Robin Sloan
main newsletter
October 2023

The conservation of
angular momentum

At this point in a book’s publication, the pieces come together and the pace accelerates — like a figure skater pulling their arms close to spin faster.

Nothing I like better than a gnomic screenshot. Here are a few, captured in recent days, of works-in-progress and work discarded (and I won’t tell you which is which).

Behold, the view from the cockpit: not only text, but also letterforms, elevations, astrometrics … total multi­media overreach. This is exactly the kind of work I have always wanted to be doing.

For the novel arriving in June 2024, I am racing to finish a map … 

A screenshot of a little slice of undulating terrain, monochrome, lit up from the side. The hills are dotted with tiny trees.
Finally got around to learning a bit of R

 … and a language … 

A screenshot of some odd-looking characters, drawn on graph paper with a square-tipped pen.
Thank you, Mark Rosenfelder

 … and a sky … 

A screenshot of a Google Colab notebook, with Python code showing calculation for the dates of lunar eclipses in the year 13777-13779.
Google Colab is a miracle

 … and a manuscript:

A screenshot of the margin of a Microsoft Word document, showing large sections of the text that have been deleted.
Changes are being TRACKED

RIP, contango.

Meanwhile, FSG’s art department — objectively the best in the business — is cooking up a cover. What a dream.

This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.

A new haunt

A photo of the new edition of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, its cover deep purple, with silver lettering catching the light.
Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India

Here is the beautiful new edition of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India! The interior is unchanged from the edition I have previ­ously recommended, but the binding is new (and gorgeous) and, most importantly, the logistics have been simplified. Thanks to Watkins Publishing, readers in the U.S. and U.K. can obtain a copy without shipping it halfway around the world.

And look at this great blurb 😉

A photo of the new edition of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, its cover deep purple, with silver lettering catching the light. This photo shows a close-up of a blurb written by me.
Well, I'm sold

If you missed my breath­less rec the first time around, you can find it here. Take a peek at the excerpts in that newsletter, and I think you’ll quickly under­stand this book’s powerful appeal.

Nearly perfect non-fiction

Another book with a new edition is Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, by W. David Marx, which remains one of my favorite non-fiction books of the past … decade? Longer?? I think it’s nearly perfect.

You might have to be a little bit inter­ested in fashion to find your way into this one … but, I don’t know! It’s also about media, in a very deep way — lots of magazines, gonzo photog­raphy expeditions — and commerce, too. Through the super specific lens of men’s fashion, the book drama­tizes the ping-ponging process of global cultural production, a process that touches everything: not only clothes, but movies, music, video games … FOOD, of course … manufacturing … I mean, really. Everything.

Here is Ametora’s place on my shelf:

A stack of books on my shelf, all of which appear to be about fashion. One of them, its title printed black on a white spine, is Ametora.
In good company

Sitting side by side

Here is a beautiful exchange recounted by Mark Slutsky, who, for many years, main­tained Sad YouTube, a monument to the moving, melan­choly comments on music videos.

Recently, Mark received a message out of the blue, asking if he had any details about a partic­ular comment he’d published. The story of what happened next is wonderful, and it will remind you how little it takes to refor­mu­late a person’s theory of themself.

Why are YouTube comments such rich terrain? Here’s my theory. Watching a YouTube video, perhaps reading the comments at the same time, the feeling is “sitting side by side, facing the same direction”—as in a theater, or, better yet, a moving car.

Contrast that with the feeling of “facing each other straight-on”: the death stare of social media.

YouTube’s users aren’t stuck looking at each other; rather, they look at this other thing (perhaps a scratchy dub of a music video that played on MTV in 1987) together. Perhaps that arrange­ment suggests different, and generally better, ways of speaking online.

Here, Mark Slutsky — HIM AGAIN? — gives a name to a feeling I know very well. I suspect you do, too:

I’ve written about good-handedness before, the immediate feeling on reading the first lines of a book, or starting a movie, etc, that you are in good hands.

I’d say good-handedness is among the top 2-3 big things I try to achieve in my fiction (and I’m sure I neglect 2-3 others in its pursuit). As a reader, I have become more sensitive to its lack; in the last year, there are many novels I’ve put down because their opening pages simply were not good-handed.

In my previous newsletter, I asked for links to great examples of the “writer’s website” genre. Here are some of the nomi­na­tions I received:

That’s a great list, but/and a short one. There ought to be more!

My own nomi­na­tion is

whose recent redesign presents a great mix of stock and flow, with clarity and verve and a subtle retro spirit.

Also: I truly cannot imagine how or where Robin got the idea to design his Blogroll (Blogroll!) like that, but/and it’s the best box I have encoun­tered on the World Wide Web in a long time. (And, it reminds me how much I miss the :hover state on mobile browsers. I’m surprised Apple hasn’t figured out some elec­tro­static workaround by now … wouldn’t it be lovely to hover a finger over the phone screen to sort of “peek” at something?)

Erin McKean:

Greenlandic mythology is not for the squeamish. “The qivittoq (the mountain wanderer) is a person who has left their village or settle­ment in shame and wandered into the mountains. For a qivittoq to gain magical powers, the person has to freeze to death over the course of five days.”

Here is an amazing name for a bureau­cratic divison: the Celestial Reference Frame Department.

Their work is amazing, too: nothing less than the recon­cil­i­a­tion of time and space in a system that works everywhere, all the time.

