My new pop-up newsletter: Perils of the Overworld

A Man Reading

A Man Reading, anonymous, ca. 1660

In my last newsletter, I told you about the serial story that was published daily in Bay Area newspapers over the course of two weeks in June. Its publication was one of the great surprises and delights of my writing career so far; for those two weeks in June, I carried six quarters every morning to the dented newspaper dispenser in front of the McDonald’s on San Pablo Avenue. Each day, the detective Annabel Scheme held her ground on the front page.

I’ve now collected, revised, and expanded that story, which is novella-length, and produced a digital edition, available to all. I’d like to ask for your help releasing it.

As many of you know, the original Annabel Scheme novella owes its existence to a Kickstarter campaign, back when Kickstarter was new and weird. It funded the production of about a thousand physical copies (if you possess one, you’re in rarified company) as well as a Kindle e-book and, best of all, a PDF edition that has remained free to read ever since.

This funding model is NOT right for everything, but it seems to suit Scheme, so I want to release her new adventure the same way. There’s no print edition this time. There will be plenty of things to print in the months and years to come; right now, I’m interested in lightness.

I’m offering the digital edition for $9, which is a bit steep for a novella, but I want the price to communicate the sense that this isn’t a normal transaction; it’s something richer.

I’ve set my goal at 1000 patrons, but the number of readers will be much larger. Here’s why: if we reach that goal, I’ll make the web edition of this Annabel Scheme adventure free for everyone to read.

I’ll also publish the web edition’s code as an open-source project on GitHub. It’s a lightweight, responsive container for an e-book on the web, and I feel like it might be useful to others… including, perhaps, some people reading this email?

Bit of a ransom note, isn’t this 😈

The newspaper serial started on June 7. Today, July 7, I’m initiating this crowdfunding campaign. It will run for just one week! If you join me and the campaign is successful, you’ll receive an email on July 15 with your digital edition in EPUB, Kindle, and PDF formats. (If it is not successful, I will of course refund your payment.)

Here… I’ll make the link huge and highly clickable:

Get your book!

As extra enticement, let me just add that this adventure contains my favorite science-fictional invention of the past ~five years: the kind that, when you dream it up, makes you feel almost panicky to get it down before some other writer does.


Reading by Lamplight

Reading by Lamplight, James McNeill Whistler, 1859

The author and publisher Anne Trubek’s newsletter Notes from a Small Press is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in books and publishing—and I mean like, really publishing: moving books through the world, making space for them literally and figuratively, balancing the sentences, polishing the P&L.

Anne has a book coming out soon that collects and extends the insight she’s shared with her newsletter subscribers. In a few weeks, the English-speaking world will have its essential publishing handbook; I can’t wait.

The other day I was listening to China Miéville talk about his book October, a narrative history of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and I could not get over this scene:

After February 1917, what you have is this explosion of letter-writing. This is a year characterized by floods and floods of letters, and they are the most moving document of the revolution you can imagine, because, as you say, you’re talking about villages and units at the front, and maybe one person in ten, or more, is actually literate, so these are communally-written letters, where one person is being dictated to by everyone, and they are writing to any name they’ve heard of—they find the name of a famous politician, and they will write to them, and they will say, we’ve heard of a party called the Bolsheviks, could you please send us any information? … Just desperate to get knowledge. Sending tiny sums of money to get hold of left literature.

I love these beautiful images of neighborhood owls from Society of the Double Dagger member Manu Schwendener. There are a few short, crystalline videos, too; hweep hweep hweep hweep!

The novelist Christopher Brown maintains a thoughtful newsletter that often chronicles his explorations of the wildland-urban interface in Texas. This edition involves a bloom of ladybugs so big it shows up on radar.

J. S. Ondara’s album written and recorded during quarantine, titled Folk n’ Roll Volume 1: Tales of Isolation, makes for uncanny listening, because it comments on things happening right now, using language only months old. Also: HIS VOICE

“a thirteenth century syrian machine for performing islamic geomancy “

Nichrome, “a display face referencing the typography of paperback science fiction from the 70s and early 80s.”

Here is a YouTube channel of faux recordings, lovingly VHS-weathered, from a fictional TV station in the Pacific Northwest. I love it, obviously.

Here is a comic by my fave Jillian Tamaki that is also a perfect short story.

I have a theory that all good short stories are, in some sense, about death. This isn’t true for good novels, which can be about lots of things. Have I written short stories about death? I’ve tried; here, here, here.

Once, I was commissioned to write a short story for a giant corporation. It was about a brilliant, high-tech city, and a very old woman who’d made a happy home there, and the last day of her life. I sent my first draft off to the corporation, and the notes came back: Great, love it. One thing, though… can she not die?

Corporations, deathless, have a hard time with this.


