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