be ringing in the winter solstice with my wife at Breitenbush Hot Springs. There will be poetry, yoga, maybe some ecstatic dancing of some kind–who knows? I’ve never been to a Breitenbush solstice, but I loved spending some time there last year and I think it’s extremely likely I’ll have a good time.
One thing I bet I won’t hear, given the circles I travel in, is many references to the birth of Jesus or other Christmas-related greetings. That’s not a problem for me–in fact, I far prefer it. I consider Christmas the most debased festival in the liturgical calendar (and anyway, as a Quaker, I feel a scruple about observing any religious holidays at all).
My friends’ silence might seem curious at first blush, given that practically all of my close friends are culturally Christian if not nominally Christian. Most today would not consider themselves Christians of any stripe: my friends are atheists, agnostics, spiritual tourists, a’la carte Buddho-Hindu-Taoists, Sufi-curious, and neopagans. But, aside from the Friends in my Quaker meeting, I can’t think of many who regard Christianity sympathetically today.
Frankly, the Christian movement–which has been an accomplice of oppression and intolerance at least as often as it has worked to bring peace and justice to the world–deserves plenty of opprobrium. To say it in Christian language, The Church has been so soiled by the world that it has departed from Christ. So I’m not surprised to have friends who may have been raised in a Christian church who today distance themselves from what they regard as a fountainhead of exploitation.
But what I do find curious is how often my friends and acquaintances–even many of those who consider themselves atheists–engage in behaviors that might be considered reverent or even spiritual. While I know a few people whose atheism is so deeply held that they are able to see all ceremony as ridiculous, more often people seem to gravitate towards reverence even if they reject the particular rituals they grew up with.
One of the most important books I read this year explores this phenomenon: David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson’s thesis is that religious behavior is evolutionarily adaptive, that our urge to find sacredness in the world is a way of enforcing group cohesion and eliciting altruistic behavior. This thesis is radical in biology circles, partly because it depends on a concept of natural selection that acts on groups as well as on individuals. It’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack the reasons this idea is derided by most biologists (nor why I believe it is correct); for now I’ll just offer a quote from David Sloan Wilson and his co-author E.O Wilson (no relation) that summarizes the entire argument behind group level selection: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary”.
Friends, I wish you well this holiday season. If you believe that altruism exists, I urge you to practice it. If you believe that altruism does not exist, I urge you to look harder. May you one day find yourself practicing altruism unawares. I wish you happiness in this season, not on account of the solstice, nor on account of the birth of Jesus (who was very unlikely to have celebrated his birthday on December 25), but on account of the biology of our species, on account of the deep urge to be kind to one another, in spite of the ways I fall short.
When I was in sixth grade, I made a map out of my imagination. I drew it in colored pencils on six pieces of graph paper which I connected with masking tape, so that I could fold it like a codex or some mystical road map. While I’ve largely forgotten what it looked like, I remember that I had drawn a continent which clustered around an inner sea, a dragon-infested Mediterranean. The land was divided into kingdoms and empires, a crazy-quilt of realms filled with Dungeons and Dragons creatures, which is to say filled with a Lord of the Rings-fanboy descendants of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and orcs.
What first drew me to fantasy and science fiction as a reader, and as a gamer and as a writer, was the world building. I’m reminded of the words of a friend’s son who said that you can tell if a book is going to be good if there’s a map at the beginning of it. When I read fantasy as a kid, I could put up with a lot of weak writing–poor characterization, wooden dialogue, tedious exposition–if there was a map in the book that represented a world that I would want to exist.
And yet, a map is also judged by its verisimilitude. Middle Earth, Earthsea, The Hyborian Age all drew me in with their plausibility: however oddly shaped the continents, those drawings seemed like maps of the actual world from a much earlier time, or a map of what might be the world. A map with no connection to a world that the reader does know is a useless map.
