Robin Sloan
main newsletter
April 2024

You could
a star

A tall white egret standing against a rainy black sky, staring with one eye.
Egret in the rain, 1925-1936, Ohara Koson

As a reader, I’m skeptical of attempts to pin sensory experience to the page. The “better” the descrip­tive language, it seems to me, the more it actually obscures the expe­ri­ence. That’s obviously true when the language is flowery, but I believe it’s also true when the language is ultra-precise — so “perceptive” as to be show-offy. Notice me, noticing this.

There’s a balance, of course, between (1) the literary backflip and (2) the cliché so dull it makes you doubt the writer expe­ri­enced anything at all. Writers seek that balance — I seek it, sometimes — and they miss it, and that’s okay; that’s the game.

This is all to say: the expe­ri­ence of a total solar eclipse is unsayable, impos­sible to capture. It blazes across every sensory channel. There’s sight and hearing, sure, but also time and temperature. Is boredom a sense? Anticipation? There’s cosmic proprioception: the powerful awareness of your position in space.

I mean, the shim­mering photos are gorgeous … but, having now expe­ri­enced the real thing, I understand that they do not depict a total eclipse. Not at all.

The total eclipse (I have learned) is not “an image in the sky” but “a process in the world”. That’s a cool and precious thing, here and now in the 21st century. In its shocking recal­i­bra­tion of scale, in its mega­band­width satu­ra­tion of the senses, “see eclipse” might be the ultimate expres­sion of “touch grass”.

After totality, my nephew, age 10, said it best: “I feel bad for the gamers.”

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.

As usual, this newsletter has a few distinct parts. Here’s what’s ahead:

Moonbound update

An advance copy of Moonbound, looking very nice on my shelf with its vivid cover.
Moonbound advance copy, aspirational shelving

It is time to preorder my new novel Moonbound, if you haven’t already! This is an adventure that cross-fades fantasy with science fiction, comfy myth with dizzy spec­u­la­tion. Its narrator repre­sents a maturation, or fruition, of the voice I’ve used in my previous novels — related, of course, to this voice right here — and it plays some POV tricks that I believe are genuinely new in fiction.

You can preorder Moonbound anywhere books are sold, and you can do it in any format, print or digital or audio. After you do, forward your confir­ma­tion email to and, in May, I’ll mail you a copy of a limited-edition zine full of world­building clues. Yes, in the real physical mail!

I’ll only print this zine once. Save it and sell it on eBay in 2029.


I’ve added a new note to my Moonbound mini-site; this time, it’s about the great one herself, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve long admired one of her tricks in partic­ular — oh, it’s a good trick — and now I’ve stolen it for myself.

Note that, regarding the balance I mentioned above — the use of descrip­tive language with high precision but/and zero distraction — Ursula K. Le Guin made it look easy.

Take a look and appre­ciate her along with me.

For a long time, I’ve culti­vated a personal theory of naming. It goes like this:

When you name something, you label the thing; frame it. This is an important job, before anyone has actually encoun­tered that thing! But, very quickly, the flow of meaning reverses. The thing’s specific char­ac­ter­is­tics and its performance — its great success, we hope — fill the vessel of its name, which was pretty empty all along. Instead of the name defining the thing, the thing (re)defines the name. This happens with companies, with works of art, with people themselves.

So, when naming something, while it’s important to choose an appealing label, it’s probably more important to choose a vessel of sufficient capacity.

This is why the names Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which are objec­tively stupid, have been so successful: their very blandness leaves them capacious.

That’s important to understand! Names can be totally stupid. Apple? YouTube? Spider-Man? SPIDER-MAN?? Those labels glow with meaning and power, and it’s not because of the words.

Any name can work, as long as it doesn’t get in the way.

In retrospect, I believe the title I chose for my second novel, Sourdough, did get in the way. I believe it actually hurt the book! The wound was not fatal — Sourdough continues to rise, finding new readers every day — but, even now, the label provides not an entice­ment or even a blank invi­ta­tion but a flash of warning. (This will sound simplistic, but, honestly, it is not great for a novel’s title to promise a “sour” expe­ri­ence … )

I had all of this in mind when I was naming this new project.

I’d collected several candidates, and I liked them all, but only as the titles of stand­alone novels. They didn’t stretch or scale; they had no metonymic potential, a la Three-Body Problem (which is not actually the name of the series, except, it totally is) or Game of Thrones (ditto). That limi­ta­tion sent me hunting, and my hunt delivered me to Moonbound, which I think is terrific.

At the same time, I feel totally insulated: because if it’s actually stupid, that’s fine. In fact, stupid might be better, because that means it’s an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with every­thing that bursts out of this book, and the books to come.

