Robin Sloan
main newsletter
December 2023

The great
resounding doink

Harper's Christmas, 1895, Edward Penfield
Harper's Christmas, 1895, Edward Penfield

Back in mid-November, I circulated my 2023 gift guide.

You’ll find a couple of late-breaking additions, items newly available: a cool synthesizer and a lovely book.

I appreciate this sentiment from Charlie Warzel:

Gift giving is such a skill … but so is thought­fully curating things that might make great gifts. It feels like such a nice insight into a person.

I hadn’t ever thought about the gift guide as a light sort of literary genre until this moment; but certainly, it is, or it can be. A material memoir. Cool.

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.

Is it over­dra­matic to say that a season of operating heavy machinery has just changed my life? Possibly. The fact remains, I have that feeling — you know the one — of a porten­tous expe­ri­ence working its way through my system, still only halfway metabolized. Across October and November, my days in the mill yielded the following discoveries:

Longtime subscribers know that on New Year’s Day, I broadcast a live reading of the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I took last year off; this year, the poem gallops forth again.

My reading will begin at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. GMT, and run for a bit under three hours. Play it in the back­ground while you relax or putter; it would be my honor to be invited into your home on the first day of 2024.

The broadcast is already scheduled on YouTube, and you can press a button over there to receive a reminder, if that’s helpful. I’ll send a quick newsletter on the morning of January 1 with another link.

Cosmic rays

Here at the close of the year, I wonder if you might give another chance to The Greatest Remaining Hits, the second album from The Cotton Modules, launched back in May 2023. If you’d like to skip the prologue, or even most of the album, listen at least to the track titled Cosmic Hemophiliac; in a round­about way, it is the song of a partic­ular character in my new novel, forth­coming in June 2024.

Bit of a sneak preview, there.

It’s always a surprise to discover that your sense of what the world wants is simply: incorrect. I love this album — the sci-fi concept, the tappable story, the songs themselves, my bandmate Jesse’s wonderful compositions … but/and it landed with a great resounding doink. Music is tough, I acknowledge; a whole different attention ecology. Bummer! Onward.

(Several years ago, the non-reception of my short story titled Proposal for a Book to be Adapted into a Movie Starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson produced a similar surprise. Preparing to publish, I felt giddy: totally sure I had isolated and amplified a resonant cultural frequency. I was wrong!)

Speaking of Jesse Solomon Clark: earlier this year, he composed the immersive, multi-channel score for an absolutely wild installation that’s currently live in London. I wish I could teleport over and wander around in that phan­tas­magor­ical space with Jesse’s music in my ears.

Podcast as intellectual project

I’ve been listening to Big Biology. As a podcast, it is incan­des­cent with ideas that are, as advertised, really big. It’s even more impressive, though, as an intel­lec­tual project. There is a sense of real work being done here, of ideas devel­oping from episode to episode.

The hosts are nerdy and sharp, with an appealing sort of Bert and Ernie quality. They’re terrific at hopscotching around, recalling previous conversations, putting different guests into virtual conver­sa­tion with each other.

So much media feels like a treadmill: writing for the sake of writing, talking for the sake of talking … even newsletter-ing for the sake of newsletter-ing, sometimes! This podcast is something really different.

The podcast has been running for several years, and there’s a big archive to explore. I started with episode 39, about bioelec­tric computation, which I strongly recommend as an on-ramp. The guest is terrific and the science is dizzying.

Episode 9 is wondrous; Sara Walker, whose lab inves­ti­gates the origins of life, sparkles and provokes. In that way, the episode provides both an outline of cool new ideas and a portrait of a mind on fire.

My brain was vibrating in my skull as I listened to episode 10, about the tangled tree of life. The guest, David Quammen, is a science journalist: clear-eyed, well-spoken, even courtly.

I loved the wide frame of episode 63, about the survival and evolution of whole ecosys­tems (think: a savanna) through means other than natural selection.

It was episode 100 that helped me under­stand what’s really going on here. It’s a wonderful, inte­gra­tive “clip show”, weaving together ideas (and snippets of audio) from all the previous episodes. How cool.

I’ve only listened to these and maybe three other episodes, total. There’s still so much to enjoy and learn as I make my way through the archive.

You listen to a podcast like Big Biology, you read a website like Quanta Magazine, and you under­stand that so many invo­ca­tions of science in popular discourse are woefully out of date.

I’m thinking specif­i­cally about the way “survival of the fittest” is used as a master metaphor all over the place — in culture, business, politics, you name it. The metaphor is simple, linear, vicious; it is offered as reluctant acknowl­edge­ment of hard reality.

But evolu­tionary biol­o­gists left that model behind like … fifty years ago. The drama of evolution, as we under­stand it today, is much richer: with coop­er­a­tion right at the foun­da­tion of eukary­otic life (with the domes­ti­ca­tion of the mito­chon­drion and chloroplast), with the surprise of hori­zontal gene transfer (revealing, for example, the strong possi­bility that mammalian gestation and birth was made possible long ago by a VIRAL INFECTION) … It’s all just vastly weirder than the vicious metaphor.

