Robin Sloan
main newsletter
June 2023

Lit up like a sparkler

A wildly impressionistic sun rising above a rocky landscape, its light not just yellow or white but a scattering of rainbow colors.
The Sun, 1909-1916, Edvard Munch

The days are getting long; somehow, this is always a surprise.

Below, you’ll find a newsletter packed with recom­men­da­tions, links, and stray thoughts. As always, my intention is not for you to process every­thing — just pursue the two or three items that catch your eye.

Of course, if it’s me reading a newsletter like this, I open up a merry parade of thirty tabs … but that’s just me.

Here we go!

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.

I’ve linked to Jack Cheng’s newsletter several times in the past, but I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that Jack and I went to the same high school, just a couple of years apart, or that we’ve followed similar paths — tech jobs to crowd­funded novels to writing careers. He is a fellow traveler along several dimensions.

That’s all to say, I was excited to learn that his new novel is nearly here! In his latest newsletter, Jack talks a bit about the book’s milieu, and coins a compelling new phrase.

An illustration of a bag of whole coffee beans, the label exhibiting a sort of rough zine-like spirit.
It helps that the bag is so pretty

Here in my household, we have recently become devoted to Proxy Coffee, specif­i­cally their Omen blend, which is billed as a “dark roast”, but … well, I’m not enough of a coffee nerd to really pinpoint this, but it is defi­nitely not the same dark roast that I have learned to avoid in cafes and truck stops. If you have histor­i­cally been suspi­cious of dark roasts, or if you live in a household riven between roast preferences, give this one a try. “Omen” is a good name, because it’s truly revelatory.

A small jar of tea with a pretty floral label and a bright red lid.
The red lid, it must be said, is adorable

Don’t worry if you don’t drink coffee … I’ve got you covered.

For years, visits to my friends Dafna and Jesse’s house have concluded with cups of their house blend tea. Sometimes they even send us home with a little jar of it — a precious commodity, quickly depleted.

Now, that tea is available to everyone. It’s decep­tively simple, made from chamomile flowers and sage leaves, all fresh and organic. I’m telling you, though: this is the one. This is the tea.

While you’re visiting the INNA Jam website, don’t miss the strange and seductive super spicy ginger snacks, which Eater recently declared the world’s best snack for ginger lovers.

Jesse is, of course, my Cotton Modules bandmate, the composer and producer respon­sible for the compelling sound of The Greatest Remaining Hits. It’s all connected!

Passionate uncertainty

Here is a post about Cleopatra from Bret C. Devereaux, notable for its disciplined uncertainty. Not just disci­plined: passionate! That’s not a feeling generally asso­ci­ated with uncertainty, right? Yet here it’s plain.

Recently, I reread a bit of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, and I was struck by a version of the same feeling:

[ … ] Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recog­ni­tion that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the conso­la­tion of a belief. It strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here — either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.

There’s a way in which the modern media environment — maybe all media envi­ron­ments ever — pushes against “I don’t know”. In an interview, any kind, it’s weirdly difficult to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. The statement hangs in the air … the pressure builds … and the words come — any words, really, a haze of well-maybes and if-thens to fill the silence. If you haven’t noticed this before, listen for it; it’s ubiquitous, and sort of darkly hilarious.

I am trying to be better, when it’s appropriate, at starting and finishing with “I don’t know”. I aim to become a world champion.

Miwa Messer is a longtime book­selling force at Barnes & Noble who, for the past two years, has been the mind and voice behind its Poured Over podcast. Listening to a recent episode, I was struck again by her nearly incandescent enthusiasm.

I have been its bene­fi­ciary before: Miwa was a great ally to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough and, honestly, her support of both books was pivotal. The fact that I have a new book on the way, am sitting here typing this newsletter for you, owes more than a little to her work.

It’s amazing the differ­ence one person can make, standing in the right place, lit up like a sparkler.

Here is another chapter in the love story between graph paper and video games, this one revealing the classic Street Fighter II sprites disas­sem­bled and packed like Ikea furniture.

I love the pencil sketches — perfectly analog, yet totally informed by their digital destination:

On the left: a set of animation frames for the righter Ryu drawn in pencil, tightly packed together. On the right: those same frames translated into pixels on a vast grid, packed the same way.
What a fun job

This passage is wonderful:

In order to make the best use of the capacity we had, we wrote the ROM’s capacity on a [paper] board, and cut and paste the pixel char­ac­ters on the board.

If there was space left on the board, then there was open capacity in the ROM. So, from there we started filling in the spaces, like a puzzle.