That’s the tricky thing about world building. There is no building a truly new world, untethered from any human world. Every map we draw, every pantheon of ancient deities we imagine for a game world or a novel, is a variation on a theme that was laid down in the real world. The Shire looks a lot like rural England. Earthsea is an imagined Bronze Age for the San Juan Islands. Gormenghast is the drama of a noble English house played out in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The City in Little, Big is New York City. The challenge with such world-building is to arrange these oddly-lensed realities into a world which seems totally distinct.
There’s a tension in fantasy and science fiction–as there is with all art–between the craving for the new and the comfort of the familiar. Audiences long for the new world, that giddy disorientation that comes from reading of an unfamiliar hero or a far country and knowing that these people and places fit into a coherent world that the book is slowly uncovering. But readers also crave the comfort of recognition, in the original sense of the word recognize: to know again. That is, readers are still happy to pay for something that reminds them of Lord of the Rings or Alice in Wonderland, no matter how many others complain about how much derivative fiction is out there. A book with a map that looks something like the real world is far likelier to appeal to readers than a book with a map of a totally new place, a place so different as to be unrecognizable. But some, thank goodness, can’t rest until they find the totally new place.
The Subway Test is the name of this blog. I didn’t feel right calling it JoePitkin.com or anything else with my name in it. When I was cooking up the soup bones of the blog, I stirred through different ideas in my stories for a blog name. The Subway Test seemed like a decent provisional name, and the longer I post here the better the name feels.
But what does it mean? It comes from one of my favorite stories, an early one called “So-Sz,” which explores the musings of Sasquatch after he has learned to read and write by studying the encyclopedia. The narrator references “the subway test,” which I read about 20 years ago in Scientific American, as a thought experiment about how much like modern Homo sapiens were the Neanderthal. Take a Neanderthal man, dress him in a three-piece suit, give him a briefcase and a haircut, and put him on the subway. Will anyone notice that he is not like the others? If not, then he has passed the subway test.
(As an aside, this article and the concept of the subway test came out long before Svante Pääbo’s work showing that all Eurasians carry a significant number of Neanderthal genes. I suspect Neanderthal would pass the subway test because a lot of people on the subway are at least part Neanderthal themselves.)
Anyway, the idea appealed to me because, as I’ve said before, the function of all art is to explain to ourselves what it means to be a human being. One of the things I most love about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres spend a lot of time working with creatures that are clearly non-human, as well as creatures that are almost human, half human, or human only on first inspection. Scratch the surface, and many sci fi characters are actually gods or demons or monsters of some kind.
But, scratch the surface a little further and you will find that those gods, demons, aliens, dragons, sentient planets, etc. are really humans in alien masks, like the characters of an ancient Greek play. As Stanislaw Lem says in his amazing novel Solaris, “We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.” All that traveling, all those robots sent sojourning across the cosmos, all that scanning of distant stars for Dyson Spheres: all we are really looking for is a mirror. Put on a suit and board the subway. Will anyone notice who you really are?
The last thing I had published–the last thing I’ve had published in a very long time, it feels like to me–is a story called “The Daughters of John Demetrius” in the October issue of Analog. (I know that October was only a month ago, but I usually date my publications by the date an editor accepts them, rather than when the story actually appears in print, and I haven’t had anything accepted for publication since April). I was trying something new with this story, working to reduce the infodump and the throat-clearing that I think can be a weakness of my work. So, while there’s quite a backstory to the characters and the setting (near-future northern Mexico), I deliberately left a lot unsaid or only hinted at.
And, while quite a few people seem to like the story, the reviews I’ve gotten often complain of the backstory and setting being not fleshed out enough. As Greg Hullender at Rocket Stack Rank charitably puts it, “There seems to be a well-developed world behind this little story, and it definitely leaves you wanting to know more about it.”
