Robin Sloan
main newsletter
March 2024

Is it drugs?

A finely-detailed rendering of several butterflies, all sort of sitting on the page at odd angles. Their colors are rich and complementary---a full palette of bugs.
Papillons, 1920, Emile-Allain Séguy

Spring has come to the San Francisco Bay Area. Rain falls in weird sudden spurts; puffy clouds tower above the hills, glowing, preposterous. On the street, landscape design disap­pears beneath feral upwelling; is it still a weed when it’s six feet tall, and beautiful? Every living thing is doing great, or at least better than it was a month ago. An eclipse is coming.

This is a rich edition, so let’s get to 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.

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

Moonbound update

Preorders are the essential fuel for any book’s launch. I’d estimate the value of a preorder, in algo­rithmic and marketing terms, at around 10X the value of a sale after publi­ca­tion. That’s some serious leverage.

I’m producing a limited-edition zine that I will mail to folks who have preordered Moonbound. This is a one-time print run, featuring writing and world­building that won’t be available anywhere else.

Just forward your order confir­ma­tion email to I’ll record your mailing address and ship you a copy of the zine in May, just ahead of Moonbound’s publi­ca­tion in June.

If you need guidance on where to preorder, you can find a random link, drawn from a pool of my favorites, on the front page of my Moonbound mini-site. Any format is fine, of course: print, digital, or audio.

I’m happy to dispatch these zines anywhere in the world, so if you can wrangle a preorder outside the United States … go for it!

A fusillade of frames

The only truly complete description of a novel is the novel itself. Every shorter descrip­tion — every pitch — neces­sarily leaves something (most things) out. You’d better hope it wasn’t the thing that would have hooked your reader, reeled them in!

To avoid making this mistake, I will employ the Itano Circus approach to book marketing and describe Moonbound, eventually, in every possible way. Oh, I’m going to hit that target somehow.

Here are a few ways of framing this new novel for readers of my previous two. Moonbound answers all of these questions, some obliquely:

(If you don’t recall Maximum Happy Imagination, I quote that section of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in the piece linked immediately below.)

A new note on influence

I’ve added a new note to my Moonbound mini-site: another appre­ci­a­tion of a writer who influ­enced me, and the novel in turn. This follows my notes on J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

This time, it’s about Iain M. Banks. Many of you have read his Culture novels, at least a sampling; just as many have not. I tried to make this note useful both as an intro­duc­tion and a consideration.

This time, it’s about muscular imagination.

Public service

A sandwich board set up on the sidewalk in front of a small, cheery restaurant, the building painted with a swirling abstract mural, whirls of blue and gold.
Good to Eat, 65th Street, Emeryville, California

For Bay Area neighbors, this next portion of the newsletter will serve as a specific recommendation; for others, it will be a more abstract appre­ci­a­tion — though maybe you’ll be able to connect it to some place you know.

I’m an ardent booster of my little neighborhood, roughly where Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville mash together, up against the railroad tracks, an old meat­packing district now resi­den­tial (small single-family, sprawling condo) and indus­trial (the country’s tastiest jam, sophis­ti­cated cardboard box manu­fac­turing machines) and intel­lec­tual (mostly biotech, including a mycelium leather lab).

Berkeley Bowl West, arguably the best grocery store in the country, sits along a bucolic greenway.

There are also restaurants, of course, and one in partic­ular has trans­formed and enlivened the entire neighborhood. Called Good to Eat, it is the brick-and-mortar real­iza­tion of a pop-up that for many years offered Taiwanese dumplings at a local brewery. The restau­rant is approaching its second anniversary; it has become my favorite in the entire Bay Area.

Good to Eat is the vision of Tony Tung and Angie Lin. Chef Tony is the kitchen mastermind, honoring and renewing classic Taiwanese cuisine. Angie is, among many other things, the restau­rant’s voice on Instagram, a fountain of energy and invitation. (Her record, in Instagram Stories, of a recent research trip to Taiwan was basically a mini-documentary.)

A sign of great people is that they attract great people, and Good to Eat’s whole team sparkles. It feels most nights like there must be a camera crew perched just out of sight, filming a segment for some children’s TV show, intended to model “careful work” and “cheerful collaboration” for impres­sion­able young minds.

