Robin Sloan
main newsletter
June 2022

The Suitcase Clone

A swirling haze of blue and white above a scratchy promontory of what might be red-brown rock. The overall effect is pretty abstract.
A mountain scene, Val d'Aosta, 1845, J. M. W. Turner

In my pre­vi­ous newsletter, I told you about the sale of my new full-length novel. There’s a while to wait for that one still, but fear not: the sum­mer brings surprises.

I’m delighted to announce The Suit­case Clone, a new novella of the Penum­bra­verse, com­ing in August from MCD!

For years, we’ve had my novella Ajax Penumbra 1969 to help us under­stand the foun­da­tions of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Now, The Suit­case Clone will do the same for Sour­dough, rein­tro­duc­ing a char­ac­ter from the novel, set­ting up a glo­be­trot­ting caper circa the 1980s, clar­i­fy­ing the con­nec­tion to Penum­bra.

Along the way, the novella will tell us more about a cer­tain charismatic goop.

Just like Ajax Penum­bra 1969, this will be an e-book and audio­book original. You can find links to all the dif­fer­ent e-book e-stores e-here, on the MCD e-site.

The “e-“ standing, in all those cases, for “eel”.

Behold, the cover, revealed here first:

A flashing neon sign depicting a strange fusion of a suitcase and a bottle of wine. The novella's title glows pink in the center.
The Suitcase Clone / MCD Books

GWAHHH it’s so great! That’s the work of Alex Merto at FSG; per­fectly unhinged.

Stick with me while I preview a bit more excite­ment com­ing later this year, then recount a story related to the novella.

Ten years later

It’s been ten years since the pub­li­ca­tion of Mr. Penum­bra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but/and it feels, to me, like much longer. Honestly, that book changed my sense of time forever, because it lev­ered me up out of office life; granted me a kind of breath­ing room I’d barely dared to hope for; showed me that cre­ative work can find its peo­ple slowly but steadily, across times­pans mea­sured not in weeks, con­tra the internet, but years.

Decades, soon.

This year, in com­mem­o­ra­tion of the novel’s tenth anniversary, and also because they know how to have fun, MCD will reis­sue Penumbra! A nice new edi­tion will appear on Octo­ber 4, this one with the novella Ajax Penum­bra 1969 included — the whole story together at last.

It wouldn’t be fair to leave Sour­dough out of the action, so its new edi­tion will arrive on Sep­tem­ber 6, this one with the new novella included.

I’ve men­tioned before that I love the term “perfect edition”, cribbed from manga — its sense of final completion, nice presentation, a stiff spine. These new books rep­re­sent the per­fect edi­tions of the Penum­braverse, and I will be so happy and proud to wel­come them into the world.

Graft and propagate

Now for the story behind this novella.

My novel Sour­dough was born the moment I heard the phrase “suit­case clone”.

The set­ting was a win­ery up in Men­do­cino County, a cou­ple hours north of San Francisco. Our host poured two tastes of some wine, I can’t remem­ber what kind, except that it was inky dark. Then, she told us, “You know … this one’s a suit­case clone.”

My lit­tle notebook, car­ried everywhere, was sud­denly in my hand. “What was that phrase, again?”

You have to admit: it has a deli­cious sound. The familiar, even domestic, clicks against the scientific, the strange. Suit­case … clone?

“What was that phrase, again? And what does it mean?”

Here’s what I learned.

In the early days of Cal­i­for­nia wine, before it had found its foot­ing on the global scene, a winemaker might have desired a cer­tain extra … oomph. This wine­maker might have recruited a friend, sent him abroad; to France, Bordeaux, the Gironde. A vacation! All expenses paid.

If, on his vacation, this friend found him­self walk­ing the bor­der of a grand old vine­yard, he might have remem­bered that he brought, all the way from Cal­i­for­nia, a pair of gar­den snips; might have used them, casu­ally lib­er­at­ing a few whippy lengths of vine. Noth­ing to see here! If that happened, what could he do but hus­tle back to the inn and wrap the cut­tings in wet towels? And stuff them, swaddled, into the bot­tom of his bag? And make haste to Paris, the airport?

