Robin Sloan
main newsletter
January 2024

Hit the lights

A corvette at full sail, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg
A corvette at full sail, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s been a multi­modal week. I’ve traveled aboard multiple ferries, several trains — including the new SMART line in Sonoma County, terrific — and, notably, my first robo-car, one of the whirring Waymos that are suddenly thick in the streets of San Francisco. I found the experience, at last, dizzying and delightful.

There are very reason­able crit­i­cisms you can make about robo-cars, including the simple obser­va­tion that they are: still cars. I take those to heart … yet I just cannot go along with any storyline in which the intro­duc­tion of these swirling, flexible fleets nets out as a bad thing.

Waymo’s robo-cars make the world more inter­esting, not less; they open up new possibilities — for the shape of daily life, for urban design, for architecture, energy … the list goes on — rather than foreclose them. (Chenoe Hart’s insta-classic essay, Perpetual Motion Machines, will ignite your imag­i­na­tion in this regard.)

If you live in the Bay Area, I encourage you to install the Waymo app, board a ferry to San Francisco, and take a test ride. You’ll receive a powerful premo­ni­tion of the future, wrapped up in a glossy white package that beeps and hums and coos, marshaling every sensory cue in its attempt to cushion — not quite successfully — the ghostly sight of a steering wheel spinning on its own.

I had the thought, several times while riding: ad-tech this ain’t. The people who worked on these cars accom­plished something difficult and mean­ingful. I hope it feels like it.

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.

Before I jump into this edition, an alert: Fat Gold, the olive oil company I help operate, is currently having the first big sale in its whole history!

Tins of Cali­fornia extra virgin olive oil usually priced at $32 are now $25, with free shipping. When you stock up, you cross-subsidize this newsletter 😉

I used my trusty Risograph to produce an animation for our email newsletter about the sale. I also wrote about our inspiration: a legendary annual event at a Bay Area institution … 

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

Moonbound update

When did the “cover reveal” become a thing in book publishing? There was a time, before the internet, when a book’s cover was revealed on the day it arrived in bookstores. There’s something appealing about that … but/and, in the age of the algorithm, it doesn’t hurt to pass a beautiful image around ahead of time.

That said, there are more and less dramatic ways of teasing and revealing a cover. Allow me to offer an example.

Typically, before a book is released, advance copies are distributed: to booksellers, librarians, critics, and more. These are flimsy paperbacks, and typically they are bound with the book’s final cover.

But my publisher MCD’s approach is sometimes atypical. Back in 2012, advance copies of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore circu­lated with this gnomic cover:

A dark cover with a strange sort of 'loading wheel' on the front, made out of books. It's weird! It's mysterious! It's great!
Penumbra ARC, Rodrigo Corral

Then, when the hardcover arrived in the fall of that year, it was like switching on the lights in a dark room: TA-DA!

A bright matrix of books, printed in day-glo yellow ink, with the title written in scratchy handwriting.
Penumbra, Rodrigo Corral

Hold that visual leap in your mind.

As the first advance copies of Moonbound have crept out into the world, they have worn this cover, suspiciously plain:

A plain beige cover, nearly featureless except for swooping text indicating title and author, like something out of a 1970s rock album.
Moonbound ARC, Na Kim

It’s not unpretty; look at that logotype! But clearly … something is being withheld.

So, I invite you to complete the visual analogy, SAT-style:

The previous three covers, laid out to form an SAT-style visual analogy.
Inductive reasoning

Are you ready for the reveal?




I don’t think you’re ready.




Okay, now you’re ready. Hit the lights!

The cover for the novel Moonound, showing a phantasagorical scene, a purple-pink sky swirling above a verdant planet, a dark castle in the distance, and through the sky, a hurtling spaceship -- really just a pod -- that has torn a rip through the warm haze, revealing the cold stars beyond. Wow!
Moonbound, Na Kim

This is the work of Na Kim, who is, in my estimation, simply the best book cover designer working today. She is, additionally, art director of the Paris Review and an artist in her own right. All in all, it’s a formi­dable portfolio, perfectly congruent to her talent, and her spirit.

I have admired Na’s designs for many years, so when Moonbound began its journey toward publication, I hoped the book might find its way to her desk. Lucky me!

So: the cover is revealed, and Moonbound can be preordered, in all the places books are sold. (I recommend your local bookstore, of course. Don’t have a local bookstore? The Raven of Lawrence, Kansas, will set you up.)

The year ahead will be pivotal, for me and my writing. I’m going to need your support, and I’m going to call upon it, if you’ll allow me.

For now, though — let’s just enjoy that cover! There’s a stunning animated rendition over on Instagram, almost like a micro mini cinematic adaptation. The world of the novel begins to stir, to breathe … 

Other news

A street corner, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg
A street corner, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg

On Wednesday, January 24, at Shack15 in the Ferry Building, I’ll chat with Kyle Chayka about his new book, Filterworld, just published this week.

I’ve been a reader and fan of Kyle’s for many years; I think he is one of the most inter­esting critics writing today, partic­u­larly at the inter­sec­tion of art and technology. He’s also a “fellow traveler”, in the sense of feeling very invested in the internet — having grown up with it; being still, in a sense, in love with it — but/and also disappointed, even revolted, by many of its current characteristics.

I suspect that describes plenty of you reading this, too.

So where does that leave us? What’s the shape of our situation, and where do we go from here? That’s exactly the subject of Filterworld, and I have plenty of questions for Kyle.

