Robin Sloan
main newsletter
February 2024

Leverage

An astonishingly detailed painting of a group of women bathing in the center of a vast city, which is shown in sharp, steep perspective; it seems to rise up and around them, impossibly, showing a vast field of cosmopolitan activity. In the center, in the foreground, they're just having a nice time bathing!
Women bathing before an architectural panorama, 1765, Fayzullah

I’m just back from a couple of weeks in Japan. I’ve traveled there many times, and the trips, for all their diversity, always orbit a central feature: THE ONSEN. Hot springs. Public bathing.

The “bathing” part of the equation is great, of course. A pool outdoors, February’s chill in the air, the water hot hot hot and clouded with nour­ishing minerals, or naturally effervescent, or sulfurously stinky.

But the “public” part is just as mean­ingful.

In the onsen, you are naked; everyone is naked. You see other bodies — every other kind of body. You learn the etiquette. I don’t quite have the words to artic­u­late the value of all this — when I do, maybe I’ll write a story set among the onsen — but, suffice it to say, if you find yourself in Japan, don’t overlook this oppor­tu­nity. The nudity might be daunting, for Americans in partic­ular, but if you can embrace it (because, remember: no one cares) you’ll be rewarded with comfort of a few different kinds.

Rustic hot springs are grand; even better, somehow, are matter-of-fact urban bathhouses. Years ago, in Nakameguro, around 10 p.m., we wandered into the neigh­bor­hood sento. It was well-attended at that hour, with the clear sense of some people ending their day, others just beginning. A few customers chatted quietly. Most sat solo, first scrubbing them­selves at the wash stations, then soaking in the baths. It felt, above all, healthy — not just bodily, but socially.

Oh, and there’s this: the public bath is one of the last spaces where you absolutely cannot bring your phone. What a relief.

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:

A limited-edition launch zine

The thing about novels is that they are a major creative medium possessed of a powerful aura, not to mention a well­spring for other media, through adap­ta­tion and homage … yet the numbers are just very small!

A best­selling novel might have sold, in the previous week, copies numbering in the single-digit thousands. That is, in one sense, a ton of books! But, in most other senses — the Netflix sense, the Spotify sense — it’s tiny.

You can read this as paltry; you can read it as cozy; you can read it as oppor­tu­nity.

I choose the latter.

Because success compounds! When a novel hits bestseller lists, it becomes a story, raises questions: how did this happen, and why, and is it deserved? Only one way to find out … so more people buy the novel. And it stays on the lists. And what began with single-digit thousands grows: into a multiweek bestseller, a series of best­sellers, trans­lated into twenty languages including Japanese (rendering future trips tax-deductible; this is important), adapted for the screen, the answer, at last, to superhero fatigue … 

With novels, you can get to the really big numbers through the very small numbers. It feels like a cheat code for culture. Really, it’s just leverage.

So: let’s talk about the best­seller lists, and those single-digit thousands.

Preorders are all counted in the first week of a book’s publication, regard­less of when they were placed. The preorder game therefore focuses a diffuse field of interest into one bright spot: maybe suffi­cient to ignite an engine, and really launch a book into the universe.

I want to really launch this book of mine.

So! I will now ask you to preorder Moonbound. Certainly, you should do this if you think the novel sounds compelling. But, even if novels aren’t your thing (not even MY novels??) … isn’t it enticing, an oppor­tu­nity to lay your hand on the lever of culture? In no other medium can so small a group of people simply: make it so.

You can preorder anywhere. Your local bookstore’s website should be your first choice. Green Apple Books of San Francisco is sort of my eternal local bookstore — I used to haunt the paperback tables, dreaming. You can preorder Moonbound from Green Apple.

Alternatively, there’s the reenergized, back-to-beautiful-basics Barnes & Noble. Those big, airy havens feel more precious than ever. You can preorder Moonbound from B&N.

Yes, you can preorder from Amazon, too.

AND.

I have begun the design of a limited-edition launch zine intended as a reward for Moonbound preorders. This will only be printed once; it will only be available one way. That way is this:

After you preorder, forward the confir­ma­tion email to preorder@robinsloan.com.

