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