Using black holes.

HEY, let’s all watch Susan Cooper online at the British Museum on October 27!

She is, of course, the author of The Dark Is Rising — one of the three or four books laid most deeply at the foun­da­tion of my aesthetic universe.

Another home-cooked meal

A note on notes.

I take a lot of notes; the practice is central to my work in a few different domains. These notes flow through different channels, supported by different tools. I won’t detail my note-taking process for fiction (maybe another time) but here’s a glimpse of how I assemble these newsletters.

As you know, I believe an app can be a home-cooked meal: exactly that rustic, exactly that personal. A couple years ago, I made a newsletter note-taking app for myself that consists of just two parts:

  1. A web page with a text field and a save button. When I’m at my laptop, I access this page with a browser bookmark; when I’m on my phone, I use a home screen shortcut, and I almost always dictate rather than type.

  2. A simple web app, which I run locally. It displays all my notes and allows me to search through them. It looks like this:

A screenshot of a very simple web app, showing a column of notes alongside an embedded Google Map, indicating where each note was captured.
My note-taking app

Notice the panel on the left. When I select a note, the app shows me where on Earth I captured it. Mostly it’s the same 2-3 places … but not always. Sometimes, if you click several notes in a row, you retrace the path of a long drive across California; and if you inspect the time stamps, you get the sense of the driver lifting his phone every ten minutes to dictate another thought.

The app allows me to review my notes, and mark them as “used”—which is to say, included in a newsletter — and finally delete them, though I don’t do that often. I like having a weird archive.

Here’s the note that I captured when I had the idea to document this workflow. The dictation is always pretty rough, but I enjoy the wonkiness.

A screenshot of a very simple web app, showing a column of notes alongside an embedded Google Map, indicating where each note was captured. This screenshot shows a note describing the section above in rough terms.
A note about notes

Here are the fiddly details for anyone who’s curious:

Here is Running Up That Hill, the Kate Bush classic, performed in Middle English. At the risk of being an absolutely titanic dork: I think this is SO COOL, trans­la­tion and performance alike.

I love hearing Middle English — the “foreign” language lurking inside our own.

Here is Matt Webb writing about all the ways, over time, that humans have sought to keep imposter spirits away.

The physical world was ghostly once; or seemed so; and then a sequence of powerful global processes (e.g. the Indus­trial Revolution) disen­chanted it. Maybe. You can read books about this.

Either way, I’d argue the internet remains ghostly. Perhaps this is where enchant­ment found refuge, and built a new (scary) kingdom.

Perhaps (I’m really freestyling here) the internet is still, on its own terms, pre-modern. Its disenchant­ment is yet to come, and when that occurs, the ghosts will flee.

In the meantime!

Here is a painting by Remedios Varo, who lived through a wild swath of the 20th century:

A beautiful and strange painting, showing a table set with a single candle, its contents spinning wildly and floating up into the air.
Naturaleza Muerta Resucitando, 1963, Remedios Varo

What an image! I’ll confess: Instagram’s algorithm delivered this painting to me. A selection good enough to balance many sins.


The writer and singer Lorde abjures social media; instead, she sends an email newsletter, though that term does it a disservice. When a message arrives, it feels like (and this requires real precision and control) you have just received a long rambly email from a (very smart, hugely successful) friend.

Lorde’s messages do not belong to the internet of Twitter or Instagram; they don’t belong to the internet of Substack, either. You can’t link to them! So they aren’t even part of the World Wide Web — not really. They consti­tute their own special thing.

They are sovereign!

No pun intended — it’s a word I keep coming back to, thinking about computers in the 21st century — but, yes, it’s perfect that Lorde is the one showing us what digital sover­eignty can look and feel like.

Perhaps it’s frus­trating to hear about this purport­edly inter­esting commu­ni­ca­tion without being able to see it — but that’s the essence of the thing. If you’re curious, go use the stark signup form. The messages you’ll receive (unpredictably) (eventually) have the vibe of printed zines, or John Darnielle’s tapes in the mail.

Context is key: the stark signup, the singular design. The same text and pictures exactly, delivered in a generic Substack-ish wrapper, would be stripped of their magic.


Of course: you might have to be Lorde to make this work. You would certainly benefit from a pre-existing legion of sensitive, curious fans. It does not seem to be a replic­able model … UNTIL you realize the model isn’t this specific approach. The model is having a specific approach, tuned to a particular person, a partic­ular group of fans, or readers, or whatever.

The one thing a platform, by definition, cannot provide.

Anyway! I had this in my notes because I wanted to share a line from a recent message.

Lorde’s newsletter is so pointedly sequestered that it feels weird to quote it, and I wouldn’t do so at length, but I think I can reproduce a few sentences:

I go online and look at everyone. Beautiful people sing to me. Everyone’s gotten really good at the same thing. I look at arched backs and wet flower mouths, the right bag, the right sunglasses. I wonder if it feels as good as it looks, it’s been so long since I chose the best picture from a hundred, lined it up like pulling an arrow taut in a bow, and let it go.

“Everyone’s gotten really good at the same thing”: as sharp as a song lyric (no surprise) and as good a scalpel for this moment, the meat of the 2020s, as you’ll find.

“Everyone’s gotten really good at the same thing”: which means it’s time to get good at something else.

No public domain art in this edition, because it was so stuffed with other imagery.

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around October 28.

October 2023