One thing that happened that’s kinda inter­esting, we saved making the ending for last, and by the time we got there we were all out of capacity. We were wondering what to do, when we found a board that had gone missing under a desk.

We called it the “miraculous memory”.

Here is Kyle Chayka’s dream of a personal machine, a wistful vision built on a beautiful foun­da­tion of aesthetic references.

I replied to Kyle and told him the “personal machine” I would add to his constel­la­tion is Penny’s book from Inspector Gadget — an object deeply coveted in my youth.

Here is a mini-manifesto that pairs perfectly — maybe eerily — with Kyle’s newsletter: The Computer is a Feeling.

I love following the blog of Hiroko Shimamura, who trans­lated Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough into Japanese for Tokyo Sogensha. In her latest post—read with the aid of Google Translate, what a gift — she discusses a series of crime novels she’s been translating. Hiroko writes:

It’s a comment that makes me want to tell [the author], “I can feel your thoughts even in Japan!” [ … ] I intend to do every­thing I can as a trans­lator so that I can continue to publish as many Japanese versions as possible for a long time.

“I can feel your thoughts even in Japan!” Maybe there’s a note of machine translation in that phrase; regardless, it’s beautiful. We all do our part, writers and readers and publishers, but/and there’s nobody more important than the translators.

I enjoyed this celebration by Alexander Wells of the global Englisch of Berlin. What a language! What a world.

The breath of the gods

Here in the haunted 21st century, a random book recom­men­da­tion gets picked up by Twitter’s algorithm and launches the object of its affection skyward. Last month, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s terrific epis­to­lary sci-fi novel This Is How You Lose the Time War was briefly the best-selling book on Amazon. It also arrived, four years after initial publication, on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Here is Max’s recol­lec­tion of the surreal event, which is how I learned about it.

This is a good thing happening to a great book and better people — but/and, there’s something unset­tling about these algo­rithmic lightning bolts. From afar, watching the flash, it feels like the activity of a classical god. The algorithm’s choices are exactly that consequential; exactly that capricious.

It’s inter­esting to notice how often the digital, so much more than the physical, feels irrational, unknowable, haunted. Flashes from the mountaintop. The breath of the gods.

Here’s a trenchant obser­va­tion from Caroline Polachek:

Here’s the thing with mentor­ship generally: The landscape of how people consume music changes dras­ti­cally every five years. So what advice, really, does one generation have to give to the next? Very little. Discov­ering yourself is the only thing that can be taught in that way. Because every generation and micro­gen­er­a­tion has to rewrite the rules and come up with new ways of navi­gating and creating meaning — in a way that previous gener­a­tions not only can’t advise on but maybe even can’t under­stand. So we have to stay kind of humble here as well. Like, I don’t think I can actually advertise myself as a mentor. What the fuck would I say, start a band and go on tour for 10 years? You can’t even afford to do that now.

Here is a successful indie video game developer explaining their marketing strategy, built entirely around describing their game to Twitch and YouTube streamers in a way that will entice them to play it on camera.

This feels totally dizzying to me — THAT’s how you market something in the 21st century? — which just proves Caroline Polachek’s point above.

The developer explains that their outreach to “traditional” websites was almost totally unsuccessful. Something is happening, with glacial implacability, across media: an all-over collapse in reviewing, partic­u­larly of work that’s inde­pen­dent and/or experimental, its creators not already famous. The circuits that once carried new work into the world are going dark.

In their place: the breath of the gods! The algorithms!

Here is Adam Savage at the American Book­binding Museum! It warms my heart to see him exploring one of San Francisco’s quiet gems. If you visit, you will realize, or remember, that books are machines, and there’s much more to a great printed book than the words on the page.

In another video, Adam learns about an apparatus in the museum’s collection that offers the reminder: most things that get printed aren’t books. Indeed, books are a rela­tively small and unim­por­tant region of the vast country of print. I suppose you could find this deflating; I think it’s great.

For anyone inter­ested in books and reading on the World Wide Web, it’s worth spending some time with Make Something Wonderful, the new compendium presented by the Steve Jobs Archive.

I say that not because I’m sure it’s an exemplary “web book”, but rather because it’s very clearly trying to be, and the people who produced it are very smart, so it becomes worth asking: in what ways does this succeed? In what ways does it fail?

This project is very close to the state of the art, both tech­ni­cally and aesthetically, which provides a useful oppor­tu­nity to assess that state.

Here is the story of how the U.S. elec­tricity grid was born, from the excellent Contruc­tion Physics newsletter.