If the confir­ma­tion email already contains your mailing address: you’re done!

If the email doesn’t contain your mailing address: add it at the top.

Again, that's: preorder@robinsloan.com

Any format is welcome: print, digital, audio. If I can influence your choice, I’ll lay a finger on the scale in favor of print. It’s going to be a beautiful object.

Many of you have preordered already, so please, search your inbox and forward that confir­ma­tion email along.

I’ll keep count as we go. My goal is to tally a few thousand preorders from the readers of this newsletter—a number that would put us very solidly on our way toward the best­seller lists.

Reward, enticement, appetizer, collectible — this launch zine is intended as all of the above. I’ll print it on my trusty Risograph, two or three colors on toothy paper. It contains no spoilers, only some fun world­building you won’t find anywhere else. I’ll share a preview in my next newsletter. The zine will ship via USPS in May.


I do recognize my parochialism here: Moonbound is presently only being published in the U.S., and inter­na­tional preorders, while not impossible, are certainly more … convoluted.

So! American readers, spare a thought for your coun­ter­parts overseas. The surest way to hasten this novel’s global trans­mis­sion is to, yes, preorder a copy — demonstrating to publishers around the world that people really, REALLY want to hear about the year 13777.

Leverage!

Reading Japan

A zoomed-in detail of the painting, a scene set way in the background, where boats are plying a wide river, and a battle is unfolding on a distant plain. Looking at the full painting, you barely notice this, yet here it is! The whole telescoping background is alive with activity.
Women bathing before an architectural panorama (detail), 1765, Fayzullah

For readers who have been to Japan, or who enjoy thinking about Japan, here are some book recommendations:

Embracing Defeat, by John W. Dower, chron­i­cles the immediate aftermath of surrender and occupation. The encounter is political, economic, and cultural; in its partic­ulars, Dower claims it has no precedent in history, before or after. Reading this book, agape at the dizzying exchange, you believe him.

Ametora, by W. David Marx, unfolds a couple decades after Embracing Defeat, and plays in a softer key. It’s the story of how American midcen­tury fashion was metab­o­lized and remade by Japanese enthusiasts. Turns out, that link explains the global menswear aesthetic of the 2010s, only recently on the wane. Elegantly sized and scoped, I think this is a nearly perfect nonfiction book.

(An enduring image from Ametora: the Japanese fashion entrepreneurs scouring vintage shops of the American Midwest, asking lightly, innocently, about old jeans. “Do you have any more of these?” they ask. “I have, um, a work crew I’m looking to outfit … ” The jeans are worth ten times the price in Tokyo. Fabulous.)

Mystery novels provide another example of a genre ping-ponging across the world, essential features sharpened with every bounce. This example predates the war: Japanese readers devoured books by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and others as soon as they were available.

There’s a lot to choose from. Pushkin Press has been trans­lating short books by Seishi Yokomizo, whose detective Kosuke Kindaichi is a sort of sloppy Sherlock Holmes. The Honjin Murders, trans­lated by Louise Heal Kawai, is a great place to start.

There’s also The Beast in the Shadows by Edogawa Rampo, trans­lated by Ian Hughes, recently repub­lished as part of this attrac­tive series. “Edogawa Rampo” was a pseudonym, and if you say the name slowly and evenly, you’ll register the homage: edo-ga … wa-ram … po … 

Going beyond mysteries, there is What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, by Michiko Aoyama, trans­lated by Alison Watts. I reviewed this one for the New York Times! I loved it for its sensitive, alluring depiction of Japanese urban life, across a few different generations.

There is, finally, Craig Mod’s beautiful new book, Things Become Other Things, which ranges across backroads in Japan and America. Read Craig for a while, and you will recognize that he has defin­i­tively declined the worn-out role of “the American who explains Japan”. His subject is instead: how to live — in a particular place, sure, with partic­ular features … and those features are fun and inter­esting to hear about … but really: how to live.

Who can “explain” Japan? Nobody. Would you trust a writer claiming to “explain” America? Come on — the world’s too big for that. Take a walk instead.

