Robin Sloan
main newsletter
July 2021


A bright, surprisingly cheery peat bog, with a spray of white flowers blooming, and piles of cut peat along one side.
Peat Bog at Jæren, 1901, Kitty Kielland

A few weeks ago, Kathryn and I took the train from Oak­land to Chicago, one (long) leg of a cross-country trip. It was terrific: not because Amtrak is terrific, but because even America’s infrastruc­tural neg­li­gence can­not defeat the inher­ent plea­sure of train travel. “If you strike me down, I shall become more pow­er­ful than you can pos­si­bly imagine … ”

This was our first two-night train ride. We packed all of our own food, an XL picnic; we down­loaded episodes of Star Trek: Voy­ager for offline viewing; we brought books.

Along the way, as the aston­ish­ing Amer­i­can West unfurled itself out­side the win­dow of our neat roomette, I read — perversely? — The Mak­ing of the British Land­scape by Nicholas Crane. Mine was a used copy, a very fat paperback, and I was totally engrossed by the book’s inside-out his­tory, which places the vicis­si­tudes of war and pol­i­tics offstage, only dis­cussing them to the degree they influ­ence the phys­i­cal landscape. Nicholas Crane’s time­line runs from the Ice Age to the present, and he gives every era its due. Highly recommended.

And, yes: as I read about far-off islands (which were not always islands!!) the Rocky Moun­tains sailed past.

The most beau­ti­ful part of the route, for me, came early on the second day, when the train fol­lowed the course of the Colorado River. There were groups of peo­ple down there, floating/boating/cavorting, and when the first of them spot­ted the train, they turned, dropped their shorts, and mooned us. Then, the sec­ond group did the same thing. Then the next, and the next; and for two hours, the Col­orado River was a parade of bare butts. These were not mod­est moonings! They were enthusiastic; well-practiced; ital­i­cized by the merry slap­ping of cheeks.

Kathryn and I agreed: from now on, when­ever we make this trip, we’re going to do it on this train.

A low stone wall running into the distance, where it meets a snug little cottage.
From Kvianes on Ogna, Jæren, 1878, Kitty Kielland

Writers accom­plished and aspir­ing alike find them­selves at a for­tu­nate moment: book pub­lish­ing has recently been reframed by two mod­ern, essen­tial guides.

The mod­ern, essen­tial guide to trade pub­lish­ing is: So You Want to Pub­lish a Book? by Anne Trubek, pub­lished a year ago.

The mod­ern, essen­tial guide to aca­d­emic pub­lish­ing is: The Book Pro­posal Book: A Guide for Schol­arly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer, pub­lished just this week!

Both books are superb: practical, accessible, deeply savvy. But/and the real magic might be the “stack” sup­port­ing each of them.

To begin, both have ongo­ing com­pan­ions in the newslet­ters each author writes: Anne’s Notes from a Small Press and Laura’s Manuscript Works Newsletter.

There is, further, a busi­ness bustling behind each book and newslet­ter: Anne’s Belt Pub­lishing and Laura’s Manuscript Works—the lat­ter a con­sul­tancy for aca­d­emic authors that offers a very cool book pro­posal accelerator.

Years ago, I wrote about the value of working in public. It’s a tricky thing, though, because it’s easy for the “in public” to over­whelm the “working”, and sud­denly you’re stuck, very suc­cess­fully being the per­son who talks ABOUT the thing … but doesn’t really DO the thing. There’s a creep­ing char­la­tanism there; I say that with some sympathy, because I have felt the creep myself, many times.

Here, now, with Anne Trubek and Laura Portwood-Stacer, we have defin­i­tive counterexamples, each of them doing the thing AND doc­u­ment­ing it, with total grace and magnetism — which is SO much work; I mean, seriously — and both oper­at­ing their formi­dable stack: book, newslet­ter, busi­ness. At the foun­da­tion of each is, of course: a voice, a mind. Two of the very best.

I truly believe that if you want to under­stand how books can be made in the 2020s, you should read Anne and Laura and … basi­cally no one else!