Here is a satis­fying thread of real places and devices that shine like something out of science fiction.

Here is Alanna Okun writing about the ways in which program­ming is like crocheting. You know I’m wild for analogies that reconnect computers to their textile roots.

Here is Nick Cave describing a salient scene:

I remember waiting in the darkened venue for [the band] to come on, bummed out about England, listening to some ambient music wafting out of the speakers, when suddenly and without warning The Pop Group strode onto stage and ploughed into the opening song with such indomitable force and such sudden visceral rage that I could barely breathe. It was the most exciting and ferocious concert of my young life — every­thing changed at that moment and we, as a fledgling band, knew then what we needed to do.

What an image! Striding, ploughing! What would it mean for a novel to take the stage with that kind of energy?

The art and craft of the blurb

With some regularity, you’ll come across a cynical assessment of book blurbs. Blurbs (the assess­ment goes) are corrupt and meaningless: nothing but friends doing favors for friends. “Everyone knows this.”

This assess­ment is wrong. For many years, I have received perhaps one blurb request a month, of which most are sent by editors, a few by authors themselves. Roughly half come from people I know, or people who know people I know; the other half have no preexisting connection.

I consider the requests, in all cases. My first novel benefited from one partic­ular positive blurb, and I believe I will always be “paying that back”.

If I read a book and decide to offer a few words of support — this isn’t a given — I consider the blurb form itself a kind of mini-genre, and I try to do a good job. That’s “good” in the sense of writing something commer­cially useful to the author and publisher; “good” also in the sense of writing something I, as a book browser, would find compelling.

Here’s my blurb for The Tatami Galaxy, a Japanese novel newly trans­lated:

The team of Tomihiko Morimi and Emily Balistrieri is unbeatable: this novel vibrates with a voice that is sharp and funny, wacky and winning. It’s a perfect slice of contem­po­rary Japanese pop: a tangle of fates, simul­ta­ne­ously cosmic and comic. I loved my voyage through The Tatami Galaxy.

Here’s my blurb for Hilary Zaid’s novel Forget I Told You This, forth­coming in September:

Forget I Told You This sets our high-tech world of phones and apps vibrating against the beauty and history of pen and ink. Twisty and textured, rich and hyperreal, Hilary Zaid’s world is dense with myste­rious invitations. In fact, her novel itself is exactly such an invitation — and I’m very glad I said “yes”.

That novel will be published by Univer­sity of Nebraska Press. Hilary Zaid emailed me herself, totally cold, explaining that my novels had been in her mind as she wrote this one, wondering if I might give it a glance.

I agreed … and then my advance copy collected dust for several months. To be clear, it would have been fine for me to say, in the end, “Alas, I didn’t get to it.” That happens all the time. But … I wasn’t quite ready to give up, because the novel’s premise had tickled my curiosity. (It involves some very nerdy calligraphy.) One quiet weekend in February, I picked it up, tore through it, and wrote my blurb.

So, listen. Obviously there’s a way to do this cynically. That’s true for every­thing, though! Every task, every exchange, every relationship. There is also a way to do it respectfully, with a kind of delib­erate porous­ness that opens the door to real surprises, for blurber and browser alike.

Recently, a blurb from Philip Pullman sold me instantly and totally:

A bright full moon hanging over a lake shore, its light reflected as a thick bar in the water.
Moonlight, 1895, Edvard Munch

Did the book live up to Pullman’s praise? No. Was it worth reading? Definitely! That feels about average for a blurb.

Take a look at Asuka Hishiki’s new book of botanical illustrations, Botaniphoria: A Cabinet of Botanical Curiosities, from the terrific Two Rivers Press in Reading, England.

I want to say “I can’t believe these are drawings”, but that’s not right, because it’s not that they look like photographs … they are something else, something hyper-, something almost beyond seeing. Look at the tormented kohlrabi on page 29 and tell me you don’t want to buy this book.

(I have not yet determined how to acquire Botaniphoria in the U.S., but when I do, I’ll let you know … )

A book I have figured out how to import from the U.K. is M. John Harrison’s new “anti-memoir”, which just arrived as I was writing this newsletter:

A book titled Wish I Was Here, with an acid green cover riven with scraps of handwritten notes.
Wish I Was Here

Twenty years ago, almost, I walked into the Barnes & Noble on King Street in San Francisco (now replaced by a fancy bowling alley) where I discovered a novel that sported on its cover (1) a white cat, and (2) a line of praise from Neil Gaiman:

A remark­able book — easily my favorite SF novel in the last decade, maybe longer.