I feel a bit as though I failed to hit the sweet spot with this story–while reminding myself, as always, that no story is to everybody’s taste. But Hullender and other reviewers are right: there is a world behind the story. Last month’s Analog piece is one of four stories I’ve written that I refer to as “John Demetrius Stories.” They don’t fit into a single narrative–I’m not planning to make them into a single narrative, anyway–and the first two I wrote are not intended for publication, but I do think that I have a story cycle growing in my mind that centers around the character of John Demetrius.
Who is John Demetrius? Well, I’m not entirely sure myself. The character came to me after the death of my brother Dave, and I wrote the first story with the idea of John Demetrius as a loose fictionalization of my brother. The loose fictionalization has gotten looser and looser over time, to the point that John Demetrius is my brother as he might visit me in dreams today.
I will say this: John Demetrius was a brilliant genetic engineer from a few generations before the story cycle takes place. He experimented on his own genome, he became an utter pacifist, and he wandered out of America into the south, siring children and coming to be regarded after his disappearance as some kind of spiritual master. He is, for the characters in the stories, a legendary figure whose real identity has been obscured by years of cultural accretions and appropriations of his name for all kinds of political purposes. Mythologically, he’s a reworking of the Green Man myth, a cousin of Tom Bombadil and Osiris and Jesus.
And that’s all I will say. “The Daughters of John Demetrius” is available in October’s Analog. I have another John Demetrius story, “Proteus,” which I hope to refine as soon as the current draft of Pacifica is finished. I have more ideas after that. If I can get a few of them published, I might even try to stitch them together into a single cycle: The John Demetrius Stories.
For my first post in three months, I’ve been wondering what accounts for the popularity over the last ten years or so for vampires and zombies in genre literature. Of all the monster archetypes that seem to say something about the human predicament–the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character, Frankenstein’s creature, the cosmic hostility of Cthulhu–I’ve seen more vampire and zombie books, movies, video games, Happy Meal toys, and cutesy merchandise than for any other monster.
I say this knowing that vampires have largely passed from the flow tide popularity they had during the heady days of the Twilight Industrial Complex. But Twilight was really just a recapitulation of the energy of the Anne Rice books and movies that had been popular 20 years before. I fully expect that a few years from now there will be another vampire fad, hopefully less annoying than Twilight, but still mining the anxieties and desires that the vampire represents for us.
My tentative conclusion is that both zombies and vampires are about exploitation. What resonates with us, I think, is that modern people are dimly aware of–and anxious about–having been domesticated. The modern American is in some ways as domesticated as cattle and laying hens: our time is strictly managed by school and work, our food comes to us pre-processed (and often pre-cooked and practically pre-digested), and we are all taken advantage of, to a lesser or greater degree, by companies and agencies and authorities that understand human psychology and probability and algorithms better than we do.
In other words, we see ourselves in the zombie: the zombie is in a kind of un-life, a feeling people are all too familiar with after binge watching a TV show for 14 hours (or playing X-box or trolling YouTube or Facebook for 14 hours). In the vampire, we see the exploiter: the advertisers and employers and investment bankers whom we perceive to be insatiable for our money and our labor. We vote and play the lottery and pay our insurance premiums, all while being dimly aware that those asking for our votes or advertising the lottery are playing us for suckers, figuratively sucking us dry. Perhaps we are unconsciously anxious about the power the exploiter (the vampire) has over us, as well as of the chaos and misery to come when the exploited (the zombies) turn their indiscriminate and poorly thought-out hatred on the world. As a community college English teacher not so far from Umpqua Community College, where an ordinary English class ended very badly last week, I’ve been thinking more than I usually do about young men’s poorly thought-out hatred.
I’m genuinely curious, though, about why these monster types have such staying power with us. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character, or Frankenstein’s creature, both seem just as relevant to me as the vampire and the zombie, yet neither of the first two have anything like the resonance of the zombie to us today. I suppose one could make the argument that our AI fears, as represented in Ex Machina or Blade Runner or 2001, are our modern reworking of the Frankenstein myth. Even if true, though, zombies are still more popular right now. Why?