Robin Sloan
main newsletter
January 2023

There’s room
for everybody

Happy New Year! I have a new short story to share:

A chapbook-sized edition of a short story, with a bright red cardstock cover.
In the Stacks (Maisie's Tune), Brand New Box

This story was commis­sioned by the digital product studio Brand New Box as a year-end gift for their clients and friends. Back in the summer, when we framed up the project, their para­me­ters were simple:

It absolutely could, on both counts.

Of course, it still had to be about death.

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.

Following the process I described in a previous newsletter, I delivered four story sketches to the studio. Their selection was swift and decisive; they chose the nerdiest one.

In late summer, I wrote and revised, waited a while, revised again. In the months that followed, Brand New Box did their thing, and just last week, I received the print edition, its form a total surprise, delightful:

The inside cover of the chapbook, with a faux library card.
In the Stacks (Maisie's Tune), Brand New Box

I was not going to share it in this newsletter — what, a cruel tease? — until I learned, earlier this week, that Brand New Box has ALSO published a web edition for all to read. I hadn’t known they were going to do that; surprises all the way down!

With pleasure, here is In the Stacks (Maisie’s Tune). It’s a truly inter­ac­tive presen­ta­tion — don’t miss the play button.

A two-page spread showing many tiny, sketchy figures busy at work; most are sitting and laughing, or scowling. There is an overall sense of commerce and comedy. These could be little manga drawings made today, in the 21st century.
Illustrated Diary, 1888, Kawanabe KyĹŤsai

Ladies and gentlemen, the multifarious Marcin Wichary

Here is the website for Shift Happens, the forth­coming book by Marcin Wichary about the history and devel­op­ment of the keyboard.

I suspect some of you have encoun­tered Marcin’s work before. For those of you who haven’t, you ought to know that he is one of the web’s great humanists, his roving curiosity matched only by his deep well of capability.

His recounting of the quest for beautiful link underlines is a digital design classic — a monument to sweating the details.

Memorably, Marcin once translated and re-edited a Polish TV series from his youth, then rented a movie theater in San Francisco and invited his friends to attend a single screening of the Wichary Cut. I was there; it was wonderful.

Marcin’s explo­rations all seem to suggest: maybe you can do whatever you want.

(He has this in common with my new short story’s central character.)

I’ve enjoyed a behind-the-scenes view of Marcin’s work on Shift Happens over the past several years. He has been on a voyage of discovery — with real archival revelations — while also keeping fixed in his mind a clear, uncom­pro­mising vision of the print artifact he wants to create. At last, that artifact is here. A pre-order Kick­starter launches in February; I’ll circulate a link at that time.

There’s a page on the website titled simply My book and what it means to me; it’s both a beautiful reflec­tion and a compelling invi­ta­tion, and it’s got me wondering if perhaps every author ought to produce a page of this kind. Maybe I’ll make one for my forth­coming novel. I know what it would say.

A two-page spread showing many tiny, sketchy figures busy at work; most are sitting and laughing, or scowling. There is an overall sense of commerce and comedy. These could be little manga drawings made today, in the 21st century.
Illustrated Diary, 1888, Kawanabe KyĹŤsai

Here is the real-life inspi­ra­tion for my new short story: the Big Red Synthesizer.

Tap or click to unmute.

I ripped this video from (my own account on) Instagram, so if you are a user of that platform, it might be more pleasant to watch it over there.

That trip to Lawrence was very memorable. The Raven Book Store, the Lawrence Public Library, the Big Red Synth … what’s not to love??

Here is a guide to the technical archi­tec­tures of various video game consoles: NES, Game Boy, Super Nintendo, Genesis, PlayStations 1 through 3, etc.

It is also, I will posit, a basically perfect website. The presen­ta­tion is clear and sturdy, enlivened with media exactly where appropriate. The inter­ac­tive elements are simple and snappy. AND the text is available in like ten different languages?! This here is the web done right.

(For the record, it was a random question about the Game Boy’s four-color display that led me to this compendium. Before I left, I’d read all about the NES and Super Nintendo, too.)

Here is a piece by Matthew Braga, who I’ve long read and admired, on a fasci­nating film-historical question:

[ … ] What should the sea sound like? What should a viewer hear when watching kelp forests sway or seahorses fight? It wasn’t something anyone had to consider before, not seriously. Songs about the sea tended to focus on distance, adventure, danger, and longing — on human concerns happening on the surface, not life beneath the waves. But PainlevĂ© wanted his audience to see the ocean as a world like our own; a world of dignified seahorses, stylish crabs, and seductive octopuses, the human condition rendered bubbling and bulbous. He wanted emotion, movement and vibe. Much to the chagrin of scientists, who did not want such things, PainlevĂ© chose jazz.

