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, 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