Robin Sloan
main newsletter
May 2022

The plunge

A tiny lagoon in a beach, the water an almost hyperreal light blue.
Beach Öland, 1911, Helge Johansson

A new novel is drafted and sold; it will be pub­lished in the U.S. by MCD, who brought you Sour­dough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

More on that later in the newslet­ter. I have other things I want to talk about first, but it felt too sneaky not to lead with the good news!

Tide report

I’ve been swim­ming! Kathryn and I were inspired by our friends to buy ther­mal wetsuits. “You stay toasty warm!” they told us, and I didn’t quite believe them, but now it’s me say­ing it: you stay toasty warm!

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 18 years now — that num­ber sure did sneak up — and I would have told you I know it well, have ranged its whole cir­cum­fer­ence and built for myself an expansive, inte­grated view. Yes, I had been nearly every­where in this bustling donut megacity; but it IS a donut, truly; and what does that imply? This Area has a hole for a heart, and I had never once been swim­ming in the Bay.

We go a few times a week; it’s a short drive to the beach, where the water runs chest-high for a kilometer, easy. The tides dic­tate our swims. We watch the moon; suddenly, its phases have teeth. That’s pretty fun.

And: isn’t this tide book gorgeous? What a plea­sure to flip to a new week and let these charts tell you what you’ll be doing, and when.

A graph showing the tides through the Golden Gate, printed in a lovely way; the graph itself seems to froth with water.
Tidelog, May 16-17

During an evening swim through big, slow swells, I floated on my back and peered across at San Francisco; the sun was sink­ing directly behind the city. All I could see was the water — dark, nearly black, the way it gets at that time of day — and the scal­loped top of the city’s sil­hou­ette, like a float­ing citadel. Atlantean, in that light. I had the thought, sim­ply: I’ve never looked at San Fran­cisco this way!

Two decades liv­ing in a place, and there is still, always, some­thing new to discover.

Two decades think­ing about a place, and there is still, always, a new angle to find!

(In case it’s not clear: this is, for Bay Area sub­scribers, a full-throated rec­om­mendation. I’ll add that a great unex­pected ben­e­fit of the wetsuit, besides toasty-warmness, is the buoy­ancy it provides. I have his­tor­i­cally been a terrible, and there­fore fearful, swimmer; the lit­tle extra lift has been a great aid to prac­tice and improvement.)

Electric eel

My pub­lisher MCD is cel­e­brat­ing its fifth anniversary; here, Sean McDon­ald marks the occasion. I want to high­light this line:

 … an abid­ing sense of gen­eros­ity and com­mu­nity that would help the whole MCD list feel like an organic whole.

because it’s what makes MCD feel spe­cial to me: the sense of being “labelmates” with these other authors.

I feel totally “at home” on the MCD list with Dan Bouk and his forthcoming Democracy’s Data; with Brian Mer­chant and Claire L. Evans and their forth­com­ing Terraform; with Tamara Shopsin and her LaserWriter II, which you know I loved. The list goes on; I could cite nearly every book pub­lished by MCD in the past five years, and a bunch yet to come. Alexis Madrigal wrote a book for MCD!

It’s a rare-ish feel­ing these days; I haven’t encoun­tered too many authors who would say the same thing about their pub­lisher or imprint. Even when they feel extremely well-treated, there is not this sense of coher­ence and affinity.

Avid read­ers know FSG’s logo, with its three sturdy fishes. Five years in, I remain enchanted with the evo­lu­tion embed­ded in MCD’s mascot: the elec­tric eel.

Doing the damn thing

While we’re on the sub­ject of pub­lish­ing and conviviality, I want to take a moment to recog­nize Eliot Peper.

Eliot has a new novel out this week, titled Reap3r, a gleam­ing near-future thriller in the tra­di­tion of William Gib­son, Neal Stephenson, and P. W. Singer/­August Cole. This is Eliot’s TENTH novel; he is the absolute model of get­ting out of your own way and doing the damn thing.

Eliot is also a notably great con­trib­u­tor to the writ­ing and pub­lish­ing com­mu­nity: con­stantly hyp­ing other people up, always mak­ing connections. If an Eliot Peper novel is a canny syn­the­sis of new tech­nol­ogy set against far-flung locales, then Eliot him­self is also a syn­the­sizer of peo­ple and projects — a pow­er­ful integrator.

I strongly rec­om­mend his newslet­ter, which arrives (unlike … some … oth­ers) on a reg­u­lar cadence with a focused set of book recs and links of interest.

A finger of land stretching out into the water, which is, as above, a sort of glowing unreal blue.
Promontory Öland, 1913, Helge Johansson

For the lab newslet­ter, I wrote some notes about Twitter. If you are, or were, a user of the platform, you might find them inter­est­ing, even convincing.

