Robin Sloan
main newsletter
December 2021

A mirror, green and gold

A strange, fuzzy, washed-out field of greens and yellows that might be a landscape of some kind.
Landscape, 1892, Edgar Degas

In California, every­thing is green! Not just one green, but all of them. Greens inky dark, greens neon bright. Dimen­sional greens, soft-furred. These col­ors won’t last; will soon crisp up, caramelize, disintegrate; but right now, in this sea­son, a real Cal­i­for­nia winter, they are wonderful.

On New Year’s Day, I’ll stream a live read­ing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the fab­u­lous 21st-century trans­la­tion by Simon Armitage. It’s been a big year for the Green Knight! I am in good practice.

As usual, I spent the whole of Novem­ber on the road, driving a medium-big truck, and the sig­na­ture of the sea­son was: FOG. We are talk­ing about a dense, struc­tural fog — nothing wispy about it — which felt to me alter­nat­ingly malev­o­lent and transporting. Friends in the San Joaquin Val­ley said it reminded them of childhood; this was fog of a qual­ity not seen in a long time.

A sense, this winter, of cycles rebounding, or resetting.

Some things pub­lished recently, some still in the pipeline.

First: a short story.

I was hon­ored to con­tribute to the Jan­u­ary/February 2022 issue of MIT Tech­nol­ogy Review, newly under the lead­er­ship of Mat Honan. I have known Mat, and fol­lowed his work, for many years; he is, for me, the per­fect 21st-century editor: rig­or­ous but/and imaginative, wry but/and wacky, a man­ager of big, seri­ous things — a whole mag­a­zine, now — with a gonzo pilot light still burning.

The story I wrote for Tech Review — really: for Mat — is titled Elyse Flayme and the Final Flood, and it is avail­able only to the magazine’s subscribers … or, of course, any­one who picks up a print copy. Go find a mag­a­zine rack!

I’ve had a spate of short story commissions recently — this is very unusual!–and all of them have been from ~entities~ that don’t cus­tom­ar­ily pub­lish fic­tion. In these situations, I’ve had to sort of guide the process for all of us, which I don’t mind. My sys­tem is to cook up three or four thumb­nail story sketches, so every­one involved can share a sense of direction, even creativity, and deter­mine together which sketch seems most fruitful — most useful, given the project’s goals — before I pro­ceed to a vom­i­tous first draft. For com­mis­sions of this kind, it really does not work to declare, “Okay, I will go off and write some­thing.”

So, for your edi­fi­ca­tion and enticement — any book­store with a good mag­a­zine selec­tion will have Tech Review — here’s the sketch that led to Elyse Flayme. The impulse to primp this text is strong, but I’ll give it to you raw, just as I dis­patched it to Mat and his colleagues:


A writer of a cli­mate-sensitive fan­tasy epic, hailed as the Green Tolkien, has for six years been spin­ning her series of books, one every year, each adapted instantly by Net­flix into a sea­son of a glossy TV series, books and show alike hugely successful. A cultural phenomenon.

Now the time has come for Molly Khan to fin­ish the series — but she will not. She hides in a rented house on the wild Cal­i­for­nia coast, and her read­ers around the world, the TV show’s fans, not to men­tion her pub­lishers and the show’s producers: all await her conclusion. It is writ­ten into the con­tract that they can­not pro­ceed with­out her. But Molly Khan has real­ized something about her story; some­thing related also to the real story of Earth; and it has stopped her cold.

She will not answer emails. She will not pick up the phone. So, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pub­lisher is dis­patched to inquire: might the author fin­ish, at last, her billion-dollar book? And if not, why not? What has she seen in the final fate of Kli­maria that’s sent her into hiding?

Our story fol­lows this rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Molly’s redoubt, and reveals what he learns there.

I acknowledge that this con­cept is weird, but/and, I like that it pro­vides a way to talk about cli­mate through a few lay­ers of misdirection. This will be a story about culture, fandom, the demands of the market, and how all those things inter­sect with the sys­tems of the Earth. I can pack it full of real insider-y tex­ture and detail. And, I am gen­uinely curious: what DID Molly Khan find, at last, in her story of a burning world?

There’s more!

For the newslet­ter Dirt, I wrote about 3D video games and their oddly restricted perspective. The fact that Dirt pro­vides a home for weird aes­thetic dis­patches of roughly 500 words AND pays hand­somely for them makes it a bright bea­con in 2022’s unset­tled web writing landscape.

In addi­tion to being a contributor, I’m a devoted reader, and I recommend Dirt to you, not least because it’s dif­fi­cult to pin down what the newslet­ter … is … exactly. Dirt teaches you as it goes. Day by day, you learn to identify, through grad­ual triangulation, what is Dirt-y and what is not.

Maybe that’s just called “taste”.

What else? I wrote another short story in Novem­ber, and its com­mis­sion­ing ~entity~ will pub­lish it, I believe, in early 2022. This one was a joy to draft and develop; I’ll send a link when it’s avail­able to read.

Seriously, this is very unusual!

Merry Christ­mas to the James Webb Space Telescope, a golden mir­ror that was lifted from the sur­face of this planet on Decem­ber 25, very early in the morning, and is now mak­ing its way to a roost at the point called L2, linked to Earth’s orbit, where it will slowly open its “sunshield”, many-layered, a high-tech baklava. If all goes well, in the mid­dle of 2022, from its shad­owed niche in space, bliss­fully cold, the JWST will begin to gaze.

I have to con­fess that I was extremely hung up on this launch. The tele­scope has taken so long to build, absorbed so much money, so much work and care; if some­thing had gone awry, the cra­ter­ing sense of futil­ity would have been … well, what I want to say is “impossible to recover from”, even though I know it’s hyperbolic. Sorry to lay all that on you, JWST; you shouldn’t have to be the avatar of ambi­tious science, big projects, pub­lic things. But here we are.

Godspeed! Get that baklava up!

A monochrome sketch, in crayon, of a woman drying her side with a small towel.
After the Bath (large version), 1891-92, Edgar Degas

To those of you I won’t see on Jan­u­ary 1st: Happy New Year! These past few months have felt spe­cial to me. It has been a sea­son of cel­e­bra­tion brack­eted by hard work and fol­lowed, in a very basic sense, by refreshment.

I mean the rain, of course, as well as a stretch of relaxation. We went to the hot springs. We went to the hot springs … in the rain 😋

I mean also that I deleted a bunch of sub­scrip­tions and accounts for news web­sites and social media platforms, habit­ual haunts for a decade or more. These were my most famil­iar new-tab twitches, which raised the question, at last:

am I just going to keep pok­ing at these web­sites,

and drib­bling onto these platforms,

for another ten years?

In the end, I turned it into a ritual; a kind of ecdysis. I submit this report not in the spirit of self-aggrandizement or evangelism, but sim­ply to confirm, for those curious: it can be done; it’s easy; it’s light. I submit this report because I might have appre­ci­ated hear­ing it from some­one a year ago, or four.

How many times will I return to Calvino’s first memo?

Were I to choose an aus­pi­cious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sud­den agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises him­self above the weight of the world, show­ing that with all his grav­ity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many con­sider to be the vital­ity of the times — noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a ceme­tery for rusty old cars.

From Oakland! Get that baklava UP!


December 2021