Robin Sloan
main newsletter
February 2023

Crossing the
Sunshine Skyway

Foxgloves, Nikolai Astrup, 1915
Foxgloves, Nikolai Astrup, 1915

First, I want to thank you for the lovely reaction to the short story I shared in my previous edition.

Many readers said it made them cry. Good — it made me cry, too.

Here’s the web edition again, in case you missed it.

The story features a partic­ular music synthesizer — one I’ve really used. If you read it and you find yourself wondering, “but what does that sound like?” then you should watch this performance by the great Caterina Barbieri. It starts simply enough, but 15 minutes later … whoa. (You might open a new tab and let it play while you read the rest of this newsletter, or do whatever you’re going to do for the next thirty minutes.) (The perfor­mance begins at 17:20, in case my YouTube time cue doesn’t work.)

Alternatively, here’s Suzanne Ciani operating a huge Moog system—very similar to Maisie’s synthesizer, both sonically and ergonomically.

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.

This will be a short edition. I just devoted all of January to a big revision of my new novel. It was a ton of work, a great success — and I think I might be, for the moment … out of words!

I have plenty of weak­nesses as a writer; happily, “doing the work” and (eventually) “finishing the work” are no longer among them.

I can remember very clearly a time when this wasn’t the case.

Back in 2004, I heard about an event called 24-Hour Comics Day, the invention of Scott McCloud, whose book Under­standing Comics I’d recently found electrifying. The idea was: gather at a comic book shop; stay up all night; write and draw a 24-page comic. That’s it!

At that time, I was very inter­ested in comics and, in my own estimation, not totally without talent.

I had, of course, never drawn more than a page.

I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I discovered that a comic book shop in Sarasota, about an hour’s drive south, was partic­i­pating in this obscure event. So, I packed up some Bristol board and crossed the Sunshine Skyway. The proceed­ings were set to begin in the afternoon and continue overnight. The shop ordered pizza. I didn’t know anyone else there. It was fabulous.

24-Hour Comics Day stipulated: no pre-planning! Always a rule-follower, I asked my coterie of college friends to suggest bits of story, which I printed blind and then, in Sarasota, with horror and delight, dutifully integrated.

A comic book panel showing a young man eyeing a shrub where a tiny, cartoon-y bird -- remiscent perhaps of Tweetie Bird -- is popping its heads up, singing a little tune.
A panel from Robin's 24-hour comic

I finished my improv comic in the allotted time, feeling loopy and exultant. I was pleased with the result, and, more than that, I was incred­u­lous that there was a result. That I had produced a complete comic book.

At age 24, I spent a lot of time thinking about writing and drawing, and signif­i­cantly less time actually writing and drawing. I had finished exactly one (1) short story, several years prior. This comic expanded my ouvre by a signif­i­cant percentage. It was a tiny revolution.

When you start a creative project but don’t finish, the expe­ri­ence drags you down. Worst of all is when you never deci­sively abandon the project, instead allowing it to fade into forgetfulness. The fades gather; they become a gloomy haze that whispers, you’re not the kind of person who DOES things.

When you start and finish, by contrast — and it can be a project of any scope: a 24-hour comic, a one-page short story, truly anything — it is powerful fuel that goes straight back into the tank. When a project is finished, it exits the realm of “this is gonna be great” and becomes something you (and perhaps others) can actually evaluate. Even if that eval­u­a­tion is disastrous, it is also, I will insist, thrilling and productive. It’s the pump of a piston, preparing the engine for the next one.

Unfinished work drags and depresses; finished work compounds and accelerates.

(I ought to clarify: sending an edition of a newsletter does not provide this fuel. The internet works against the feeling of starting and finishing, against edges, because those things all imply endings, and the internet never ends. To produce the fuel of completion with a newsletter, you’d have to start one … send some number of editions … and shut it down.)

Here is a PDF scan of my 24-hour comic from 2004, titled Ornithology. This is juvenilia: rushed, truncated, silly bordering on nonsensical. At the same time, it repre­sents one of the earliest chugs of an engine that is, today, running strong and hot. It means a lot to me.

Here is an essay by Nirmal Verma about Jorge Luis Borges, from his 1976 book titled Shabd Aur Smriti, or Word and Memory.

The translator’s note is fascinating:

In this essay, as in all the rest of his work, Verma leaves absolutely no markers to establish that he is a Hindi or an Indian writer. There’s no distance between the author and the subject. Just as Borges could, in Verma’s words, “freely relate to the European tradition”, Verma himself could freely relate to Borges’s Argentine past and Anglophile taste — enough to claim Borges as part of his own, self-created tradition. It’s rare to come across writing like this in our glob­alised world, where neither Verma nor Borges would have felt at home.

When I captured this link, I wrote:

Sometimes I think the academy is just a mutual agreement to take each other seriously. A kind of realtime mutual myth-making. A group of people who all want to be in important places, discussing things which will be recalled later. Who wouldn’t!

Here is J. R. R. Tolkien recalling a conver­sa­tion with C. S. Lewis, and articulating a sentiment that I recognize:

Lewis said to me one day: “[T]here is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

“Interlace” is a literary term new to me. From the paper Galadriel and Wyrd: Interlace, Exempla, and the Passing of Northern Courage in the History of the Eldar by Richard Z. Gallant:

Interlace is “the device of inter­weaving of a number of different themes … all distinct and yet inseparable.” The device is thought to have orig­i­nated with Ovid. Denis Feeny in his intro­duc­tion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, notes that the “haphazard chain of asso­ci­a­tion is entertaining, but it also rein­forces the Ovidian theme of the very contin­gency of connectedness.”