A wide-ranging conver­sa­tion with a thoughtful author at the beautiful Ferry Building is an easy sell — come on out and join us. If you’re in San Francisco, I’ll see you Wednesday.

I was delighted to find Moonbound included among Andrew Liptak’s most antic­i­pated books of 2024. His newsletter, Transfer Orbit, has become an essential resource for tracking new and inter­esting science fiction; if you’re not already a subscriber, I recommend it.

Recently, I reread the first twenty or so chapters of the manga Death Note, mostly to marvel again at the premise. Briefly: a Japanese god of death drops to Earth a magic book with the following property: that if you write someone’s name while visu­al­izing their face … they will die. The book is found by a teenage boy; he is both earnest and sociopathic.

He begins to write names.

There are nuances, and the nuances grow to consume the series, but at its core, that has got to be one of THE great high concepts of all time — a compact, powerful engine for plot and story.

In my estimation, the manga loses itself midway through its long run; they ought to have wrapped it up years earlier. But the opening chapters are a perfectly propul­sive puzzle — a dazzling infor­ma­tion game.

Claude Shannon would have loved Death Note.

I suppose at this point I should just set up a computer program to auto-link Erin McKean’s newslet­ters in this space. What can I say? They are catnip! Here are eleven words Erin learned in 2023. My personal favorites are “hyperauthorship” and “tattourism”.

Here’s how you paint a back­ground for a Studio Ghibli movie:

The secret wasn’t hiding in [Kazuo] Oga’s other tools, either. They were typical for anime: things like heavy-duty, 400-pound TMK poster paper, or Japanese flat brushes and fine-pointed Sakuyo brushes. He also had water — for soaking the paper at the start, allowing for more color gradation and natural textures.

This water put Oga, like all Ghibli back­ground painters, on a strict timer. Their method was straightforward: paint the base coat (ji-nuri) before the paper dried. You had to dash off the bulk of the painting in one go. As Tanaka noted, this only gave you “30 minutes to 1 hour.” It was tough, and a painter couldn’t afford any distractions.

That’s from the Animation Obsessive, which just keeps getting better.

Here is a fasci­nating consid­er­a­tion of several new Devana­gari typefaces by Pooja Saxena in her excellent newsletter, I Spy with my Typo­graphic Eye.

My favorite is Ikat, a Devana­gari pixel font (!) by Lipi Raval. Just look how cool (and TINY) it is!

A sample of a Devanagari, the letterforms just a few pixels tall but somehow still legible.
Ikat Devanagari

Here is Ikat Devana­gari on Future Fonts.

Here is a strange sort of virtual artifact: Francis Spufford’s unsanc­tioned Narnia novel, unpublished, unpublishable. And yet, it exists! And is titled The Stone Table, perfect! And he is Francis Spufford — who wrote Red Plenty, so, odds are, this new chronicle is wonderful. (I recorded a video capsule review of Red Plenty a few years back. Look at that beard … )

What do we do with this infor­ma­tion?

Do we break into Francis Spufford’s office?

I learned about this artifact only recently, after enjoying Alan Jacobs’s consid­er­a­tion of Francis Spufford’s latest novel. Cahokia Jazz sounds terrific — Alan can make anything sound terrific, when he loves it — and I’m eager to check it out.

Moonlight over a road with three figures, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg
Moonlight over a road with three figures, 1838-1840, C. W. Eckersberg

RIP to Terry Bisson. I knew him best as the moderator of the SF in SF series, a role in which he was sharp and garrulous. I’ve partic­i­pated in several of the events, always at the lovely American Book­binders Museum in San Francisco, always with Terry at the front table, running the show.

He was a writer in his own right, and I can’t claim to have been a devoted reader … yet, that provides useful evidence: that a rich, expansive life produces many kinds of influence. I was in Terry Bisson’s gravity well; I felt the pull.

He presided over a social and cultural space that was inviting and stimulating; he helped make San Francisco fun and inter­esting. I call that success.

RIP to Howard Weaver. I never met him in the flesh. Instead, I encountered him as (of all things) a razor-sharp commenter on the blog I helped write, years ago.

But I knew all about him: his work, his sensibility. He was an energetic jour­nalist at the Anchorage Daily News, serving for many years as its editor before moving to Cali­fornia to become an executive at McClatchy, the regional chain.

This kind of newspaper person, with this kind of newspaper career, is gone now. That’s sad, because it was a good kind. I was never part of that world; I was too late, and anyway, I have the wrong temperament. I only heard stories.

What a thing, to be in the newsroom of a prof­itable city paper in America: mischief and earnestness, all wrapped up together, on top of the world.

RIP to Howard Weaver, and to a set of economic and cultural arrange­ments that blazed bright for a few decades in this country. Not that many, in the whole sweep of things — but enough to count. It was great while it lasted.

I didn’t intend to end on death, necessarily, but it’s okay that I did. Terry Bisson and Howard Weaver did mean­ingful things in their time on Earth. Both were important contrib­u­tors to commu­ni­ties that were intel­lec­tual and literary and also, crucially, material. Cities dream of having such figures on their sidewalks.

The challenge is implicit.

San Francisco folks, I’ll see you Wednesday, and we’ll hear from Kyle Chayka about his new book. Let’s all take robo-cars to the event. They’ll gather in a knot of glossy white, right there in front of the Ferry Building. We’ll stop traffic. It will be great.

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around February 24.

January 2024