Over the past few months, I’ve been lis­ten­ing to talks from Tim­o­thy Morton, the philoso­pher who pop­u­lar­ized the term “hyperobject”, which is an object mas­sively dis­trib­uted in space and time. Notably, cli­mate change is a hyperobject.

Listening to this talk from March 2021, I made these notes:

Irony as contradiction; some­thing that both is and isn’t.

When things are con­tra­dic­tory but true, there’s a mouthfeel, and that’s called irony. What’s it made out of? It’s made out of reality. Real­ity sig­nals to us by way of irony. It’s not some cute joke or gesture; it is the SIG­NAL­ING FUNC­TION of reality.

Reality is ironic, because every­where it is exactly what it is, but never as it appears.

Chips have mouthfeel.

Reality has ironyfeel.

The sec­ond ingre­di­ent is ambiguity. Accuracyfeel. Ambi­gu­ity iden­ti­fies accuracy. Sci­ence is deeply ambiguous!

The word “ambiguous”, like “ambivalent”, doesn’t mean “neither”, but rather “both”, or “all”—all at once.

Remember that sci­ence is all sta­tis­ti­cal now. Par­ti­cle physics, astronomy, psychology … 

Part of the truth­feel of sci­ence is its ambiguity.

Fascism is the elim­i­na­tion of irony & ambiguity.

Here’s a music rec from Tim­o­thy Mor­ton, fea­tur­ing a sam­ple of Charl­ton Heston’s open­ing speech from the orig­i­nal Planet of the Apes. “Seen from out here every­thing seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless … ”

There’s a novel due out in Octo­ber that I truly can­not wait for you to read, or have the oppor­tu­nity to read, if the con­cept clicks with you as pow­er­fully as it clicked with me. It’s writ­ten by Tamara Shopsin, pub­lished by MCD, and its title is

LaserWriter II


I eagerly read an advance copy and then even more eagerly wrote a blurb, which I will repro­duce here, because I took my time com­pos­ing it, and it gets the feel­ing right. “Love, love, LOVE” is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant part, because some things you love, and other things you love, love, LOVE:

“Early 1990s Mac computing” sounds niche, and maybe it is, but what a niche: packed full of inter­est­ing peo­ple who stum­bled together across the bridge between the ana­log and the digital. If that holds any res­o­nance for you at all, you will love, love, LOVE Tamara Shopsin’s new novel. Beau­ti­fully writ­ten and nerdily precise, Laser­Writer II reveals the things we didn’t know then; it enlivened my own memories, gave them new con­text and richness. This is a really spe­cial book.

Go look at Laser­Writer II’s per­fect cover. I can’t wait for Octo­ber.

A calm pond or small lake with a spangling of lily pads, and the clouds purple and smoky behind a line of dark hills in the background.
Summer Evening, 1886, Kitty Kielland

As ever, the newslet­ter will now dena­ture into a col­lection of links that I’ve enjoyed enought to jot down. Every so often, I receive a reply to one of these col­lec­tions, some ver­sion of “how am I supposed to look at all this stuff?!” and of course, the answer is: you’re not!

Please think of these links, always, as the ven­dors at a night market. Most of them you pass by, sim­ply enjoy­ing the fact that they’re there; a few grab your attention; one or two actu­ally provide nourishment.

Just wander through!

I’ve been read­ing a lot about Ice Age geol­ogy and ecology. To be totally hon­est with you, before I embarked on this reme­dial study, I didn’t reaaal­lyyy under­stand what a glacier was, or how one was formed. I maxed out at “vague sense of immense ice”.

Well, this lec­ture from Julie Fer­gu­son at UC Irvine is win­ning and revelatory. It’s a com­pre­hen­sive tour of glacial landscapes, and it gives you a solid sense of how they develop; how they move.

Recently, I read David Gange’s book The Frayed Atlantic Edge, a chron­i­cle of his mostly solo kayak expe­di­tion along the whole west coast of Britain and Ireland. It’s a trav­el­ogue rich with phys­i­cal detail that cross-fades with David’s appre­ci­a­tions of other work, rang­ing from his­tory to poetry, that has been impor­tant to him; so: a tour both mate­r­ial and intellectual.

