Robin Sloan
main newsletter
August 2023

A summer wind

Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno
Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno

A quick newsletter for this full moon. It’s a beautiful summer day in the Bay Area, and I am deep in book work.

Yet there are links I must circulate!

Last week, I joined hosts V. V. Gane­shanan­than and Whitney Terrell on their Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast to talk about “social media after Twitter”.

I mention this in our conversation, and I want to under­score it here: where the internet is concerned, we are in a crisis of discovery. Anyone with inter­esting new work to share — their own or someone else’s — rummages in the tool shed, looking for a seed spreader or a slingshot, and emerges with an egg beater and a single unmatched glove. Is this all we’ve got??

Maybe it seems odd to make that argument while the great algo­rithmic engines of YouTube, TikTok, etc., pump away, stronger than ever, powering a whirlwind of media unprece­dented in history. They do sometimes circulate inter­esting new work; they do sometimes sell books. But that’s the breath of the gods, and I don’t want gods. I want tools.

I suspect there is no easy remedy. Or, maybe I mean to say: if it’s easy, it’s not a remedy. For example, if the Twitter clone called Threads becomes widely used, if its discovery algorithm really starts to pop, if it becomes a place where a new writer can build a mean­ingful audience … won’t that solve this problem? Of course not! Anyone who has used Instagram for more than six months, and therefore expe­ri­enced its slippery caprice, understands this.

The strategy is the same as it always was: cultivate small, sturdy networks of affinity and interest. Connect them to each other. Keep them lit.

Bookstores and libaries have had this down for decades, of course. These days, their rock-solid reli­a­bility feels like a super power.

I always have a lot (too much) to say on this subject. You’ll find more such rumi­na­tion in the podcast.

Now — let’s light it up.

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.

Alexis Madrigal has launched the Oakland Garden Club, a newsletter that will grow to encompass publishing and apparel. (This, on top of hosting the Bay Area’s essential call-in radio show every morning! He’s a dynamo.)

If you are plant-minded or plant-curious, this writing and thinking will resonate with you powerfully. I loved the most recent edition with its cut-up art, captured on a mountain trail.

Here is a compendium of trade secrets from Scope of Work, one of the really great newsletters. This edition, compiled by Kelly Pendergrast and Anna Pender­grast, captures “the secret recipes, the superstition, and the myths embedded in what we call ‘innovation.’” It ranges from cymbals to cricket balls to (yes) how the sausage gets made.

Okay, I have to quote that last one; it’s sublime:

When Chicago’s Vienna Sausage Company moved from its original premises which were “put together in a Rube Goldberg kind of arrangement” to a brand new state-of-the-art facility, the sausages didn’t taste as good. For a year and a half, the company tried to work out the problem to no avail. One day, workers were remi­niscing about an ex-employee, Irving, who didn’t come to work at the new factory due to the long commute required. Irving’s job was to move the sausages from the filling room to the smokehouse, taking them on a half hour journey through a maze of rooms where other products were getting produced. After noting this absence, it clicked that Irving’s daily trip was the secret ingredient — on his journey the sausages were getting pre-cooked and infused with flavor. The company was even­tu­ally able to recreate the sausages’ original taste, building a brand new room onto the factory which emulated the prop­er­ties of Irving’s trip.

Here is W. David Marx on the persis­tent gulf between internet fame and “real” fame: Why haven’t internet creators become superstars?

Related, and perhaps partially explanatory: Max Read reminds us that the internet is for 12-year-olds. (Mostly he means YouTube.)

The Future of Trans­porta­tion newsletter from Reilly Brennan covers EVs and driving tech­nology in a style that is the perfect defi­n­i­tion of “businesslike”: crisp and comprehensive. I’m still rooting for robo-taxis, so I read this every week.

Anne Trubek argues that, no, book publishing didn’t used to be better.

Bloomberg’s Screen­time newsletter, written by Lucas Shaw, is spec­tac­u­larly good. There’s no shortage of people opining about the business of streaming media; Lucas provides an ongoing reminder that rigorous reporting and careful writing do, in fact, count for a lot.

Taking up space

If you are a user of both (1) the library e-book app Libby, and (2) an iPhone, allow me to improve your life.

The Libby widget is simple but/and profound. It looks like this — nice and chunky:

A cropped screenshot of an iPhone home screen, showing the Libby widget, just a simple listing of the book currently being read. Right now, it's The Fellowship of the Ring.
Libby, my love

The widget shows the e-book that’s currently open. Tap, and you’re right back where you left off.

One deep drawback of digital reading is that e-books are so quick to disappear. If you acquire an e-book, either through purchase or library loan, you’d better read it immediately and without stopping. Otherwise … if you forget about it for a single day … that e-book will eagerly slink away onto the third page of a list you’ll never again review.

Print books behave differently, of course. They remain exactly where you left them. They take up space. They declare: hey, at one point, you were inter­ested in me … REMEMBER?

Obviously, this can become a burden, but, on balance, I think it’s a great gift: the eloquence of the physical. So, the Libby widget’s very basic emulation of this behavior — the simple fact that it takes up space—is weirdly magical.

In fact, I wish I could install three Libby widgets, each one showing my progress through a different e-book! I tried; unfortunately, the widgets all show the e-book that’s currently open. I’ll take what I can get.

For digital designers, I think this terrain remains rich for inves­ti­ga­tion. There’s been a decades-long emphasis on interfaces that are exquis­itely polite, that recede when not in use; but there’s a place, in certain contexts, for inter­faces that impose themselves, that refuse to go gentle into that digital night.

Stand up for yourself!


Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno
Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno

When I run across a forth­coming book that sounds inter­esting, I try to note the publi­ca­tion date somewhere, somehow, so I can seek it out when it’s available. Currently, my calendar is dotted with odd reminders, placed months ago, with text like: “Novel X should be out by now! Look it up?” It is certainly … a system … but probably not the best one.

I have resolved, at last, to create a more struc­tured list of the eagerly-awaited, which will have the added benefit of being shareable. I’ll be able to include a link on my home page and in these newsletters.

I haven’t designed or engi­neered this yet, so, for now, we’ll just prototype it in plain text.

Eliot Peper’s new novel, titled Foundry, arrives in October. I’m very excited for this one, because it’s set in the milieu of semi­con­ductor manufacturing, an industry that is, in its real-world impor­tance and secrecy, totally thriller-worthy.

For years, I have wanted to write a short story with the title: Taped Out Bad on the Nanometer Node! No, I do not have anything beyond the title. Perhaps reading Eliot’s novel will exorcise the impulse at last.

Lydia Kiesling’s new novel, Mobility, is out TODAY! The “mobility” in its title is that of capital, and oil, and the people who chase both.

I am a longtime reader and fan of Lydia’s. I am also a fan of Lydia’s editor, the great Emily Bell. They worked together when Lydia’s first novel was published by MCD (my publisher) and they are working together still: Mobility is the first book published by Crooked Media Reads, an imprint of the wonderfully-named ZANDO.

Edan Lepucki’s new novel, Time’s Mouth, is likewise out TODAY! What a Tuesday! This line from the glowing Kirkus review wracked me with envy; here is exactly what you hope someone will say about your book:

This emotion­ally intense, wildly imag­i­na­tive novel is both down-to-earth and out-to-lunch. One of a kind.

She’s done it. Joanne McNeil has written the perfect “I have a book coming out soon” newsletter.

I’m very serious about this: if you will ever be called upon to write a message of this kind, study Joanne’s work here as closely as you’d study a great short story. She is direct and inviting, without a hint of shuffling self-deprecation. It’s brilliant.

Her novel, due in November, is titled Wrong Way. Joanne writes:

If you’ve ever said some variation of “why don’t they publish books like X anymore?” well, this one’s for you … 

At last, it’s almost here: Menewood by Nicola Griffith will be published in October by MCD. This is the sequel to Hild, which I have praised before as the Great Midwinter Novel: epic, English, a bit spooky, and, above all, utterly absorbing. Hild was, and remains, the kind of novel you can sink into for days; pure pleasure.

Soon, Menewood will continue the story. Look at this COVER … 

An advance copy of Menewood by Nicola Griffith, showing a beautiful, prismatic illustration of a woman in cloak and chain mail staring with calm determination at the viewer.

 … and look at this HEFT!

The advance copy of Menewood on its side, revealing that it is fully three inches thick.

I’ve had my advance copy for a while, but I have put off reading it, waiting for the weather to cool, just a little.

Dust by Jay Owens will arrive on August 31 in the U.K., November 14 in the U.S. I’ve written before that Jay is one of the writers and thinkers whose presence basically justifies the internet. This project was incubated as an email newsletter, but/and it launched Jay out into the real world, traversing some truly remote and rarified terrain. A gritty (!) intellectual odyssey.

I wrote a bit about Deb Chachra’s How Infra­struc­ture Works in an earlier newsletter. That book is still forthcoming, in October — and, see, this is why I want to make that struc­tured list: so that books can remain, for me and for you, incan­des­cently forth­coming, rather than fade into the back­ground radiation of the internet even before they’ve arrived.

The truth is, this would make a terrific little web app: super simple, spring-loaded, a way for anyone to register forth­coming books of interest and receive an alert when they’re available. Someone should build that! (Not me: I’m strictly a home cook.)

A few more links of interest, and then I’ll get back to work.

Here is a graphic depicting the sprawling ancestry of Tolkien’s legendarium. You know it’s Tolkien when the trees have a lineage, too.

Here is Kevin Kline’s Great American Sandwich. When I saved this link, I noted:

This essay is a work of art. Meta and looping. The way it ends is fabulous. This is what writing on the internet is all about.

Here’s a new issue of ROMchip, “a journal of game histories”. This one is about maintenance; I am glad to know there is something in the world called a CRT Rejuvenator.

This newsletter from Ken Whyte is a beautiful inves­ti­ga­tion of, and medi­ta­tion on, the deep weirdness of BookTok, which is: the scrum of fiction readers and popu­lar­izers who post videos on the fizzing algo­rithmic platform called TikTok.

I continue to find the whole thing disorienting, but/and, hey: these readers are building a network. They are doing something that, for example, the book review sections of newspaper websites are not: they are selling books!

Here is a look at the typograpy of Akira, including several rejected logos. It’s all just eternally, unimpeachably cool.

“If I was drinking port, it’d be a perfect job.”

Here is a terrific poem by Matthew Zapruder: As I Cross the Heliopause at Midnight, I Think of My Mission.

Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno
Sommerwinde, 1922, Felice Rix-Ueno

Good advice, as ever:

maintain your distance, take care of your core ideas and aims, make sure you know the exact differ­ence between what you do and anything else that’s going on, and move along quietly to the next thing

I would add: there is power and leverage in not being inter­esting in the stuff everybody else is inter­ested in — the stuff other people insist is urgent.

Map the regions of your own affinity and interest, across all relevant dimensions: intellectual, aesthetic, moral. The rest, you can ignore freely. Ignore strenuously!

From Oakland,


August 2023