And if a cus­toms offi­cer asked, “Sir, are you bring­ing any bio­log­i­cal mate­r­ial into the United States?”, what could this friend say but: no, of course not. He’s forgetful. Besides, it was just a vacation.

If all that happened, then, back in Cal­i­for­nia, the friend’s pre­cious cargo would have been grafted and propagated, grafted and propagated, until, years later, a vine­yard sprawled: cloned copy of the one in France, Bordeaux, the Gironde. Per­fect twin? Of course not. Dif­fer­ent earth, dif­fer­ent sky. But, even so … doesn’t a ghost remain? Either way, the wine­maker can always say, over a pour in the tasting room:

“You know … this one’s a suit­case clone.”

So, yeah, that’s wonderful, obviously. The col­li­sion of agri­cul­ture and espionage; cultivation, warm and round, meets tradecraft, cold and sharp! Learn­ing this phrase lit a fuse in my brain. There was a novel curled up in there; I knew it. Because, of course, the suit­case clone could be very strange indeed … 

What did I say, though, in my pre­vi­ous newsletter? The idea “drops out of the smooth hyper­space of abstraction, appa­rates right into the aster­oid field of real work.”

It was 2014, 2015. I sat and schemed, tried to build a story around a mys­te­ri­ous vine — wrote a few spooky chap­ters that I liked okay — but fundamentally, I could not han­dle the clock.

Wine is made once a year. Grapes mature once a year. The pulse of the story, as dic­tated by its cen­tral “char­ac­ter”, had to be annual; it had to be slow, agricultural, generational. Today, in 2022, I am better-equipped to write this kind of story; back in 2014, 2015, work­ing in the shadow of Penum­bra’s urgent present tense, I could not grasp it.

I needed a sub­stance that could chan­nel the spirit of the suit­case clone, but/and also sup­port a faster tempo. I found it in the starter that sat burp­ing in the cor­ner of my kitchen. You can bake a fresh loaf of bread every damn day! And deliver new infor­ma­tion with each one! There’s your clock.

Besides, any/every baker of sour­dough bread has heard about starters of long and leg­endary lineage; starters stolen and smuggled, lost and found.

Sourdough, the novel, was born. It turned out great.

And yet, and yet … “suit­case clone”. I couldn’t give it up.

With this novella, we return to the hid­den origin. We swim upstream to the source, which looks like this:

A swirling haze of blue and white above a scratchy promontory of what might be red-brown rock. The overall effect is pretty abstract.
Chatel Argent and the Val d'Aosta from above Villeneuve, 1836, J. M. W. Turner

Much of The Suitcase Clone is set in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta, way up in the cor­ner, one of those regions, like Alto Adige, where nation-states fuzz and fade. I only vis­ited Italy because of Kathryn, her year at the University of Gas­tro­nomic Sciences, a.k.a. the Hog­warts of food. Sour­dough is ded­i­cated to her, and though The Suit­case Clone doesn’t have a proper dedication, it owes a debt to long walks through small towns in Piedmont — in December! Italy in winter, what a vibe.

Both of these paint­ings by J. M. W. Turner depict the Valle d’Aosta, and I think it’s inter­est­ing to com­pare his ear­lier work, just above, to the one at the top of the newsletter. Scroll up, look again. This one is a castle over­look­ing a valley, neat — there’s a cas­tle in The Suit­case Clone, too — but the one at the top cap­tures the pure SENSE of sky above rocks. It com­mu­ni­cates some­thing animal, even alien.

Keep that paint­ing in mind when you read The Suit­case Clone. The feel­ing is right.

Ten years, and we are just beginning! The Penum­braverse expands!

From Oakland,


June 2022