One of those intro­duc­tions is to Tim Robin­son, an Eng­lish artist who lived in Connemara, in Ireland, for many decades. Writ­ing for the Guardian, Nicholas Allen explains that Tim

traced the end­less perime­ter of the island’s rocky coastline … in search of “a sin­gle step as ade­quate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin’s arc to the wave”. Observ­ing pat­terns of rock, wind and water opened his prose to the frac­tal dimen­sions of the inlet, the cove, the cliff and darkening pool.

Tim wrote sev­eral books, one of which I’m read­ing now, but/and he also made MAPS! He made them not with GIS data but with his feet, insis­tent that nearly every stroke, every squiggle, should be informed by his own per­sonal explo­ration and observation.

The National Uni­ver­sity of Ireland, Gal­way has high-resolution scans of the maps, and they are amazing. I have to con­fess, though, that I wish I had a paper copy, like this one that Stephen Sparks found lin­ger­ing in the post office near the place where Tim lived.

You might have picked up on the past tense; Tim Robin­son died in 2020. He was 85 years old.

One of the things David Gange tells us about Tim Robin­son’s maps is that he “cheats” the cliffs (which David hap­pens to be kayak­ing along, beside, under). The image below is not an oblique projection; the map is top-down, as most maps are, but, look at that line of cliffs!

A black and white map, incredibly detailed, lovingly drawn.
Tim Robinson's map of Aran

They pop out impossibly — because, David tells us, Tim Robin­son saw them as the essen­tial fea­ture of that coastline, for navigation, culture, and more. How could you pos­si­bly shrink them into an invis­i­ble vertical? Even if that was geo­met­ri­cally or car­to­graph­i­cally “correct”, it would not, in any sense, pro­duce an accu­rate map. So, stretch the projection; give them space. Brilliant.

I suspect that, although I enjoyed the whole of David Gange’s book, its last­ing influ­ence on me will be this one par­tic­u­lar introduction; and I think about how, if that is the case, it is no failing; the opposite: a triumph. What a gift, when a book acts as a matchmaker — when it really works.

When I squirrelled away the link to this newslet­ter from Adam Tooze, about the eco­nomic con­tin­gen­cies of the Sec­ond World War, I jotted this note:

The thrill of his­tory & theory at large scales; that spe­cial lever­age of the mind; the final defense, maybe: that you can “think about” a great empire but a great empire cannot “think about” you. Not really. It can hold you in its grip, in its census, its databases, etc. But think about you, the­o­rize you, creatively? No. It can­not. Gotcha!

Here is Tooze, also, on car­bon and class—one of the more provoca­tive things I’ve read lately related to cli­mate change.

Did you know that your eyes — yes, yours! — can­not see the color blue sharply? Here is an explanation that con­cludes with a crisp inter­ac­tive demonstration. It made me feel slightly insane, the way all the really good opti­cal illu­sions do.

This long, mem­oiris­tic essay, via Jay Owens, is wonderful, in large part because I recognize none of it. It’s about a complex, rich response to a par­tic­u­lar musician; and this was not me; not ever. The essay describes a matrix of feel­ings that I find basi­cally alien … but/and, that’s the miracle, of course: it does so in a way that makes it pos­si­ble for me to receive and appre­ci­ate them, at least a lit­tle bit.

Also: not for nothing, I feel like Tim­o­thy Mor­ton would love this essay.

Earlier this year, I joyfully watched most of the anime Haikyu!!—I now want to go back in time and play high school volleyball — and, for oth­ers who have seen the show, this might be inter­est­ing: the gen­der of the man­gaka who cre­ated Haikyu!! is unknown. That’s a link to a Red­dit thread, and it is a tes­ta­ment to the qual­ity of the work that the spec­u­la­tion is so lively.

(Not to sug­gest I’m in the same league at all, but I’ll con­fess that I am very pleased when­ever some­one reads Sour­dough and remarks later: Ah! But I thought Robin Sloan was a woman!)