Since I last wrote, we’ve added our fresh 2021 oil to the Fat Gold online shop! You would absolutely not be sad to have both of these vari­eties at hand in your kitchen.

I’ll also point you, again, to our com­pre­hen­sive Guide to Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil, sim­ply because I’m so proud of it 😇

Omar Rizwan’s essay on page 100 of this PDF zine/journal, titled “Against text”, is hugely provoca­tive; in fact, I’d say it’s a must-read for any­one work­ing on dig­i­tal media, new interactions, things like that.

I mean, to be clear: it’s so provoca­tive it makes me itch! I sort of hate it! Evi­dence it is exactly the kind of argu­ment I ought to be chewing on!

Coleen Baik has, over the past cou­ple of years, taught her­self the art of hand-drawn animation. She’s just released a new short, and, even though I’ve been following along with her progress, I was hon­estly not pre­pared for the level of mas­tery it demonstrates.

Here is Coleen’s ani­mated short about care and love, pro­duced with care and love.

Here is Tom Armitage on cycling: an enlivening, inspir­ing post that res­onates on the same fre­quency as my bay swim­ming expe­ri­ence.

There’s always something new to discover, and when that “some­thing new” has the ben­e­fit of lur­ing you reli­ably out of the house … at 42, it’s a helpful combination.

Quanta Mag­a­zine won the Pulitzer Prize for Explana­tory Reporting. I was delighted to see this recognition, with its “notably Natalie Wolchover”. Quanta, generally, is my favorite pub­li­ca­tion on the whole internet; Natalie, spe­cifically, is my favorite sci­ence writer work­ing today. What a mind to have on your side!

I decided recently that I was way over­due read­ing Frankenstein. This free audio­book ver­sion by Caden Vaughn Clegg is fabulous, and, holy shit, what a book! The voices of its nar­ra­tors (the mon­ster among them) pierce through 200 years like a laser beam: as vivid and romantic, in the old sense, as the day the novel arrived. (Also, I was truly not pre­pared for the moment when you find your­self FOUR FRAME STO­RIES DEEP … )

Here are the columns by quan­tum physi­cist John G. Cramer for Ana­log magazine, 1984-2022 and ongoing, pro­duced expressly for writ­ers of sci­ence fic­tion: encap­su­la­tions of cutting-edge ideas, offered as fuel for their imaginings.

THAT, my friends, is a good old-fashioned web page.

I discovered the columns after watch­ing this presentation, pre­cisely the kind of low view-count trea­sure that I love to find on YouTube. Here’s a line I jotted down:

Causality isn’t really a bound­ary condition. It’s sort of a prejudice; an observation.

Does your city have wheel peo­ple? The ones rid­ing their neat lit­tle monowheels, wrapped in bub­bles of pure Jet­sons futurity? The sil­hou­ette of a place does change; slow, then fast.

I love to see these fig­ures whizzing along, lean­ing into the wind.

Here is a rous­ing assess­ment of the pos­si­ble future of this planet’s economy from Deb Chachra. One para­graph in par­tic­u­lar rewired my brain a lit­tle; I have found myself return­ing to this insight (emphasis mine):

We mostly only close materials loops when it’s “economically viable” to do so. By and large, what that means is that it takes less energy to recy­cle the material than it does to cre­ate it in the first place, which is true for aluminum, steel, and glass, but not for mate­r­ials like plastics or concrete. But the promise of access to renewable energy is that it changes this equation, putting processes that are intrin­si­cally energy-intensive, like recov­er­ing the car­bon from plas­tics for reuse or desali­nat­ing sea­wa­ter to make it potable, on the table. It doesn’t matter how much energy a process needs if it is inexpensive, doesn’t limit the energy avail­able to oth­ers for their use, and is non-polluting. There’s a vir­tu­ous cir­cle here too: the faster that renew­able energy systems are up and running, and the closer we can get to achiev­ing this potential, the more that we can apply that clean energy to repur­pos­ing the mate­ri­als of our cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems to build out the phys­i­cal infrastruc­tures of our new ones. Not beat­ing swords into plowshares, but recy­cling cars into elec­tric trams. We live on a sun-drenched blue mar­ble hang­ing in space, and for all that we per­sist in believ­ing it’s the other way around, that means we have access to finite resources of mat­ter but unlim­ited energy. We can learn to act accordingly.

We can have it if we want it.

The other minds combo pack

Ways of Being has a cover that's chaotic and chromatic, a painting melting into a rainbow. The Mountain in the Sea presents a stark, octopus-like silhouette against a light blue background.
Ways of Being and The Mountain in the Sea

I read these books back-to-back and they made a pow­er­ful pairing. Ways of Being is just out from FSG; The Moun­tain in the Sea is forth­com­ing from MCD. I feel like they ought to sell them together in a lit­tle slipcase.

