Robin Sloan
main newsletter
April 2021

Cold start

A vividly colored drawing of a pineapple flower with cockroaches crawing along the leaves.
Pineapple with Cockroaches, 1702-03, Maria Sibylla Merian

This spring, a humming­bird reared two chicks in a tiny nest nearly within arm’s reach of my front steps. The view was obscured by a spray of branches, but, find the right angle, and you could see straight into the cup of the nest: where two birds began their lives as pea-sized eggs and ballooned into scrawny young creatures who even­tu­ally hovered out into the world.

Neither my phone’s camera nor my DSLR could capture the nest or the birds it contained. With my eyes, I’d spot the little babies, the dark needles of their beaks; then I’d raise a device, and they would disappear into a murky tangle.

I went out to spy on them every day, giggling with delight like a total creepazoid, and it made me realize, again, the degree to which the human eye is NOT a camera. Our view of the world is so deeply and carefully filtered; not just in terms of color and light, but somehow also attention and life.

I was frus­trated that I couldn’t capture and share what I was seeing, but over the month or so of the nesting/hatching/growing process, that became part of the appeal. And no, I’m not going to do that thing where I now lovingly describe the humming­birds, ~conjure them~ with language; that’s not my point.

My point is: a humming­bird reared two chicks in a tiny nest nearly within arm’s reach of my front steps. It was great.

It’s been a season of intense writing over here; wake, write, get a sandwich, write, make dinner, read a little, maybe watch an episode of Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma (I love a title with an excla­ma­tion mark and a colon), sleep. That is, unfortunately, all I’m going to say; I’ve long since learned my lesson about hyping a project before I have a manu­script in hand. But I do want to tell you that this new book is far along: still in the nest, yes, but it has long outgrown its pea-sized egg.

Must be a scrawny young creature.

A couple of summers ago, my friend Jesse Solomon Clark appeared at the lab with a vintage portable organ and said, “Let’s make this into something.”

More recently, Jesse reviewed the video he captured while we worked and edited it into a brisk recap of the project.

Jesse provided the portable organ, the music theory, and a large dollop of elbow grease. I provided addi­tional grease, as well as B+ program­ming skills and C- elec­tronics skills. I’m happy to report that this became one of those “level up” expe­ri­ences: the project’s scope so far beyond our capa­bil­i­ties (oops) that we had no choice but to expand them.

It’s a really lovely video, just a minute and a half long; take a look at Alouette.

Over at Fat Gold, we’re running a little flash sale, offering up what remains of the Cali­fornia extra virgin olive oil we sent to subscribers in March. It’s an opportunity to “sample” a subscrip­tion and see what the expe­ri­ence is like, zine and all. It is also, more straightforwardly, an oppor­tu­nity to get some good olive oil!

Also, this shipment’s magnet is a stunner; Spring (The Procession — A Chromatic Sensation) by Joseph Stella, painted 1914-1916.

Fat Gold flash sale
Fat Gold flash sale

The way things work around here is, I bookmark all the beautiful public domain art I find … and then I either send it with this newsletter, or put it on a magnet 😝

There’s a newsletter I enjoy called Why is this inter­esting?; it feels like the curated corre­spon­dence of a wide circle of friends, with editors Noah and Colin at the hub. The newsletter’s tastes run towards the cosmopolitan and infrastructural; WITI is the friend with cool luggage who wants to talk about undersea internet cables.

I have contributed two editions myself. Both started as replies to editions I’d received … and both got out of hand. Very conver­sa­tional, very fun.

Here’s my Breeding Ground Edition, about some uncon­ven­tional (almost utopian) urban planning in Amsterdam.

Here’s my Urban Manu­fac­turing Edition, about some uncon­ven­tional (almost utopian) urban planning right here in my neigh­bor­hood 😎

This album by the Norwegian saxo­phonist Håkon Kornstad has been on loop in my household for the past few weeks. I think Kathryn might be nearing her breaking point, but not me. I could listen to it for another whole season. I’d better find my headphones … 

Its discovery was charmed: once, on our way to Amsterdam (where I learned the things I wrote about in that WITI, linked above) Kathryn and I stopped over in Oslo, and on our first night there, lying totally awake, willing ourselves to sleep, the sun still shining outside our hotel room, we listened to the radio — good old fashioned terres­trial radio — and heard the first song on this album. This was a few years ago; I’ve had it saved since then, and listened to it many times, but it wasn’t until recently that I “discovered” the album; the wholeness of it, the vitality.

All in all, a fun way to encounter a work of art.

The album is available on Spotify and every­where else; if you, like me, marvel at tracks 6 and 7 in partic­ular, the way the operatic voice mixes with the looping saxophone: be sure to watch this video afterward.

One of the great honors of publishing novels has been the chance to partic­i­pate in community reading events around the United States. You know the format:


where X can be a city, a campus, a county, or, in very special cases, a whole state. (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was once the selection for Reading Across Rhode Island.)

