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Pa.'s 'delightfully' dystopian driverless future

Plus, the cave is coming from inside the house.

May 6, 2022
Inside this edition: Car wars, bicoastal, Marietta's cave house, Mount Moriah, hellbender? hell yeah, park problems, and weekend update.

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Pennsylvania has two coastal areas. Where are they?

(We'll have a real stumper in this space each week. You'll find the answer at the bottom, but don't miss all the good stuff in between.) 

» One place worth seeing: The Zillow crowd is going wild over this $297K Marietta house with a bat cave/dungeon basement. LNP talked to the sellers and reports "the mystery of why it's there is still unsolved."

» One place worth saving: Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philly is the final resting place of actors, gangsters, war heroes, and more. The Inquirer reports on the army of volunteers "reclaiming it from ruin."

» One thing worth watching: The four-part Netflix docuseries about the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 is out now. Variety calls it an elegant and "methodical look at an American disaster." 

» One thing worth knowing: The push for Pennsylvania's first national park at the Delaware Water Gap is getting pushback from Pennsylvania's largest sportsmen's group and local officials in New Jersey.

» One thing worth celebrating: It's been three years since Pennsylvania made the hellbender (or snot otter) its official state amphibian. Hip hip!

Pittsburgh author and Slippery Rock professor Patrick McGinty. (Photos submitted)

Remember driverless cars? Right, well, they’re still around, even if the media’s gaze has mostly moved on. They’re still being tested on the streets of Pittsburgh, for one, and they’re still being touted by the companies and investors that view them as a bridge to the future of basically everything

But for all the Jetsonian elevator pitches involved, the books built around this automotive space race have remained very short on futurism and very long on real-world corporate palace intrigue. 

Enter Patrick McGinty. 

The Pittsburgh author and Slippery Rock professor who penned a famous takedown — my word, not his — of the connected nonfiction subgenre has now added a work of futuristic dystopian fiction to the mix. 

It’s his debut novel. It’s called TEST DRIVE. And it’s uniting people who dig driverless cars and those who really don’t dig any cars at all, he explained. 

We talked to McGinty — on a break from grading finals — about the book, “cargasm” culture, the sci-fi label, and the existential crises of contract work.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

PA Local: Hi Patrick. Please describe the entire plot of your full-length book in a single tweet [280 characters or less].

McGinty: In TEST DRIVE, test drivers decide that skimming parts from their driverless car company is an insufficient response to alarming climate and housing conditions. The plan: steal and gut a driverless car in a city whose climate and tech sector are putting the squeeze on workers. 

PA Local: Thanks. Are you comfortable with the sci-fi label? 

McGinty: I don’t personally view it that way. I kept trying to write it contemporaneously but things just kept changing in the driverless car sector and I finally just kind of threw up my hands and decided to throw the proverbial ball ahead thinking ‘they can’t catch me out there.’ 

And once you’re in the future you can have some fun with it. But if people read it and they’re like this is sci-fi, that’s great. It doesn’t bother me. 

PA Local: How’s the autonomous vehicle space race going in 2030 Pittsburgh [which serves as the backdrop for the book]?

McGinty: The biggest business pivot that has happened is the climate situation has gotten so bad with wind and rain — these events called surges — that the companies have started saying ‘Our cars are going to be safer than humans driving out in this weather.’

But I’m just sort of using driverless cars as a work environment to think about some of these issues [climate change, housing, capitalism].  

And for the most part the tech actually works pretty decently in the novel. Like, infrastructure is a much bigger problem, and I don’t want to spoil anything but most of the really bad sh— that happens in the book is because of infrastructure.

PA Local: How many cargasms are there? 

McGinty: You could say the whole thing is a cargasm. There’s certainly a lot of driving in it. And I welcome anyone I’ve made fun of in the past for their writing about driving to, you know, mercilessly dunk on me, although I think I'm pretty measured.

PA Local: You helped develop a national college-level curriculum that's all about looking at autonomous vehicles more holistically. What else prepared you to write this book? 

McGinty: I've written about tech almost exclusively for two or three years.

I’ve never done [autonomous vehicle] test driving work but there is a whole lot of this book that’s been influenced by my 10 years of experience as an adjunct professor at the absolute bottom — doing contract work, going on strike while my wife was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and losing our health insurance for a few days. 

I’ve also done a lot of reading about driverless vehicles and a lot of observing of driverless vehicles.

My grandpa was a steel worker and he was also a painter. I’ve got paintings of deer and pheasants from him all over my house. And when I would doodle with him he’d say 'don’t draw what you think you see, just draw what you see out in the world or in your mind.' 

And so when I’m looking at our country, I look around and I see tech. I see it. I’m sitting in front of it. My students are talking about NFTs. Driverless cars are coming down my alley. 

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA 

Hear more from Patrick McGinty on this episode of Autonocast.

Early flight, via @yatsko. Send us your Pennsylvania pics by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania
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» Friday, May 6: Experience loss. nothing. memorial., a sound installation honoring the musicians, singers, and choir directors lost to HIV/AIDS in the Black Church at Philly's Monument Lab. Registration is free.

» Friday, May 6: Explore Romare Bearden's social activism and art at The Frick Pittsburgh through Sept. 18. Adult tickets are $15.

» Saturday, May 7: Escape a real submarine on the Ohio River in Pittsburgh in 60 minutes or less. Tickets are $29 (and going fast).

» Saturday, May 7: Ain't no party ... like a Garlic Mustard Pull Party at Forbes State Forest to promote the growth of native wild plants.

» Saturday, May 7: Stroll over to Ridley Creek State Park in Media for a Global Big Day Birding Walk. It's free. No registration is required.

» Sunday, May 8: It's Mother's Day. Why not take mom out for lunch in the holiday's (somewhat resentful) birthplace of Philadelphia?
Pennsylvania's two coastlines are located along the Delaware Estuary (112 miles) and along Lake Erie (77 miles), according to the DEP.

The latter is sometimes referred to as the Grape Coast, an area Pennsylvania's official tourism website calls the "largest and oldest Concord grape-growing region in the world."

The wine is also good there ... reportedly.

Thanks for reading PA Local! We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? What do you want to see more of? Or, tell us your secret food recipes!
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