It was a great surprise and a real pleasure to hear myself cited in this conver­sa­tion between Mylar Melodies and Tom Whitwell, stalwarts of the modular synthe­sizer world. I’ve watched many, many Mylar Melodies videos (is it strange that I don’t know the man’s real name?); meanwhile, Tom Whitwell is a renowned designer of DIY modules, several of which I have, indeed, Done Myself.

The work cited: this post about being the program­ming equiv­a­lent of a home cook, which has really had legs over the years.


“Tech has graduated from the Star Trek era into the Douglas Adams era,” says Matt Webb. There’s your frame for the 2020s.

Matt reifies the claim with Poem/1, the AI rhyming clock, a hardware Kick­starter project I have recently backed, still running for a few more days.

One of the essential char­ac­ter­is­tics of AI systems seems to be: inexhaustibility. Now, is that the inex­haustibility of the cornu­copia endlessly overflowing … or the murky rain that never lets up? Both! Neither? Poem/1 is a playful and provoca­tive foray into this (infinite?) new terrain.


Here is a two-parter in the appealingly-named Universal Thirst Gazette about typo­graphic emphasis in Devanagari — i.e., the thing we do with italics in Latin script:

These pieces are awash in beautiful examples — such a pleasure to explore.

The Lipi Raval fan has logged on!


I recently discov­ered Catherine Lacey’s 144-word essays—perfect little packets of language. Here is one example. Here’s another. They’re so great!

The newsletter form has encour­aged and/or indulged a rampant logorrhea; I see some newsletter-ers sending out these many-thousand-word missives SEVERAL TIMES A WEEK and I think, who is this for? (I recognize that my newslet­ters are not short … but they are, come on, not THAT long — and only monthly!)

Catherine Lacey’s shaped charges are therefore a tonic. She’s chosen a fruitful length: long enough for a complete thought, short enough to read in one gulp. You could hold your breath. And I appreciate that they are 144 words EXACTLY; it reminds me of the strange game we sometimes played on T — , trying to compose tweets of exactly 140 characters.


Via Transfer Orbit comes news that a fresh edition of The History of Middle-earth is arriving later this year. These are the ultra nerdy books I’ve written about before, that I strongly recommend, although only to a partic­ular kind of person.


Here is a fun unit: the microfortnight, which happens to be very nearly a second.

See also: the millihelen, or, “the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship”.


Here’s David Letterman inter­viewed by Seth Myers on the occasion of Late Night’s 40th anniversary. I have endless affection for this man — he is the talk show host of my life. I remember staying up to watch him, in his Late Show era, feeling plugged into the rhythm of the world.

I suppose young people get that feeling from the internet now; from T — T — ?

For me, it was Letterman.


Here is Adam Savage’s ecstastic tour of his recently redesigned shop in San Francisco — now home to the last fugitive scraps of the legendary ILM model shop.

You get the sense that for many of the mechanically-enthusiastic — the home drill press operators of the world — the shop IS the work. The artwork, almost. All the little projects, no matter how elaborate, are just excuses to keep the big one going.


Here is a tour of Philip Pullman’s desk. The world map on the far wall, spied with binoculars, is EXACTLY what you want from such a scene: wacky and appealing.


A theme emerges, creative people inventing their own strange spaces and processes … 

David Milch wrote the TV shows NYPD Blue and Deadwood. Here is a newsletter detailing his writing process, which was recumbent and social.

The recurring reminder: you can do it any way you want.

Maybe you’ll do it like David Milch, lying on the floor, speaking aloud. (It might be a computer capturing your dictation, rather than a room full of minions … for now … )

Maybe you’ll do it like Nicholson Baker, recording yourself deliv­ering impromptu lectures, then tran­scribing the tapes: your first draft.

You can do it any way you want!


Sam Valenti’s writing continues to orbit the question of canons: digital canons, 21st-century canons; the lack thereof, mutant forms thereof. It is really good, provoca­tive stuff.

Nice lines here:

I’d argue that Canon induction was pretty automatic (if studios would spend) up until around the ’00s. [ … ] Options were fairly limited, and mindshare was rentable for modest sums.