About a month ago, I joined the proceed­ings of All Henrico Reads, organized by the Henrico County Public Library in Virginia. My appear­ances were remote, of course; but it turns out, even distance can’t diminish the warmth of an event like this. My inter­locutor for the big evening conver­sa­tion was an HCPL librarian, Lindsey Hutchison, and her questions were percep­tive and generative. The questions that followed from the library community were just as good.

It happens every time; like a great gust of wind, you see it before you feel it, a ripple in the grass, and then, WHOOSH, it hits you: these people really read the book. They really thought about it.

It’s worth acknowl­edging and cele­brating the quality of attention these events drum up for the books they select; there is almost nothing else like it, in any medium. Certainly, in no other circumstance, whatever the nominal size of the audience, has my writing received remotely the same level of … “attention” doesn’t even capture it. Engagement? Care? The internet is so good for so many things, but in this regard, it just cannot compete. Falls flat on its face.

By way of small advertisement: I love doing events like these. Both Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore are appro­priate for readers of all ages, or nearly all, and both suggest plenty of inter­esting discus­sions and ~program­ming~.

I mean … if they’re good enough for Rhode Island!

A beautifully detailed and vibrantly colored drawing showing multiple stages of a moth's life.
Convolvulus and Metamorphosis of the Convolvulus Hawk Moth, 1670-83, Maria Sibylla Merian

I read Hank Green’s novel An Absolutely Remark­able Thing and I loved it.

It’s the kind of novel that made me excited about novels in my early 20s, when I was first wondering if it would be possible for me to write one myself. (I didn’t actually do it for a long time after that, but that’s when I started to wonder.) And what I mean by that is: it’s a novel about NOW, the frothing future-present captured in a totally accurate way.

The books that were most important for me at that time were William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy, and while William Gibson and Hank Green are very different writers, their central objec­tives seem, to me, very similar: they are out to map the unevenly distrib­uted future, the human expe­ri­ence of it, and like, share it back: “This is where some of us are today. This is where you’re headed. Get ready.”

Hank Green’s map reveals the abstract space of social media, the weird contours of that partic­ular flavor of fame. He’s clearly writing from expe­ri­ence; his char­ac­ters describe the ebb and flow of attention with texture and specificity. This is not Old Novelist Yells at Cloud. But/and, alongside his rendering of “this is where some of us are today”, Hank conjures a new, or ultimate, form of social media; an almost utopian vision. It’s very sci-fi and totally provocative.

It was also a super best seller, so it’s not like it needs more recognition … but I think this is the kind of novel that gets a bit underrated, critically. And I think that’s because there aren’t enough people in the critical estab­lish­ment with the expe­ri­ence to appre­ciate its verisimil­i­tude, its depth; and also because of the biases around what “counts as” literary fiction, even now, in 2021.

A theory of fiction on the web: it must play at being something else. Simply posting a blob of text and dutifully labeling it “fiction” falls flat; the medium works against it, often fatally.

I thought of this reading a recent edition of Mark Slutsky’s newsletter, about the Institute for the Study of 3:32pm, April 10, 1954, which I will not label “fiction”.

Not unrelated, here’s a paragraph from Franco Moretti:

And yet the novel has also been widely regarded as a form that tried, for at least two centuries, to hide its fictionality behind verisimil­i­tude or realism, insisting on certain kinds of refer­en­tiality and even making extensive truth claims. If a genre can be thought of as having an attitude, the novel has seemed ambiva­lent toward its fictionality — at once inventing it as an onto­log­ical ground and placing severe constraints upon it. Novelists appar­ently liberated fiction­ality, for eighteenth-century prac­ti­tioners abandoned earlier writers’ serious attempts to convince readers that their invented tales were literally true or were at least about actual people.

Here is a moving piece by Nick Cornwell, who you know by another name, about the rela­tion­ship between his parents Jane and David Cornwell … who you know by another name.

The Over­fitted Brain: Dreams evolved to assist generalization, a 2020 paper from Erik Hoel at Tufts:

That is, dreams are a biolog­ical mechanism for increasing gener­al­iz­ability via the creation of corrupted sensory inputs from stochastic activity across the hierarchy of neural structures. Sleep loss, specif­i­cally dream loss, leads to an over­fitted brain that can still memorize and learn but fails to generalize appro­priately.

I am always, always here for fresh hypotheses of dreaming!!

(And I’ll take the opportunity to remind you, again, of my closely-held belief that a novel is literally a packaged dream.)

There are a couple of writers who send newslet­ters that I think of as “ideal” and whenever I receive them, I think “ugh … why can’t mine just be like that?”

(Because it can’t. Sorry.)

One is Louise Penny, whose newslet­ters come on a clockwork schedule, just like her books.