Star Wars! YouTube! MOONBOUND!

The parable of Cable

I’ve read superhero comics for most of my life, but never with the intensity of my early teens. This was during the great comic book spec­u­la­tion bubble of the 1990s; I remember purchasing several copies of the issue depicting Superman’s death, absolutely sure that I was securing my college education.

I mean: ABSOLUTELY sure.

There’s a story from the comics of that era that never left me. In my personal cosmology, it’s become almost a parable, so I thought I’d share it with you.

Here’s my version, as neatly as I can tell it. I am going to elide many details, mostly clone-related, but they don’t change the essential shape or feeling.

To begin: two of the X-Men get married!

A vintage comic book panel depicting the wedding of two X-Men.
Uncanny X-Men #175, 1983

Beloved char­ac­ters rooted in the mutant team’s first appearance, way back in 1963. A happy occasion; a storyline maturing. Soon, they have a son.

A vintage comic book panel depicting a group of X-Men all cooing over an infant.
Uncanny X-Men #201, 1986

Their child is a mutant, too, and there are hints that his powers will mirror his mother’s: telepathy and telekinesis.

A twist!

The child is captured by one of the X-Men’s greatest foes, who infects him with a techno-organic virus that begins to transform his living cells. Soon, it will turn him into a sort of techno-zombie; think of the Borg, from Star Trek.

A vintage comic book panel depicting a baby infected with the techno-organic virus, circuitry creeping across his skin.
X-Factor #68, 1991

His parents launch a desperate rescue mission. Success! Their foe is defeated. Their son, however, is still infected, and no one, not even the X-Men, has a cure for the techno-organic virus.


A friendly emissary from the distant future indicates that, in her time, the child can be saved. She offers to take him, but it will be a one-way trip. His parents will never see their child again.

They send their son to his salvation … 

A vintage comic book panel depicting a baby in a bubble in golden light, preparing to be sent to the distant future.
X-Factor #68, 1991

 … which is not technological — some exotic antidote — but mental. In the future, the child is trained to apply his mutant powers to his own body, using telekinesis to hold the techno-organic virus in check.

For a less gifted mutant, this wouldn’t be an option. But this child’s powers, it turns out, are off the charts. In the future, an ally assesses his innate potential:

Telepathically, you are strong enough to sense a stray thought a continent away. Telekinetically, you could extin­guish a star with something less than a conscious effort.

But he won’t do any of that, because every iota of those powers, every scrap of that gift, will be consumed by the task before him. The ally explains that living with the virus “will mean sacri­ficing your other abilities”—the ones we just heard about — “[and] literally fighting on a cellular level every day of your life, making sure you live to see the next dawn.”

A vintage comic book panel depicting a young man, half his body made of metal and circuitry.
The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix #4, 1994

This partic­ular comic was published in 1994, so I was 14 — a good age, I think, to get hit with this kind of story. This kind of analogy.

The boy grows up, and although his mutant powers are fully occupied, his normal body and brain are free to develop. He becomes a soldier, crafty and formidable — a sort of futur­istic Odysseus. His codename is Cable.

Eventually, of course (OF COURSE), Cable travels back in time, not just once but over and over again. It’s a whole thing. When he meets his parents, they are still grieving the loss of their young son. The son, meanwhile, has gray hair, glit­tering cyborg prostheses.

There’s lots more to it — decades of narrative embroidery; a surfeit of clones — but this is the core: “You could extin­guish a star,” but you never will, because that power is occupied by the task of living.

A vintage comic book panel depicting grown-up Cable, laid out on a bed, the techno-organic part of his body rampaging out of control.
Cable #36, 1996

The thing I appre­ciate about this story — this parable — is that it cuts a million different ways.

Isn’t poverty the techno-organic virus, and aren’t millions of people on this planet the mutant marvels, all their incan­des­cent capa­bility occupied by the stress of surviving day to day?

Isn’t your crappy diet the techno-organic virus, and your human body the mutant marvel, all its incred­ible metabolic powers bent to the task of keeping you alive, without being fed a single vegetable?

Isn’t the post-1970s politics of the U.S. the techno-organic virus, and this country’s deep creativity the mutant marvel, all our world-historic wealth and ingenuity bogged down by the struggle to keep this thing from going off the rails?

You can imagine more vari­a­tions yourself, I’m sure. In any version, what’s remark­able is that, even beneath such a burden: life continues. Buoyed by fantastic powers within.

I don’t mean to be glib, comparing comic book operatics to real-world suffering. It’s just that this story has been in my head since I was a teenager, and I have so often found the analogy clarifying.