And there is a surprise here. The casual, friendly service and reason­able (for the Bay Area) prices don’t quite prepare you for the food, which exhibits a level of precision and creativity that approaches fine dining. It’s delightful to realize: all those years with the pop-up, slinging dumplings, THIS is what Chef Tony wanted to do. She had a secret plan!

Just look at this menu.

(If I was ordering today, right now, I’d get the eggplant noodle, the golden kimchi — my favorite kimchi I’ve had anywhere — the bok choy, and, yes, the fu-ru fried chicken. But this would imply NOT getting the red-braised pork belly with daikon radish … hmm … )

All together, it is a perfect package: food, space, esprit de corps. Of course, it helps that Kathryn and I have known these folks since their pop-up days, and are always greeted warmly … but visit twice, and you’ll be greeted warmly, too.

Good to Eat offers the tangible argument: enthu­siasm and care are not in short supply. They don’t need to be hoarded. They ought to burn bright, spill out onto the sidewalk.

A preposterously white and puffy cloud looming above the Oakland hills, visible down a long narrow alley.
Around the corner

Here’s something important to understand. It is, at this time, approx­i­mately impos­sible to open and operate a restau­rant in the Bay Area. The exor­bi­tant cost of every input yields eye-popping menu prices; those prices keep customers away; the whole commer­cial equation becomes tenuous. There has been a wave of closures, as long­standing favorites throw in the towel.

It’s not just restaurants. Every kind of physical establishment feels, presently, improbable. It’s so much easier to … do something else. Anything else! Yet, it is physical estab­lish­ments — storefronts and markets, cafes and restau­rants — that make cities (like the donut mega­lopolis of the Bay Area) worth inhabiting. Even the places you don’t frequent provide tremen­dous value to you, because they draw other people out, popu­lating the sidewalks. They generate urban life in its funda­mental unit, which is: the bustle.

In taking on this task — setting out their sandwich board (you know I love a sandwich board) and opening their doors to everyone — people like Tony and Angie provide a profound public service.

It shouldn’t be so difficult! And this is not just a post-pandemic thing. The Bay Area has, for decades, been a daunting place to open your doors. Many of America’s urban hubs share this over­heated deformity. It’s breath­taking to visit a country like Japan and find the most tenuous busi­nesses (with the scantest hours) puttering along happily … simply because the rent is so low.

The shortage of useful, flexible space imposes costs — opportunity costs, if you remember econ 101 — borne by all of us, not just the Tonys and Angies of the world. Maybe that’s fair payment for the other gifts these places provide … but I’m skeptical. We don’t know, will never know, what we’re missing, except that it’s a lot.

Anyway, this is all to say: these days, it’s a minor miracle when a great new restau­rant opens and stays open, so if you’re in the Bay Area, you should make haste to 65th Street in Emeryville. The patio is lovely, but/and Kathryn and I always sit at the bar. Get the kimchi. Yeah … get the fried chicken, too.

Another finely-detailed rendering of several butterflies, all sort of sitting on the page at odd angles. Their colors are rich and complementary---a full palette of bugs.
Papillons, 1920, Emile-Allain Séguy

I read and loved Carlo Rovelli’s White Holes. This is serious physics, presented in an exper­i­mental way, deeply literary. I’m late to Rovelli — I wish I’d started reading him sooner. Now, I’m onto an earlier book, The Order of Time, which is likewise captivating.

His language can be challenging; don’t let it throw you.

Here’s a note I tapped out while reading The Order of Time, indica­tive of the sort of thoughts this stuff encourages:

Rovelli. The past is only a complex of traces. All physical. Craters in soil, memories in brain. Stone tablets, photographs. Now imagine: millions of years pass. More. All is dissolved and smoothed over. Washed away. Did anything happen?

In a world truly devoid of traces — no exceptions — we have to say “no”. Nothing happened.


Of course it’s all different if one memory survives. One slip of paper. A receipt.

This makes me wonder, in turn, about culture in the ocean — an envi­ron­ment much poorer in traces. Richer in other things, but poorer in traces. What kind of minds and cultures does that support?

Bay Area neighbors, here’s an inter­esting event: Paul Yamazaki, longtime head book buyer at City Lights Books, has written a memoir, and he’ll discuss it with Oscar Villalon at the store on May 1.

Paul is a giant of bookselling, not only in the Bay Area but nationally — globally — and this promises to be a fun celebration. I’ll be there!

