Robin Sloan
main newsletter
June 2024

The entrepreneur & the historian

A somewhat rough-hewn, abstract-ish scene, very colorful, showing a figure that might be a prince or a knight bent over on a horse, while a sickly green dragon leers in the background.
Klänge plate 5, 1913, Wassily Kandinsky

Trespassers! As I’m writing this, Moonbound is just one week away. It always feels like this: you wait, and wait, and wait … and suddenly it’s here. Already??

I’ve updated my book tour itinerary with exact times and event links.

Later in this edition, you’ll find my notes on Moonbound the audiobook. Before we get to that, I want to mention two events in partic­ular, because I’m very excited about my inter­locutors.

June 10, San Francisco: the entrepreneur

On Monday, June 10, at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco, I’ll be joined by Mike Krieger. Mike is the co-founder of Instagram who served as CTO for many years before decamping to start new ventures. He has very recently joined Anthropic, one of the three or four leading AI labs, as Chief Product Officer.

Mike is also, more germanely to our purposes here, a serious and voracious reader.

I met him years ago, when I myself played inter­locutor to the great Nick Harkaway at Bookshop West Portal. Mike was in the audience that night, and we chatted a bit. I’ve followed him around the internet ever since, and have noted well his consis­tent engage­ment with books, partic­ularly fiction, partic­u­larly science fiction.

I’m delighted that Mike agreed to join me for this launch. I can’t wait to hear his thoughts about Moonbound, and answer his questions, and perhaps pose a few of my own.

The path to Moonbound took me through many exper­i­ments with AI, initially with the hope that I might use those tools to actually write something. It didn’t work out that way — I could go on for hours about why — but/and what did make it into this novel was a real engage­ment with “the grain of the material”: the math under­pin­ning these AI language models; their logistics; their lineage.

That’s all to say, someone like Mike — canny reader, top-tier technologist — is the perfect partner for this conversation, about this book, in this place.

San Francisco! — which in Moonbound is described as: “the city the future reached back and made, because it was going to be needed.”

June 17, Brooklyn: the historian

On Monday, June 17, at Green­light Books in Brooklyn, I’ll be joined by Dan Bouk. Dan is one of my oldest and closest co-conspirators; with a clutch of friends at Michigan State, we founded a student literary magazine, and in the decades (!?) since, Dan and I have basically never stopped talking.

Dan is now a cele­brated historian who roams the intel­lec­tual byways lifting cloaks of boringness. He writes about the history of ideas, and of capitalism; he does so — not uniqely among historians, but, well … close to uniquely — with language that is elegant and playful. Reading Dan is, quite simply, FUN.

He’s also my MCD labelmate! Dan’s book about the 1940 U.S. Census was a surprise hit, with reviews that all took the same general form: It doesn’t seem like this subject should be inter­esting … like, AT ALL … but somehow Dan Bouk makes it awesome??

On top of all that, Dan is a lively and engaging public speaker — so we have here a recipe for a really special conversation. New Yorkers, please come out and join us!

An appendix grows

Recent additions to my Moonbound mini-site:

As a reminder, I don’t really intend for you to read all of this right away — although you should feel free to dig in! Rather, I’ve been delib­er­ately assem­bling this mini-site as a digital appendix to the book — one that I hope will serve Moonbound’s readers not just in June 2024, but for years to come.

Finding our voice

A much more abstract image than the one up top -- blobs of color that MIGHT be figures gathered in a way that MIGHT suggest a small concert. Then again it might be a seaside landscape. Very difficult to tell! The colors are luminous, gold and pink and blue.
Klänge plate 19, 1913, Wassily Kandinsky

Moonbound’s narrator doesn’t have a gender. This isn’t literary elision; the character isn’t human. On the page, this works great (IMHO!) but there are formats without pages. An audiobook — the fastest-growing format in book publishing, if you didn’t already know — requires a real human voice.

Elishia Merricks at Macmillan directed Moonbound the audiobook. At the outset, she posed the inter­esting question: what kind of voice did I imagine for this book?

Let me tell you how I came to an answer, and by extension a bit about modern audiobook production.

In literary terms, I never really disappear. I have put myself plainly into this narrator; that’s true of all my narrators, in all my books. They are characters, sure, but/and they are also just: me. And, I will confess … I saw myself as a contender for this audiobook gig, so there was perhaps some strategy in it, when I told Elishia I imagined Moonbound’s voice to be masculine.

Together, we selected a couple of passages for auditions. One was packed with different characters, to test a performer’s ability to keep them distinct. Another thrummed with emotion, to test their range.

I recorded one of these auditions myself; the others, Elishia gathered from her network.

A few days later, presented with a bundle of auditions, two things were apparent:

  1. Mine was the worst! Listen: I’m a fine reader … but the power and clarity of the profes­sionals was on another level. Another planet.

  2. These voices … did not quite … sound right.

That second reaction sent me scurrying back to a few early readers, who I asked: “Hey, uh, when you read Moonbound, how did you hear the narrator’s voice in your head?” From several of them, a firm answer came: oh, it was a woman.

(Kathryn invoked the name of Shohreh Aghdashloo, to which — I mean — swoon.)

Elishia went back to her network and returned with fresh voices, fresh auditions. All of them were terrific — seriously, there are some wonderful performers out there — but/and one in partic­ular knocked our socks off. Gabra Zackman was instantly and unques­tion­ably our voice.

Here’s a clip of Moonbound the audiobook, the opening lines of the first chapter:

The entire audiobook process was a blast. Using a hilar­i­ously special­ized web app, I attached pronun­ci­a­tions to my roster of weird names. (This expe­ri­ence became part of the moti­va­tion for my own pronun­ci­a­tion guide.) We audi­tioned music and chose some cool, moody cues for the book’s five parts. There’s a song in the text — set in italics, Tolkien-style, both homage and, I’ll be honest, light satire — for which I recorded a meandering melody.

The final production, with Gabra Zackman’s perfor­mance directed by Elishia Merricks and edited by Chris Howerton, is canonical peer to the print edition. This Moonbound lacks a map; instead, it has music. In Moonbound the audiobook, you don’t get to see the wizard-ish glyphs; instead, you get to hear Gabra’s virtuosic voicing.

I’ve been imagining an alternate timeline in which, after hearing those first auditions, we didn’t take a step back; in which we ended up with a masculine voice, rich and resonant and, well, a bit boring. It would have been fine. Really! But this audiobook is so far beyond fine … it’s truly special, and I feel lucky that we arrived here together.

(A word to the wise: if you, like me, tend to rely on your public library for audiobooks, remember that can you go searching for Moonbound right now in the Libby app — for the audiobook, the e-book, or both — and make your interest known by selecting the notify me tag. Those tags, in sufficient quantity, can encourage librarians to acquire the book. We love that!)


Okay we are back to a sort of figurative image here! Rough-hewn figures, as if cut from pieces of construction paper, stand calmly in the foreground. The prince or knight on his horse is present, too, rearing up in the foreground. Gold and red dominate here, though there's still some blue around the edges.
Klänge plate 7, 1913, Wassily Kandinsky

Isn’t “interlocutor” a great word? Right up there with “amanuensis”. I don’t think it gets much use outside of book tours, these days. I’m a frequent inter­locutor for authors visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, and I always relish the assignment, but/and, it’s great to once again be the one interlocuted.

From the city the future reached back and made, because it was going to be needed,

Robin

P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter just as Moonbound hits the shelves!

June 2024