A Woman Reading

A Woman Reading, Camille Corot, 1870

There are books of the moment: wrestling with the present, trying to pin it down on the page.

There are classics of the ages: glowing with the approval of generations upon generations of readers.

And then there are books neither new nor old. The world has shifted beneath their feet, but not enough for them to have historical value. This tends to be a bleak shelf, the titles all like Obamatopia: The New Era of Totally Qualified and Hyper-Competent U.S. Presidents, Starting Right Now, in 2015, but there are treasures hiding there.

I found one: a dense volume called Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman. Written in 1999, it prefigures the power of the tech platforms—their particular flavor of power, I mean—twenty years ahead of time.

Here, in 1999, long before Facebook, a perfect sketch of its preferred position in the world:

The favourite strategic principles of the powers-that-be are nowadays escape, avoidance, and disengagement, and their ideal condition is invisibility.

Here, of course, is Instagram:

But it does mean that we are presently moving from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ into the epoch of ‘universal comparison’, in which the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably underdetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before such labours reach their only genuine end: that is, the end of the individual’s life.

And Twitter (with Bauman quoting Paul Valery):

Interruption, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of our life. They have even become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed … by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli … We can no longer bear anything that lasts. We no longer know how to make boredom bear fruit. So the whole question comes down to this: can the human mind master what the human mind has made?

I’m being a bit glib with these associations; Bauman is after bigger fish than tech platforms. This is a book about economics, politics, culture—everything. I’m midway through, highlighting basically every other paragraph. I read a fair amount of material like this, but/and, for me, Liquid Modernity stands apart: the kind of book that convinces you again that YES, you really CAN feel the little webs of electricity crackling across your brain as you turn the pages.

I think the whole 21st century might be coiled up inside this sentence:

We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority) …


A Nobleman Reading

A Nobleman Reading, artist unknown, ca. 1750–75

I’ll try my best to keep a list of books I mention in these newsletters over on Bookshop dot org; here’s a start.

I wrote for the newsletter Why Is This Interesting about an enviable real estate arrangement in Amsterdam. As you’ll see, my contribution was prompted by a previous edition of the same newsletter; reading it over coffee, I remembered an interesting place I’d visited, so I mashed out a summary and sent it back to the editors. It felt pleasantly old-fashioned; like ~correspondence~, you know?

Here is a paean to an 88-year-old Japanese man’s incredible collection of vintage Apple T-shirts. “MF IS A DAMN 88-YEAR-OLD DRIP PRIEST who’s been blessing our TL with heavy fits since we started following him last year.” I love everything about this. Humans!

Here’s an interview with Tawana Petty, director of the Data Justice Program at the Detroit Community Technology Project. This is interesting and important work.

Here’s Tom Armitage writing about the pleasure of rewatching Halt and Catch Fire. (“I blame Robin for the push.” Blame proudly accepted!)

Here’s Tom again dissecting the grammar of smooth, single-take camera shots in movies and video games. Both of these posts are just astonishingly good media criticism.

I don’t usually share things quite this mainstream, promoted by trillion-dollar corporations, but… I have to confess that I got a huge kick out of the teaser trailer for the TV series based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

It’s not too late to get in on the ground floor with Foundation, which is, I believe, one of the key documents of midcentury modernity, insisting on the ultimate calculability of the world. (Zygmunt Bauman, discussed above, would call this “solid modernity.”) It’s a good series to read critically: noticing its assumptions and omissions even as you enjoy its sweep (huge) and tone (dorky).

Alan Jacobs has a book coming out this fall called Breaking Bread with the Dead that offers useful guidance in this regard. I read an advance copy—you can find my enthusiastic blurb here—and one chapter in particular has echoed in my mind. Alan presents the work of Patrocinio Schweickart, who suggests that, when reading an old book that makes assumptions you find questionable and/or contemptible,

you should look for what she calls a “utopian moment”—a moment when something deeply and beautifully human emerges from that swamp of patriarchal ideology. Another phrase she uses for this is the “authentic kernel,” something perhaps hidden deep inside the book that speaks to you, that articulates an experience you can share. From this point on you read in a double fashion. You don’t silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly to that “utopian moment.”


Chinese Sage Reading While Riding on a Buffalo

Chinese Sage Reading While Riding on a Buffalo, Totoya Hokkei, ca. 1820

I’m very happy to be publishing Annabel Scheme and the Adventure of the New Golden Gate for an audience beyond the Bay Area. I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy, both for your own enjoyment and to unlock the story for all readers everywhere, whether they’re ladies reading by lamplight

or noblemen trapped in unfinished paintings

or sages on buffalos.

Reading, reading, reading… across the ages, people just keep reading.

From Oakland,

Robin


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