From there, it veers almost sci-fi, and deeply plausible.

I get the clear sense, from Sam’s newsletter, of someone sort of “sneaking up” on a big intel­lec­tual project. It’s a cool way to do it.


Reading Nana, the classic shojo manga, I enjoyed this absolutely ice-cold panel:

A severe woman looking at the reader, saying: Goodbye. Do you realize the extent of your naivety now?
Nana, ca. the 2000s, Ai Yazawa

Download that onto your phone and save it for a rainy day … 


I find myself both tickled and vexed by Apple’s devotion, over many decades, to the word “impute”. Here’s a reference; here’s the original source.

Impute? Impute. Impute??

Like the classic Looney Tune: Hansel? Hansel. Hansel??


Speaking of Apple: it’s my opinion that the company’s most inter­esting and provoca­tive offerings at the moment aren’t tablets or goggles but rather the vast, subtle networks they have patched together. In Japan, we sent our bags ahead of us, and I tracked them with an AirTag. So handy. I share my location, permanently, with a half-dozen people in the sousveil­lant Find My app. I have to confess … I like knowing that people know where I am!


The great pleasure of any Japan trip, after public bathing, might be sending your bags ahead. This can be accom­plished via Yamato Transport, which has — I insist — the best logo in the world:

Yamato Transport's iconic logo, a silhouette of a mama black cat carefully carrying her kitten in her mouth.
Yamato Transport

What a pageant of people and ideas, here in Jordana Cepelewicz’s history of the Mandel­brot set for Quanta Magazine.


Was Dracula defeated by garlic and silver? No, no, not at all, says Alan Jacobs … Dracula was defeated by modernity. I love this so much:

But Dracula’s biggest mistake is to enter the world of technocratic modernity.

We know why he does it: he lives in a sparsely populated backwater, whereas London is the largest city in the world and offers an endless supply of victims: victims he can kill and victims he can make into an army of the Undead. But this man of the early modern era can only enter London by obeying the proce­dures of modernity, which is to say, by acquiring a modern identity. As James Scott has taught us [ … ] the modern state makes people legible. And it is because Dracula becomes legible that he is thwarted, discov­ered, and killed.

(You might recall my previous thoughts on Dracula.)


I was capti­vated by a recent episode of KQED Forum, the great call-in show of the San Francisco Bay Area. The guest was Mandy Aftel, a renowned perfumer who also maintains a small museum, the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents, in Berkeley. (Ajax Penumbra has for sure visited this place.)

The episode is really worth a listen — it’s rollicking and lively, not to mention erudite. It is the host Alexis Madrigal’s incan­des­cent curiosity that makes it all go, of course — I am an avowed fan—but/and in this case the callers are also essential. Their contri­bu­tion is two-pronged:

  1. Calls in response to Alexis’s prompt, to recollect and share a mean­ingful scent from your life. These little conjur­ings are as potent as poems.

  2. Calls from people who have already visited Mandy’s museum, who want to thank her for creating such a singular space. They use words like “magic” and “hidden treasure”. The perfumer chokes up, surprised by the recognition.

Honestly, it was moving to listen live, on whatever morning this was. Plus, I learned a lot about perfume’s past and present. Highly recommended.


Here are eight essential attrib­utes of the short story as laid down by Joy Williams. I like these a lot — especially #4.

Contrast these to my one essential attribute: the short story must be about death.

That link is via Hagfish, a literary editorial studio with a great domain name.

A zoomed-in detail of the painting, showing a group of tiny little people in a boat, their reflections in the water depicted with wonderful pale little blobs of paint.
Women bathing before an architectural panorama (detail), 1765, Fayzullah

Don’t you love the little reflec­tions in the water?? The Cleveland Museum of Art has one other painting by Fayzullah, likewise rich in back­ground detail. The more you look, the more you see.

From the lab in Berkeley,

Robin

P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around March 25.

P.P.S. Forward those preorder confir­ma­tion emails to preorder@robinsloan.com!

February 2024