I’ve been enjoying the Paper Watch newsletter from Simpla Vida: concise, canny summaries of new research on human health and longevity, rated both for prac­ti­cality and interest.

This is a cool format that other publi­ca­tions should probably steal!

Likewise compact, but with an almost opposite polarity, I find myself consis­tently opening One Thing, a newsletter of punchy recom­men­da­tions.

The length is great, just a few hundred words. I like the editions where two writers pop in together, sort of like Statler and Waldorf in The Muppets.

Here is a lovely dispatch from Christo­pher Brown about his parents, and their reintro­duc­tion of controlled burns on wild-ish land:

The first years they burned, there were no profes­sionals around who you could hire to do it safely and master­fully like the crew that was there last week. They did it themselves, with the aid of some locals they had gotten to know. My dad famously burned his eyebrows off the first time, and laughed about it. And in time, after he retired, he came to love the natural wonder that burning the land yielded, a retired dentist reading Turgenev by the window and watching the eagles come in.

Chris’s new book, an evolution of his newsletter, is coming later this year! It is “a genre-bending blend of naturalism, memoir, and social manifesto for rewilding the city, the self, and society” with a terrific, evocative cover. I can’t wait. In the meantime, Field Notes remains one of my favorite newslet­ters.

I loved the 2014 movie The Guest for (1) its central perfor­mance by Dan Stevens and (2) its synth-soaked sound­track.

Here is The Guest II, sound­track to a sequel that doesn’t exist, assembled by the same people who made the original!

There should probably be more sound­tracks to films that don’t exist, right? I am recalling Wes Anderson’s method, in his early years, of assem­bling a sound­track first, then imagining the movie that could contain all those tunes … 

Here is Spencer Chang’s documentation of his SIGIL I: a sort of amulet, warm and organic, with a digital surprise.

I had the pleasure of seeing and trying this in person — it was really cool!!

I love these bits of thinking and language behind the original Macintosh, as captured in Dan Cohen’s newsletter:

Denis Villeneueve, against dialogue:

I will say: in a perfect world, you should use dialogue only when there are no other resources [ … ] It should be the last resort — that’s what I’m saying. When I say “I hate dialogue,” it’s not true. I don’t. But it’s true that I feel, myself as a film director, unin­spired when I read 500 pages of dialogue. For me, it’s boring.

It will not surprise you to learn that I disagree — in fact, I might endorse the opposite view: use imagery only when you cannot use dialogue — but/and I love the sharpness of his opinion! No mealy “well, it depends … ” here.

I am on the side of the unreason­able aesthetic judgment, always.

Here are some quantum computer researchers calmly shuffling indi­vidual atoms around. The fact that this sort of manip­u­la­tion is even theo­ret­i­cally possible, to say nothing of prac­ti­cally feasible, is a triumph of our civilization. Democritus would have wept … 

Here is a sweet a capella perfor­mance of Red Robin by a trio with an excellent name: Rufous Nightjar!

Here is a recent perfor­mance by Bleachers on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, featuring SURPRISE SAXOPHONE!

Here are some landscapes by Jordan Belson, who was better known as an exper­i­mental filmmaker. I think these pictures — made from layers of papers, cut and torn — are beyond beautiful. This is exactly the kind of thing I love:

A deceptively simple landscape---it's almost all color, a fiery line of hot pink or magenta sandwiched between acid green and gunmetal. Words can't really do this one justice. Sorry!
Untitled, 1970, Jordan Belson

This sensitive discus­sion about Belson is terrific. What a thing, to have a group of people who knew you and your work so well, carrying it into the future.

Belson lived for almost sixty years (!!) in a tiny apartment in North Beach. He produced most of his work there, including the cosmic film sequences featured in The Right Stuff. The director Philip Kaufman says he has no idea how they were actually made; Belson retreated to Telegraph Hill, then reap­peared with the finished sequences.

The apartment had one window, with a small balcony, and this view:

The view from Jordan Belson's apartment: southward, a fuzz of greenery at the top of Telegraph Hill, beyond which San Francisco Bay spreads out, the Bay Bridge clearly visible, and various hills and rises of the peninsula beyond.
The view from Telegraph Hill

Here is a fun and weird review of the history of liver-centrism in medicine and art. One could title an album Sources in the History of Hepatocentrism … 

There are a lot of movies and TV shows out there that claim to criticize power and violence by … depicting power and violence … and I find myself thinking: I don’t believe you! I think you sorta like power and violence, which is why you put them on the screen so beautifully.