What follows is a fun, cross-cutting exploration — and a playlist.

Here is Erin McKean’s 2022 word list, always a delight. Necrobotics!

I appreciated Ted Gioia’s newsletter cheering the recently improved fortunes of Barnes & Noble, which derive from a renewed respect for its booksellers.

I will always root for this company.

When I was young, my family would decamp to the B&N ten minutes up the road, and everyone would go their own way, wandering and browsing and stacking books (only to abandon most of them; 1990s B&N cafe workers, I am sorry) for what felt like — what may in fact have been — the whole day.

I’ve had reason to remember those trips because I’ve found myself several times at the B&N in Fresno, where the new era is evident: a massive rearrange­ment of the shelves, a culling and refreshing of the stock, all for the better. The store looks great, and it glows as brightly with invi­ta­tion and possi­bility as any B&N ever has.

When I visit that Barnes & Noble, it’s bustling, packed with groups — families, mostly, but also feral packs of manga readers — and the great thing about those stores is, they’re huge. There’s room for everybody.

Yes  …  and?

I’ve linked to Deb Chachra’s energetic vision before, but/and, I’m still thinking about it, so you have to think about it, too:

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.

For me, this remains THE clarion artic­u­la­tion of humanity’s infra­struc­tural future. Our civi­liza­tion is going to be powered by the sun. Duh.

(Perhaps I say should say “powered more directly by the sun”: cutting out the intermediaries of oil and gas, their poisonous terms of service.)

Yes, solar panels only work for half the day; yes, the world does not presently possess enough batteries (or even perhaps enough lithium?) to support the other half. Yes, where electric cars are concerned — and not only cars, but heat pumps, induction stoves, the whole Electric Cinematic Universe — if everybody bought one, power gener­a­tion would have to grow by some terri­fying multiplicative factor.

Yes … and?

Cars are a fruitful analogy for infra­struc­tural change, because they trans­formed the world — its urban fabric, its geopo­lit­ical balance, its cuisines (!)—so completely in a single short century.

Did people say, at the dawn of the automobile: are you kidding me? This tech­nology will require a ubiq­ui­tous network of refueling stations, one or two at every major intersection … even if there WAS that much gas in the world, how would you move it around at that scale? If everybody buys a car, you’ll need to build highways, HUGE ones — you’ll need to dig up cities! Madness!

Maybe they did say those things. It WAS madness; and the world went mad.

Skeptics of solar feasi­bility pantomime a kind of technical realism, but I think the really technical people are like, oh, we’re going to rip out and replace the plumbing of human life on this planet? Right, I remember that from last time. Let’s gooo!

I have no doubt whatsoever — not a scrap, not a shred — that humanity can remake the world as completely in this century as it did in the last.

Here’s Deb:

Every place in the world has sun, wind, waves, flowing water, and warmth or coolness below ground, in some combination. Renewable energy sources are a step up, not a step down; instead of scarce, expensive, and polluting, they have the potential to be abundant, cheap, and globally distributed. Tran­si­tioning all of our infra­struc­tural systems to be powered by renewable sources is about growing out the number of people who have access to more energy, who benefit from using it to meet human needs, whether as basic as cooking food or as modern as global telecommunications.

Her vision remains bracing and inspiring. We can have it if we want it.

A two-page spread showing many tiny, sketchy figures busy at work; most are sitting and laughing, or scowling. There is an overall sense of commerce and comedy. These could be little manga drawings made today, in the 21st century.
Illustrated Diary, 1888, Kawanabe KyĹŤsai

Discovering Donegality

Over the past year, I’ve been pondering C. S. Lewis, rereading some (not all) of his Chron­i­cles of Narnia, learning more about his influences. I read:

In that last book, I encoun­tered a new-to-me line of thinking from Lewis that both mirrored and deepened a feeling that has haunted my own reading and writing as far back as I can remember.

It has to do with vibes.

C. S. Lewis could never quite explain it; here’s Ward describing his attempts:

[Lewis] uses a variety of words in his efforts to catch his meaning. They include: “the ipseitas, the peculiar unity of effect produced by a special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts”; “a state or quality”; “flavour or atmosphere”; “smell or taste”; “mood”; “quiddity.” [ … ]

The phrase “balancing and patterning” made me gasp, at least inwardly. It sounds exactly right; I believe it is what I have felt myself doing when I have been happiest and most excited about my writing.