Ways of Being is aston­ish­ing in its breadth, the cross-disciplinary range of James’s explorations; it had me jot­ting notes every three pages. Here’s one:

A com­pelling thought from Bridle, page 239:

Evolution com­prises many processes — natural selec­tion and randomness among them. In more complex ani­mals, randomness is suppressed, because there are so many inter­de­pen­dent processes in these com­plex bodies. But in “simpler” forms, ran­dom­ness can flourish.

Slime molds and radiolara — they just VIBE OUT. Like a gen­er­a­tive art project.

This is one of those books that, read­ing it, you swear you can feel the elec­tricity tin­gling across the sur­face of your brain.

The Moun­tain in the Sea, meanwhile, is the most excit­ing novel I have read this year; maybe in the past few years. Long­time sub­scribers know how impor­tant early-2000s William Gibson was to me. In this novel, Ray Nayler Does That Thing, Recognizably, but/and the book’s polar­i­ties and pri­or­i­ties are different, because it’s 2022, not 2002. There is, for starters, more LIFE in this book than in any of Gib­son’s — life of many kinds, and correspondingly, minds of many kinds.

That can be tricky ter­rain for fic­tion; I have often encoun­tered tran­scrip­tions of ~other kinds of minds~ that are impressive technically, but not actu­ally fun or inter­est­ing to read. In this book, again and again, Ray Nayler gets it just right; an impres­sive feat of sci-fi cal­i­bra­tion and pop fluency.

On top of every­thing else, The Moun­tain in the Sea fea­tures my favorite vil­lain in recent memory. As a writer, I found the depic­tion of this char­ac­ter legit­i­mately inspir­ing; I took notes.

The other other minds combo pack

Those books, together, reminded me of two more that I read a while back and have con­tin­ued to think about in the months since:

Two books with whales on the cover. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is a dreamy photo; What Would Animals Ask is a geometric illustration.
Whales, whales, whales

It will not sur­prise you to hear that The Cul­tural Lives of Whales and Dolphins is eye-poppingly fascinating. It has the added ben­e­fit of being writ­ten in a reg­is­ter that I associate with the very best, most seri­ous field scientists. The book is about whales and dolphins, but/and I found it an hon­estly thrilling account of clear human thought.

What Would Ani­mals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? is as play­ful and pro­found as its title — and what a title! Vin­ciane Despret insists, throughout, on the value of anecdote, and the neces­sity of encoun­ter­ing ani­mals in their own world. Lab­o­ra­tory experiments, for all their sup­posed rigor, sim­ply can’t tell us the things we want to know about crea­tures that live in, and through, the world outside.

In a world as vast as this one, Vin­ciane Despret insists, see­ing some­thing once actu­ally counts for a lot.

I loved her voice, which is to say, Brett Buchanan’s ren­di­tion of it; he includes lots of lit­tle trans­la­tion notes that are inter­est­ing, even funny, in their own right.

A sparse landscape, with a few leafy trees poking up in the foreground and the sea just visible in the far distance. The colors are all weird and exaggerated, like an alien planet; the ground is a kind of acid green.
Öland, 1912, Helge Johansson

All along

2020 was a pow­er­ful year for: if you want to do it, bet­ter do it now.

There was a book I wanted very badly to write; a book I had been mak­ing notes toward for nearly ten years. (In my database, the ear­li­est one is dated Decem­ber 13, 2013.) I had not, however, set down a sin­gle word of prose. Of course I hadn’t! Many of you will recog­nize this feel­ing: your “best” ideas are the ones you are most reluc­tant to realize, because the instant you begin, they will drop out of the smooth hyper­space of abstraction, appa­rate right into the aster­oid field of real work.

In the first week of 2021, I drove with two sacks of gro­ceries to a rented cabin near Joshua Tree. There, I began at last, and I loved what emerged; loved the feel­ing of finally choos­ing spe­cific words for this vision. So, I kept going, and, in Sep­tem­ber 2021, sent a first very rough draft to my agent, Sarah Burnes. Ear­lier this year, we sent a man­u­script to Sean McDon­ald at MCD, and now, we are going to pub­lish this book together.

You’ll have to for­give me for keep­ing my cloak­ing device engaged here; it’s not time to lay out the book’s par­tic­u­lars, or even reveal its title. There is tons of work still to be done. The expe­ri­ence of pub­lish­ing two novels, see­ing the ways they find their read­ers, has taught me a mea­sure of patience; we will be talk­ing about this book, and its world, in this newslet­ter for a long time.

And anyway, there are clues, tons of them, in past editions; clues even in this one. How could there not be? This is the book I have been think­ing about all along.

Lots more to come this year; a cre­ative tide is rolling in.

From the water, where it runs chest-high,


May 2022