A more credible critique would show us another world, a new set of possibilities. Lend THAT the inevitability of great lighting and a sharp lens. Like I said in my note on Iain M. Banks: I am tired of cautionary tales. Give me vision.

Here is a fasci­nating story about the tension around “pure veg” food delivery in India: apps and platforms vibrating against cuisine and religion. Oof, this is deep stuff. DEEP!

Here is the reaction every interview subject hopes for, or ought to: “Your answers to my last questions were so fun to read that I actually punched the air.”

Here’s some sharp economic analysis from Neel Kashkari, president of the Minnaeapolis Fed. The richness of the picture here, plus the sense of genuine curiosity, is refreshing. (I like Neel Kashkari a lot. If tech­no­cratic and demo­c­ratic systems can coexist — and I think they can — the dance requires people like him.)

It’s gauche to link to yourself, but … I really am convinced, more and more, of the accuracy of my argument about the long 2010s.

Pair this with a rising premo­ni­tion that the nascent 2020s (which only began in 2022) will be short. Interrupted.

By what?

Links on distribution and discovery

I appreciated this episode of the Search Engine podcast, in which the host PJ Vogt and his guest Ezra Klein wrestle with a whole load of meta media questions — my favorite kind.

The premise is a simple, plaintive question: how do I use the internet now?

The surprise and pleasure of this conversation, for me, is the speed at which Ezra dispatches the conven­tional wisdom around media’s recent history. You’ll find a genuinely surprising, provoca­tive analysis here, with a component that is not only economic and/or technical, but moral: a component that insists people are more than just the pawns of algorithms, mech­a­nis­ti­cally batted around.

That’s bad news, by the way: it means people (like me) (like you) are moral actors who can and must make choices about their time and attention.

Sorry, but there’s no escaping it!

Perhaps my favorite obser­va­tion of Ezra’s was that it’s increas­ingly difficult to gather an audience from scratch, partic­ularly outside the algo­rithmic mills of the apps. He’s talking about this in the context of news operations, but/and I think it’s true for any kind of media production.

Making something — a book, a video game, a publi­ca­tion — is hard enough. How do you find the people who might love it? The present playbook seems to be: post a funny video somewhere and pray for the breath of the gods.

Oddly, physical goods have an easier time! Maybe media ought to just fade into a grand cross-subsidy. Want to start a magazine? Fine — design the merch first.

I’ve long consid­ered launching a newsletter intended to get new projects their first hundred readers, or listeners, or viewers, or whatever. I’m cognizant of the catch-22: how would THAT newsletter build an audience? I think the premise of a publi­ca­tion for people who are hungry to explore — who want to get out on the edge of the new — has some juice. The crisp and concise 4Columns offers a simple template, though it (1) has no discernible business model, and (2) is too devoted to the New York art scene to really speak to a global Anglo­phone audience, or at least, to me.

I do not actually “have time” to write another newsletter and I haven’t designed any merch, so this remains entirely theoretical. However, the same impulse exactly keeps these sections of links and recom­men­da­tions so big; I still feel the blogging spirit within me, which isn’t only “look at this!” but also always “give it a chance!”

Here’s Kyle Chayka attacking the same theme in a recent edition of One Thing.

Links on dreaming and takeoff

Here’s Claire L. Evans, in a newsletter dispatch about lucid dreaming:

As the philoso­pher Eric Schwitzgebel writes, “perhaps dream-objects and dream-events are similar to fictional objects and events, or to the images evoked by fiction, in having, typically, a certain inde­ter­mi­nacy of color, neither cerise nor taupe nor burnt umber, nor gray either.” Is fiction in black and white? A question for another night.

Fuel for my argument — you’ve heard it before, you’ll hear it now — that novels are best under­stood as packaged dreams.

As a journalist, Claire is wide-ranging, boundary-busting, super-productive. It’s well worth subscribing to her newsletter, even if only as an index to her work across publi­ca­tions.

Here’s another brain-bending edition, about the depiction of the scin­til­lating scotoma — a common migraine symptom — in art. Gah, it’s just terrific.