I really do believe the United States is a mutant marvel — a nation that invented a new way of being a nation; one in which equality and autonomy are not inherited or earned but rather simply: available—and I also believe that we are presently “fighting on a cellular level every day”. I think that’s been true for decades. It was true when I was reading these comic books.

Only a country of incred­ible capacity could have made it so far, so successfully, through bullshit so dense.

If this story was just Superman powerless beneath a red sun, it wouldn’t have the same resonance. A light switch is not inter­esting. The key to the parable of Cable is the ongoing process. This story is about the reservoir constantly filling, draining just as fast. It is about the balance that is sustainable, actually — and the real­iza­tion that powerful forces churn beneath the surface of every sustainable balance.

The parable has been, for me, a source of empathy. I have known many Cables in my life: people profoundly gifted, those gifts consumed entirely. And it’s not that those are sad stories. Cable is a superhero! Many the people I’m thinking about did fine; are doing fine. Yet in that “fine”, there is titanic effort; constant vigilance.

“You could extinguish a star,” but you never will, because that power is occupied by the superheroic task of living.

There’s another story here, signif­i­cantly less resonant but still noteworthy, about how this partic­ular comic book character started out pretty stupid, then became more and more inter­esting, thanks to layers of creativity and humanity added by different writers and artists over time.

Indeed: Cable’s pathos quickly became a core element of X-mythology. Even in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t reading the original comics (cited above), but rather flash­backs and retellings. That’s how superhero comics work, after all: events are sealed into the canon through layered repetition, like lacquerwork.

There’s nothing else in the creative landscape quite like it.

P.S. If anyone reading this newsletter works at a comic book publisher: yes, I will happily add a layer to one of these char­ac­ters!

A line of fuzzy little chicks enjoying the meal of a wirggling worm.
Chicks and Worm, 1900-1930, Ohara Koson

Here is a short piece I wrote for the Atlantic about my favorite subject 😋

I didn’t go deep on this in the Atlantic piece, because I am not a pro wrestling expert, or even that much of a fan, BUT, AND, I do love the “heel turn”: the way a wrestler (like The Rock) will become a villain, with grace and glee, for the sake of the larger story. The way everyone is in on the joke; the way everyone — the fans especially — plays their part. Kayfabe!

Pro wrestling, properly understood, is a hyper-stylized art form — a cultural treasure — right up there with commedia dell’arte and Noh.

Here is my previous approach to the same subject: my Proposal for a Book to Be Adapted Into a Movie Starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson.

If you’d like to see a slightly different flavor of pro wrestling — one that draws compar­isons not only to theater, but also to dance — watch a few minutes of this match between Will Ospreay and Marty Scurll.

For planning purposes, here is NASA’s Five Millen­nium Canon of Solar Eclipses, running from 1999 B.C.E. to 3000 C.E., calcu­lated by Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus. Even if you can’t make it to Minneapolis for the total solar eclipse in 2245, their introduction is fun and bracing. A lot of very fiddly details go into calcu­la­tions covering this many centuries.

In my previous edition, I linked to an appre­ci­a­tion of Iain M. Banks and his Culture novels. Here is a vintage clip of Banks giving a tour of his home office.

What a dude. What a spirit.

Here is a discus­sion of the heliosphere, the region of space where the sun’s glow balances against incoming inter­stellar radiation, protecting the solar system from killer high-energy particles, making life possible. (The parable of Cable again!?)

Here’s one possible rendering, like an inter­stellar croissant:

An interstellar croissant, just like I told ya!
The heliosphere, maybe

Here is the 21st-century ice cream truck! I love the lightness of this approach — it runs on text messages, without any cumbersome app.

(That’s an edition of Kristen Hawley’s Expedite newsletter, which is terrific — I’m a devoted paying subscriber.)

I believe the Financial Times is the world’s best newspaper. The name is a bit of a fake out, these days; the paper ranges widely beyond finance, with an outlook that is expansive and liberal, in every sense. The FT was the first newspaper to add CLIMATE as a top-level section: a stake in the ground.

Added benefits:

A densely-illustrated comic book panel with several word balloons showing off a new typeface.
Indoor Kid

Here are David Jonathan Ross’s notes on Indoor Kid, the latest addition to his Font of the Month Club. (I am a long­standing member.) This is a typeface for comic book lettering, and I love the extra considerations here:

In addition to my standard character set, you’ll find some extra goodies in the glyph set such as breath marks, stars, hearts, and musical notes that are sometimes found in manga.