On the strength of those words, I bought the novel, which is titled Light, and today I am still reading its author with devotion.

See! Blurbs matter.

Ever since the dawn of computers, people have been predicting a new kind of media that molds itself to your “preferences” … 

You could walk into your house and [say to the] AI on your streaming platform, “Hey, I want a movie starring my photoreal avatar and Marilyn Monroe’s photoreal avatar. I want it to be a rom-com because I’ve had a rough day,” and it renders a very competent story with dialogue that mimics your voice. It mimics your voice, and suddenly now you have a rom-com starring you that’s 90 minutes long. So you can curate your story specif­i­cally to you.

 … and ever since the dawn of computers, they have been wrong!

This isn’t a matter of insuf­fi­cient technology, now reaching some critical threshold. It’s a matter of nobody actually wanting the product described.

[ … ] Say you want Fortnite to be more of a horror game, right? Then you could ask the AI to ramp up the horror elements of it. So again, you could curate your expe­ri­ence. I think that’s where it’s going.

The people who make these predic­tions think they are conjuring something profound or imaginative, but what’s always striking to me is their lack of imagination. Like, in addition to being demon­strably wrong, this vision is just … boring … in its concep­tion of art, culture, desire, every­thing.

Anyway, if you hear someone describing a media future of this kind, it’s a sign you can safely ignore their opinions and predic­tions. You know I love those convenient razors!

Profoundly great, part 1

A sketched storyboard showing a thin, wizened guru with a bristly beard seated, meditating.
The great Guru Pathik; storyboard by Ian Graham

Last night, Kathryn and I finished our rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the animated series that aired on Nick­elodeon between 2005 and 2008. The show is compact and purposeful: three seasons of 20 episodes each. The total number of episodes, though, is 61, because the spec­tac­ular finale required a little more screen time.

I enjoyed this viewing even more than my first, many years ago, which is saying a lot. This time, I was more aware of the unlikely admixture of wacky humor — the animation has moments that are pure Looney Tunes — with mythic depth. This show and its char­ac­ters have something real to tell you, not just easy plat­i­tudes to repeat. The episode in which Guru Pathik (pictured above) takes Aang, the young Avatar, on a tour of his chakras is legitimately revelatory.

The performances, too, rank as among the best in the history of animation. Dante Basco’s Prince Zuko is one of the all-time great screen voices.

This show was a global smash, so it’s likely that many of you have watched and loved it already. If you haven’t, I really cannot recommend Avatar more highly; this is an uncom­monly coherent work of art, with a sense of wholeness and inevitability that is vanish­ingly rare in any medium, for any age group.

Profoundly great, part 2

A screen grab from the video game 80 Days, with a woodcut-esque illustration of a ferry floating above a luminous map of the Mediterranean, with pale lines revealing the potential paths ahead.
Hope it doesn't sink!

Recently, I redownloaded 80 Days, the text-forward adventure game released to great acclaim (including my own) in 2014. For as much as I played it back then, I left most of its territory unexplored, and it’s been great fun to expe­ri­ence the stories/­adventures/­conspiracies/­mysteries waiting down some of those paths. The game’s circuit around the globe is studded with delight­fully difficult choices, so you’re always thinking, “Next time, I’ll go that away … ”

Everything about 80 Days still works as well as it did in 2014: the crisp, clean visual presentation; the expansive game mechanics; and, of course, Meghna Jayanth’s script, the world it conjures — still the benchmark, in my estimation, for writing in video games. Meghna’s prose is novel-worthy, easily, but/and there’s a partic­ular sparkle and seduction that goes beyond anything novels can do, powered by her total awareness — enthusiastic embrace — of the interactive form.

If you have never played 80 Days, it is available on nearly every platform. Partic­u­larly for people who are perhaps more readers than gamers, this is the demon­stra­tion of what the medium has to offer.

A bright full moon hanging over a lake shore, its light reflected as a thick bar in the water.
Moonlight, 1895, Edvard Munch

Avatar and 80 Days both returned to my life around the same time, and the feeling I got from both encoun­ters was the same. It’s ener­gizing to look more closely at your favorites, trying to under­stand a little bit better how they succeed.

Both of these favorites are exemplary of the kind of work I want to produce.

I send my newslet­ters when the moon is full, and WOW was it full last night. We watched it rise above the Oakland hills, at first pale peach against a sky still light. Thirty minutes later, it had deepened into the most golden moon I have ever seen in my life.

That’s it for this edition!

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on July 3.

June 2023