Maybe the lines above struck me because I’ve been thinking (again) (endlessly) about that fabulous phase change, when fiction goes from reading to dreaming.

“Suspension of disbelief” is really apt, because it feels like lifting off. A sudden drop in friction. Floating. Flying.

I was most aware of the phase change as a young person, a novice reader. I remember being very conscious, sometimes, that it was NOT happening; that my wheels were just bumping along the runway. I remember giving up.

There are plenty of adult readers who rarely, or never, take flight. This isn’t neces­sarily a bad thing. It just means they read a different way. Enjoy different things.

Likewise, there are readers who jet along at a speed I can’t quite imagine. Their unit of recog­ni­tion isn’t the phrase or the paragraph but something close to the page. They read in great gulps, like baleen whales devouring whole regions of ocean. I believe this kind of reader is most often found deep in genre, where a certain formalism reigns: “I see what you’re doing here. Yes. Okay. Yes.”

Of course, every readerly altitude is a collaboration: the fuel must match the engine. Lately, I’ve found a surprising number of novels incom­pat­ible with my own personal vehicle. Just to name names — and I can do this safely, because the book was a cele­brated hit — something in Birnam Wood was, for me, almost unintelligible. Three pages, five, twenty, and I was glued to the ground. The words remained stubbornly: words. Isn’t that odd?

Here’s another approach to the same feeling.

The Tour­na­ment of Books came and went between editions of this newsletter, the year’s great critical jamboree. (Why haven’t any of the “big” book awards taken the hint and become this fun?) Right at the start, a judgment by Rufi Thorpe injected some delightful new language into the blood­stream of the tour­na­ment and, maybe, literary lingo broadly.

Considering the novels before her, Judge Thorpe offered a compelling rubric including dimen­sions such as

Characters: I know it’s not popular to say, but I want to like the fucking characters. I can’t be rolling my eyes every other page at their weenie-ish ways.


Gay: I just like gay things better, I don’t stand behind it, I just happen to like gay things more.

Some dimen­sions were posed as questions, such as

Does it vibrate strangely? This is the most ineffable category, but also the most important to me. Is the work so singu­larly itself that it has tran­scended in some way?

and, critically,

Is it drugs? Did I lose conscious­ness while reading it? I’m still chasing the absolute narcotic of the Sweet Valley High books.

There it is: dreaming by another name.

Reading the judgment, it was delightful and illu­mi­nating to see Judge Thorpe apply this rubric to the books under consideration. Even more delightful was the way her language infected the whole Tour­na­ment of Books. “Is it drugs?” became THE recurring question.

In his commen­tary on this judgment, Kevin Guilfoyle wrote:

I cheered when Judge Thorpe made the comment, “I’m still chasing the absolute narcotic of the Sweet Valley High books.” Over the last 20 years of these commentaries, I’ve developed a theory of reading that suggests we are constantly trying to replicate the expe­ri­ence we had when we first fell in love with books. For me it was probably The Three Inves­ti­ga­tors novels, and then Tolkien when I was just a little bit older. There is this sort of trance you fall into when that sense memory gets triggered. I love that Judge Thorpe gives it a name: drugs. Exactly right.

Even more than selling me on any of the books under consideration, this judgment sold me on Rufi Thorpe. I must read more! She has a new novel out in June: Margo’s Got Money Troubles.

A third finely-detailed rendering of several butterflies, all sort of sitting on the page at odd angles. Their colors are rich and complementary---a full palette of bugs.
Papillons, 1920, Emile-Allain Séguy

This edition’s art is the work of Emile-Allain Séguy. If you have never followed a link to browse the archive of an artist I’ve featured here: follow this one!! There is something absolutely atemporal about these patterns; they could have been designed yesterday.

I discovered Emile-Allain Séguy back in December, designing the most recent Fat Gold magnet. For that, I chose one of his more abstract geometries; it has an almost Memphis vibe, doesn’t it?

It’s time to preorder Moonbound, if you haven’t already! Remember, forward your order confir­ma­tion email to and I’ll send you a copy of the limited-edition zine in May.

From Oakland, just down the street from Good to Eat,


P.S. The pace of these newslet­ters will now increase — June is fast approaching, and there is a lot to talk about! You’ll receive my next newsletter in mid-April.

March 2024