The other is Ed Brubaker, a terrific writer of comics and more. In a recent edition, he wrote about how it feels to have laid some of the groundwork, in comics, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

And of course, today the FALCON AND WINTER SOLDIER show debuts on Disney+, which I sadly have very mixed feelings about. I’m really happy for Sebastian Stan, who I think is both a great guy and the perfect Bucky/Winter Soldier, and I’m glad to see him getting more screen time finally. Also, Anthony Mackie is amazing as the Falcon, and everyone at Marvel Studios that I’ve ever met (all the way up to Kevin Feige) have been nothing but kind to me … but at the same time, for the most part all Steve Epting and I have gotten for creating the Winter Soldier and his storyline is a “thanks” here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with. [ … ]

So yeah, mixed feeling, and maybe it’ll always be like that (but I sure hope not). Work-for-hire work is what it is, and I’m honestly thrilled to have co-created something that’s become such a big part of pop culture — or even pop subcul­ture with all the Bucky-Steve slash fiction — and that run on Cap was one of the happiest times of my career, certainly while doing superhero comics. Also, I have a great life as a writer and much of it is because of Cap and the Winter Soldier bringing so many readers to my other work. But I also can’t deny feeling a bit sick to my stomach sometimes when my inbox fills up with people wanting comments on the show.

Andrew Liptak, whose newsletter on the culture and industry of science fiction I’m finding indispensable, published a piece about sci-fi’s roots in the western, and the way that influence has distorted the genre’s view of space explo­ration. I thought this was so sharp:

But while the imagery of the American western provides useful inspi­ra­tion for writers and space advocates, it’s an analogy that doesn’t hold up when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of inter­plan­e­tary exploration. There are other histor­ical periods and activ­i­ties to draw from, like the explo­ration of Antarctica, that would be better suited for grounding one’s narratives.

How about “power plant cold start videos” as a genre?

It’s really worth making time for this nerdy, humane narration of a small-ish hydropower plant’s startup process, which unfolds through rigid engi­neering but/and also requires a deeply intuitive touch; “surfing a power plant on a river”, our guide tells us. Amazing.

This plant in Finland is uhhh somewhat larger, but the principle is exactly the same. Wait for it … waiiit for it … 

That second link is via The Prepared, which I feel compelled to recommend, strongly, again. It is probably my single favorite newsletter. For me, it’s come to represent a curious, critical engage­ment with the real physical world, at nearly every scale, from hobbyist elec­tronics projects to (as above) 300-megawatt power plants.

I feel like the newsletter already “sells itself” to the makers of the world, profes­sional and amateur alike … but honestly, everyone ought to read it, because it’s just so consis­tently eyebrow-raising and smile-producing.

Samuel Johnson, updated: “Sir, when a reader is tired of The Prepared, they are tired of life.”

Lately I’ve under­stood the word “ambivalent” in a different way. I think its popular defi­n­i­tion shifted at some point toward “I don’t have an opinion” or “it really doesn’t matter to me”; a kind of cool, low-energy state. But that’s not what the word means at all. To feel ambiva­lent is to have many thoughts at once, some of them contradictory; to hold them, unresolved, in your head.

I find this useful because I feel ambiva­lent about a lot of things!

Iris Murdoch, by way of Alan Jacobs:

The achieve­ment of coherence is itself ambiguous. Coherence is not neces­sarily good, and one must question its cost. Better sometimes to remain confused.

Just as I was getting ready to send this, a newsletter came in, bearing a line too delicious not to share. Here’s Mandy Brown with a short assess­ment of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, chan­neling the great one:

I also read Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, having evidently completely forgotten how strongly I disliked his last book, The Buried Giant. After finishing it, I recalled that Le Guin had politely murdered him, not only for the hackneyed writing but also his choice to use fantasy tropes while evidently harboring a supreme dislike for fantasy. (“It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”) I suppose Klara isn’t as bad as it could have been, given that it was written by a dead man. But I can’t recommend it.

Earlier this spring, in an online event for Point Reyes Books, I inter­viewed Kim Stanley Robinson about his novel Ministry for the Future. Just a few minutes before we were set to begin, there was a surge of new arrivals; a bit of a surprise, honestly. Where had they come from?

In the chat, they happily explained: they’d just been watching a different online event, organized by Powell’s, featuring Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert; near its conclusion, both writers had expressed their admi­ra­tion for KSR, and, oh, isn’t he doing an event right after this? Yes, he’s being inter­viewed by some dweeb from the Bay Area … 

So, a not-insignificant fraction of their view­er­ship just … hopped over! They came in hot, a bit raucous; it had the spirit of a bar crawl; wonderful.

This past year trans­formed book events, obviously, and I don’t think they’ll simply snap back to the way they were before. I mean — a lit crawl across hundreds of miles, a swarm of readers flowing from one virtual room to another! That’s too cool to abandon entirely, right?

A beautifully detailed and vibrantly colored drawing showing multiple stages of a moth's life.
Common or Spectacled Caiman with South American False Coral Snake, 1705-10, Maria Sibylla Merian

Can you believe these illustrations?? They are the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, who lived and worked at the turn of the 17th century. You can see a collec­tion here.

The hummingbird chicks have taken flight, but I don’t think they’ve gone too far, at least not yet. There seem to be more humming­birds around the house; sometimes three or four at once, which is, yes, about two more than usual. The little nest is empty. Do humming­birds reuse them? I guess I’ll find out. For now, I still spy it between the branches sometimes, a little gray-green capsule, no bigger than a golf ball. An XL walnut.

They build them out of, among other things, spider webs.

From Oakland,


April 2021