Of course I like the view of C. S. Lewis, who is quoted in the paper, writing that “the contin­gency of connectedness” lends a work

depth, or thickness, or density. Because the (improbable) adventure which we are following is liable at any moment to be inter­rupted by some quite different (improbable) adventure, there steals upon us unawares the convic­tion that adven­tures of this sort are going on all around us, that in this vast forest (we are nearly always in a forest) this is the sort of thing that goes on all the time, that it was going on before we arrived and will continue after we have left.

I think this is the soul of “worldbuilding”—more important than any number of maps or genealogies. Or, to say it another way: you could draw all the maps you wanted and still find your story thin and unconvincing. Conversely, a “worldbuilding” that consisted of three gnomic phrases could feel perfectly thick and capacious, deployed amidst “the contin­gency of connectedness”.

This is an oppor­tu­nity to link to M. John Harrison’s notes on worldbuilding, and to quote a post on his blog:

With deftness, economy of line, good design, compres­sion & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.

Print that out and pin it to the wall.

THIS, in turn, is an oppor­tu­nity to mention that M. John Harrison’s “anti-memoir”, Wish I Was Here, will be published later this year. (The real Harrison-heads stand poised to import it from the U.K.)

Adam Roberts is rereading The Lord of the Rings, and his consid­er­a­tions as he goes have been, for me, absolute catnip: the most absorbing and “actionable” (!) literary criticism I’ve read in many years.

Partially this is because I’ve just completed a reread of LOTR myself: a beautiful one-volume edition with Tolkien’s own (slightly wonky) illus­tra­tions included, plus some lovely rubrication:

The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated by the Author, HMH Books
The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated by the Author, HMH Books

Mostly, though, it’s because Adam is so brilliant — his mix of admi­ra­tion and engage­ment with critical consid­er­a­tion and expansion so power­fully generative. Here is the spectacle of a reader fully “in it” with the author, operating in good faith but/and with no bullshit, a kind of intellectual amplifier.

Adam has published three install­ments now (part one, part two, part three) and I cannot get enough. They have sent me scram­bling back to my illus­trated edition, rereading my reread.

This is the good stuff.

Jump button makes Jumpman jump.
—Donkey Kong arcade cabinet instruc­tions (1981)

That’s from I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Enter­tain­ment System Platform by Nathan Altice, a “material history” of the NES “focusing on its technical constraints and its expres­sive affordances.” I found this book totally engrossing and inspiring.

“time to post again the best user interface i’ve ever seen”

Here is a beautiful edition of Herodotus, shared by Andy Matuschak. What a TOOL, for reading and exploring.

Here are some phenomenal black­letter type samples. I want — nay, DEMAND — a digital version of Sloping Black. (Update: a corre­spon­dent found one!)

Marsh-marigold Night, Nikolai Astrup, 1915
Marsh-marigold Night, Nikolai Astrup, 1915

Here is Jay Owens on a new strain of “nature writing” that takes non-human intel­li­gence seriously. She connects two books from 2022 that I loved, and speaks to their authors, James Bridle and Ray Nayler; in this way, the piece suggests a virtual cafe-table conver­sa­tion that you absolutely want to join.

I have been a devoted fan of Jay’s writing and thinking for years; she is one of those people whose presence basically justifies the existence of the internet. It’s no coin­ci­dence she is such a canny observer of that same internet and its subtlest games.

Her forth­coming book, titled Dust, expands hugely on a newsletter that I followed avidly during its dust-y run. If you’re wondering to yourself, “was this newsletter really all about dust? Is the book really … ?” the answers are: yes, and YES. The U.S. edition will arrive in September of this year, and I truly cannot wait to read it.

Jay is newly-installed as the Head of Audience for the London Review of Books — lucky them.

I always leap when a dispatch from Jackie Luo appears. She is a sensitive chron­i­cler of her milieu, diaristic and political in the deep sense — I wanted to write “in the French sense”, I don’t know why — just endlessly readable. Her recent New Year newsletter artic­u­lates a widely-shared feeling of stuckness:

there’s a running joke (is joke the word?) on twitter that we’re all still stuck in 2020, or that we’re about to begin year eight of 2016. in my own life, at least, that has felt true. 2016 is the last year i can recall feeling deeply opti­mistic about what the new year would bring, for me and for the world at large. since then, the fragile hopes i bore for each new year have been flattened again and again into the formless sameness of a world where time means nothing and yet somehow every­thing manages to keep getting worse. the future began to feel less like an unbounded space of poten­tiality and more like a precious resource that kept diminishing, untouched. eight years is a long time. where did it all go? how did i get here? it’s hard, living in such persis­tently unprece­dented times, to know what is the natural process of aging and what’s the specific pecu­liarity of aging in this time.

Jackie’s “stuckness” makes me think of Zygmunt Bauman, the soci­ol­o­gist who saw it all with such clarity, way back in 2000:

We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority) [ … ]

Read Jackie; read Zygmunt.

The art in this edition is the work of Nikolai Astrup, who was kinda all over the place, not in a bad way. This self-portrait struck me power­fully:

Small Self Portrait, Nikolai Astrup, 1904
Small Self Portrait, Nikolai Astrup, 1904

Couldn’t that be, say, a cartoonist in Chicago, circa 2004? Don’t you feel like you already know him? I think I saw that dude at 24-Hour Comics Day! Nikolai Astrup printed this image from a woodcut in the year 1904. Here we are, almost 120 years later, meeting his gaze.

Out of words!

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on March 7.

February 2023