I swapped out the typeface I use for titles on my website, and I am obsessed with the new challenger: Kyrios, from ArrowType. It hews to my pref­er­ence for modern blackletter, but runs a little gooey, almost psychedelic, and … I LOVE IT

Here is a browsable database of useful numbers in biology. It’s fun to read them backward, unit to value to definition, Carnac the Magnificent-style:

Seconds … 0.1 to 0.4 … the average duration of a human eye blink!

Nanometers … 2 … the average radius of a folded protein! Naturally.

Here are mini rope bridges built for mice.

In the time since I last enthused about A Good Used Book, they’ve opened a physical bookstore in Los Angeles! The space looks fabulous. LA residents, you must drop in. For non-residents (like me) it’s still great fun to follow their impec­cable Instagram account: a parade of fash­ion­able book buyers, and plenty of inter­esting finds offered directly. Send a DM to stake your claim; they’ll shoot back a Shopify checkout link. Couldn’t be easier.

I’ve purchased perhaps a dozen books from these folks over the past couple years. Here’s my latest acquisition, snagged via DM recently:

A slim volume promising to explain several simple magic tricks.
Irresistible, you must agree

The U.S. edition of M. John Harrison’s anti-memoir, Wish I Was Here, is coming soon from Saga Press!

This is new to me: Green’s Dictio­nary of Slang, “the largest histor­ical dictio­nary of English slang”, an ambitious web project.

If you’re on a regular computer, check out the hover state on that alphabet strip; I’ve never seen a UI element quite like it.

This project leaps onto the shelf alongside the Online Etymo­log­ical Dictio­nary, a.k.a. Etymonline; these are the sweetest fruits of the World Wide Web. I consult Etymon­line once a week, minimum, and it provides a fabulous transect through history and culture every time.

Don Bluth’s garage

A recent edition of The Animation Obsessive discusses the dynamics of Don Bluth’s departure, along with many other animators, from Disney. I remember watching Don Bluth-directed movies in the 1980s and 1990s — The Secret of NIMH! An American Tail! — but I didn’t really know anything about this backstory. The partic­ulars are, it turns out, surprising and inspiring.

At Disney, the 1970s were a time of transition. The legendary Nine Old Men were Getting Very Old Indeed, but the reins hadn’t properly been passed:

Bluth and many of the other young trainees didn’t know how to make a movie, and they weren’t sure how to learn. According to Bluth’s colleague Gary Goldman, “We didn’t even know what questions to ask.”

Here’s Don Bluth, speaking in the 1970s:

I was watching The Sorcerer’s Appren­tice part of Fantasia recently and I marveled to Ken Anderson, one of the veterans, about the water. It was so transparent. So wet. I asked Ken how they did it. … The man who created that water is long gone, Ken told me, and no one ever did get around to writing the process down. “Nice, isn’t it?” he said. “We’ve never gotten it that way again.”

So, even before leaving Disney,

Bluth started a side project. An independent cartoon made with inde­pen­dent equipment. In his garage.

The pictures of this garage studio, reproduced in The Animation Obsessive, are fabulous — totally evocative.

[The side project] turned into “an under­ground animation campus.” [ … ] The learning envi­ron­ment proved magnetic — many Disney staffers came through to work part-time. Animator Linda Miller remem­bered that she “wanted to learn more about filmmaking … and it also seemed more exciting than the projects that Disney was working on.”

It keeps going:

Gradually, the produc­tion (and the rows of work desks) outgrew Bluth’s garage and took over his whole Culver City home. Guedel recalled that Bluth “literally lived with only his own single bed and a dresser in his small bedroom”—every other space “was filled with animation equipment.”

Isn’t that just a dream? It sounds like a 2000s tech startup, except with a different polarity — a different goal. The whole story is hugely energizing. I didn’t know anything about it, and I’m grateful to The Animation Obsessive for the careful documentation here.

So remember! Whatever your age, whatever your profes­sional status, there is always this option: opening the garage, inviting people in, learning something new.

You know, I feel like some of my neighbors at Pixar (about a mile from where I’m typing this) might presently benefit from an extracur­ric­ular garage project … 

An elegant gray monkey stretching one long arm down to the water, where the moon is reflected.
Monkey and reflection of the moon, 1900-1936, Ohara Koson

In what has become a familiar pattern, I was intro­duced to Ohara Koson’s shin-hanga (“new prints”) work through Fat Gold. We used another charismatic monkey print on a magnet back in December.

Remember: get your copy of Moonbound preordered, and forward your confir­ma­tion email to

Here’s a note from Etymon­line’s creator:

Spring is harbinger season. None of the other seasons seem to have harbingers. Spring is lousy with them, wall to wall harbingers. It’s a bit unexpected.

From the lab,


April 2024