A few lines later:

Again and again, in defending works of romance [in the chivalric sense], Lewis argues that it is the quality or tone of the whole story that is its main attraction. The invented world of romance is conceived with this kind of qual­i­ta­tive richness because romancers feel the real world itself to be “cryptic, significant, full of voices and the mystery of life.” Lovers of romances go back and back to such stories in the same way that we go “back to a fruit for its taste; to an air for … what? for itself; to a region for its whole atmosphere — to Donegal for its Done­gality and London for its Londonness. It is noto­ri­ously difficult to put these tastes into words.”

“Donegality” becomes a key term in Planet Narnia, which, for all its academic sobriety, is honestly a sort of gonzo puzzle adventure — very Umberto Eco, almost Dan Brown.

Here’s more from Ward on C. S. Lewis and his vibes:

That this atmos­pheric quality is virtually inex­press­ible leads Lewis to speak of it at times as a spiritual thing. For instance, it is “the vast, empty vision” of Hamlet that is, in his view, Shakespeare’s chief accomplishment — the sense that “a certain spiritual region” has somehow been captured by the use of images such as night, ghosts, a sea cliff, a graveyard, and a pale man in black clothes. Within the mesh of these images the myste­rious epiphe­nom­enal flavour of Hamlet is caught and commu­ni­cated to the attentive reader or theatregoer. Likewise, in David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, the planet Tormance is so described that it amounts to an encap­su­la­tion of “a region of the spirit.” The net of the story — the events, the characters, the back­ground descriptions — has temporarily ensnared, as if it were an elusive bird, a sheer state of being; and for the duration of the read, this bird’s plumage may be “enjoyed.”

I like Ward’s use of the words “mesh” and “net” there; I might add “web” and “network”, even “game”—the sense of pieces arranged on a patterned board.

Here, perhaps, is language for my own most powerful responses.

An example: William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy in the 2000s was profoundly important to me — electrifying, the discovery that novels can feel like this—but/and I have always struggled to explain what about the books was so appealing. It wasn’t their prose, exactly, even though it’s terrific, or their plots, which I cannot recount, or their characters, who were gnomic slabs of style; yet there was in those novels something that I found nowhere else.

So, yes: perhaps it WAS the “spiritual region” they mapped out, the “special balancing and patterning of thoughts and classes of thoughts” they achieved. Perhaps they DID catch something in their “net”: a “sheer state of being” that had to do with sublimely cool jackets and was clearly (it was the 2000s) some kind of zeitgeist.

William Gibson probably thinks this is stupid, but I don’t care.

It’s important to say these “regions” are not genres — way too coarse — and they are not authors, either. I have enjoyed William Gibson’s recent novels, but they do not possess, for me, the flavor of the Blue Ant trilogy. That partic­ular bird has slipped the net.

Reading about Lewis, learning that he floun­dered in this partic­ular bucket, has made me feel more confident about my own compulsions. Tolkien called the invention of languages his “secret vice”; it’s pretty clear that Lewis’s was the contem­pla­tion of symbols and symmetries. It is mine, too — one of them, anyway.

The good stuff can’t be named, only sensed; we are like deer desper­ately licking our snouts out here. Even so, it’s helpful to have some language to throw around. Balancing and patterning. Meshes and nets. Done­gality!

I wish I could go back in time and offer C. S. Lewis “vibes” in return.

The illus­tra­tions above are by the artist Kawanabe KyĹŤsai. I found my way to him through this print of a stolid crow — 

A Japanese woodblock print of a crow standing stolidly on a branch in the rain. The crow is a blot of black ink -- wonderful.
Crow on Plum Branch in Rain, 1800s, Kawanabe KyĹŤsai

—and I had already selected and resized several nice, “normal” images when I came across his amazing illus­trated diary. Its pages record the inter­ac­tions around “various painting commis­sions he carried out”; don’t they look like they could have been doodled by a comic book artist yesterday?

Kawanabe KyĹŤsai was known as the “demon of painting” for his unmatched skill and inex­haustible energy. Take a look at his Drawings for Pleasure or his Pictures of One Hundred Demons, still fresh and delightful more than a century after he sat down to draw them.

It’s raining hard here in the San Francisco Bay Area (picture me as the crow, above) and I am deep in book revision, doing absolutely nothing else: a great start to the year. This has delayed my newsletter redesign until next month, which is just fine.

It was a happy surprise this week to see Brand New Box’s web edition of the story they commis­sioned, and I hope you’ll give it a look.


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on February 5.

January 2023