These ideas have different implications, in turn, if you want to connect them to culture, business, politics, you name it. Although: metaphor­ical deploy­ment is not required.

You listen to Big Biology, you read a website like Quanta Magazine, and you under­stand that there are people in the world inves­ti­gating big, exciting questions every day; keeping at it, with stubborn curiosity, across decades. They have far outpaced the crusty metaphors. It’s possible, and very rewarding, to sprint and catch up.

(Still gnawing on the same bone here:)

Often, I’ve encoun­tered the sentiment that mate­ri­alism drains the enchant­ment out of the world; that it is bleak and mechanistic — a dry alter­na­tive to the spiritual nour­ish­ment of religion and myth.

Anyone making this claim doesn’t under­stand — has not bothered to check in with — the real conver­sa­tions and inves­ti­ga­tions of mate­ri­al­ists today. Even with Big Biology alone as your reference, you would conclude: this is invigorating, nour­ishing stuff: your cup runneth over. The real story (and attendant mystery) of life on Earth, on all scales, puts to shame every myth, every fable, every tale of the divine.

To be clear, I like a lot of those tales just fine. Even so, I’ll happily concede that the richness of real planetary processes makes them seem, by comparison, like scribbled crayon sketches.

I wonder, finally, if one of the signa­tures of humanness, and human intelligence, is: the experiment.

All of these are versions of the same activity:

In every case, there’s a partic­ular kind of creativity at work, as you imagine and engineer a lens, a filter, a … set of … tweezers? … in order to isolate a bit of new knowledge about the world.

I’m sure there are a few other animals known to perform simple experiments; I’d love to learn which. Humans, though — we do it all day!

Harper's Christmas, 1896, Edward Penfield
Harper's Christmas, 1896, Edward Penfield

Here’s a term that’s new to me:

Spolia, the Latin word for “spoils”, are defined as archi­tec­tural fragments taken out of their original context and reused in a different context; essentially, pieces of structures trans­planted into different struc­tures. An example of unin­ten­tional usage of spolia is the Mausoleum at Halikar­nassos (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey). Following its burial due to an earthquake, both the Knights of St John and the Turks, who later settled in the region, viewed the former monument as a conve­nient source of construc­tion materials, using spolia to build a castle and houses, respectively.

You probably “know” that car manu­fac­turing is an amazing, high-tech process, but when’s the last time you actually saw a car factory?

This short promo­tional video from Toyota is bland and dorky, but no amount of dorkiness can dilute the fabulous engi­neering on display here.

It’s healthy, I think, to behold real INDUSTRY. In a world of so many ghostly promises, so many vague disappointments, this kind of work still inspires awe.

The video game studio Inkle, who made one of my favorites of all time, has just released A Highland Song for Mac, PC, and Nintendo Switch. The game looks beautiful; I’ve purchased my copy and I can’t wait to play.

Here’s a short, perfect blog post from M. John Harrison.

Forget the wheel; it’s all about the tire.

Who and what was a knocker-upper? What an era; what a job.

Here is my favorite album art of 2023:

It's Dangerous to Go Alone
It's Dangerous to Go Alone

We love Guillermo del Toro! We love Hayao Miyazaki! We love Guillermo del Toro talking about Hayao Miyazaki!

I shared this video several years ago, and had occasion to watch it again recently. It remains wonderful: “I’m basically surfing a power plant on a river.”

In other power gener­a­tion news: here’s the story of how the gas turbine conquered the electric power industry. This is a great chronicle of invention in the real world: slow but steady.

Construction Physics is a terrific project — I’m just so impressed by every­thing that Brian Potter writes over there.

During the olive harvest, I tried reading October, China Miéville’s history of the Russian Revo­lu­tion of 1917. It was ulti­mately too boring and/or I was generally too sleepy; after chipping away three pages at a time for weeks, I set the book aside.

But not before learning the details of the legendary train that carried Lenin from his exile in Switzerland, across Germany, back toward Russia:

The “sealed train” would not tech­ni­cally be sealed: much stranger, it would be an extrater­ri­to­rial entity, a rolling-stock legal nullity.

That’s so tasty it might as well be something from a Miéville story. It made me think of The City & The City, its incred­ible drama­ti­za­tion of legal and terri­to­rial marbling. That’s one of the truly great novels of the 2000s — highly recommended, if you’ve never read it.

Harper's Christmas, 1897, Edward Penfield
Harper's Christmas, 1897, Edward Penfield

Edward Penfield is a legend, of course; I have the sense of an illustrator’s style amplified or even “perfected” by the techology of his time. Look at a cover like this one—the way the wonkiness of the printing works both with and against the image. You could spend a LOT of time in Photoshop trying to replicate those effects.

I love the sort of … emotional narrative? … we can detect in the three covers above, which descend in chrono­log­ical order, 1895 to 1896 to 1897. From a festive holiday at home, to a refreshing walk outside, to … leave me alone in the corner.

Happy holidays! Mark your calendar for January 1. The Green Knight awaits.

Back in Oakland,


December 2023