These images used as stud­ies for the book Con­ceal­ing Col­oration in the Ani­mal King­dom had absolutely no busi­ness being so hip IN THE YEAR 1921:

A cutout of a woodpecker floating on a field of beige. It's hard to describe, honestly.
Rail and Woodpecker, 1921, Abbott Handerson Thayer
A cutout of a bird on a field of riotous colors, with cursive writing scattered all around it.
Bird Stencil, 1921, Abbott Handerson Thayer
Cutouts of a few colorful fish on a field of beige. They're all pointing different directions, as if scattered.
Fish, 1921, Abbott Handerson Thayer

I feel like I’m always say­ing this, but: I am so grate­ful for the labors of the peo­ple who assem­ble and main­tain these huge online archives, with so much mate­r­ial scanned at high resolution, added to the public domain.

Quiet mon­u­ments to a better internet.

Here is a stun­ning essay by Molly McGhee: moving, ghostly, impor­tant. It’s about, among other things, the way a little bit of money, even the impression of a lit­tle bit of money, can pro­tect you from so much suffering. It is that thinnest layer of fat: insu­la­tion from the cold of the universe.

You might, at some point, have encoun­tered a state­ment with roughly this form, intended to shock you:

2025 will be as many years from 1980 as 1980 was from 1935.

And it IS shocking, right? Well … maybe.

Is there any event or trans­for­ma­tion that could make those inter­vals “seem right” again? Any­thing that would snap 1980 out of its famil­iar prox­im­ity, into its “true” 1935-ish remoteness? (The sci-fi futures depicted on screens today are, after all, firmly fixed in sce­nar­ios devised in the 1980s.) You might say, “perhaps an unprece­dented global cri­sis would do it!” but … we had one of those, and even that could not dis­lodge this smooth future-present.

Maybe the mod­ern condition isn’t a con­di­tion, but an event. Maybe it was a phase change, like ice melt­ing into liq­uid water. After that kind of trans­for­ma­tion, you can keep adding energy to the system, but the effect won’t be as dramatic — not until you vapor­ize it, anyway. (A nuclear metaphor is left as an exer­cise for the reader.)

Zygmunt Bauman uses this image a bit in his book Liquid Modernity—the “liq­uid” part is really key. Remem­ber, Bau­man is the one who wrote:

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)

and that seems, to me, intrin­sic to the stabil­ity of this future-present.

Is the stub­born prox­im­ity of 1980 an illu­sion (asks the newslet­ter writer born in Decem­ber of 1979)? Is it a sim­ple func­tion of, among other things, the availabil­ity and fidelity of recent media? Or is this uncanny feel­ing actu­ally a finely-tuned sen­sor read­ing, one we ought to be scrutinizing, because it might reveal some­thing deeply true?

You’ll find some of these questions, these preoccupations, curled up inside my new novel, the one I’m finishing now.

(I should note that the AI heads will say, “Oh, just wait. Your next phase change is com­ing sooner than you think.” If you’re inter­ested in that prediction — that warning? — you ought to sub­scribe to Jack Clark’s Import AI newslet­ter, the essen­tial chron­i­cle of the field that brings an added bonus: a bit of brain-sparking micro-fic­tion in every issue.)

A dense peat bog with heavy gray clouds overhead.
Peat Bog on Jæren, 1900, Kitty Kielland

Aren’t these paint­ings gorgeous? I feel like the one at the top of the newslet­ter, so bright and inviting, deftly refutes every assump­tion about the phrase “peat bog”. Kitty Kielland’s art is amazing; I encourage you to check out her biography.

Earlier this year, in ser­vice of that new novel — and I see sud­denly that this con­tin­ues the liq­uid theme; inter­est­ing — I read a ton about bogs, fens, marshes, and swamps. Here is something I now know: the dif­fer­ence between them. Here is some­thing else: bogs sequester twice as much car­bon as forests, even though they cover only ~3% of the Earth’s surface, com­pared to the forested ~30%. Hence,

the global peat carbon pool exceeds that of global veg­e­ta­tion (~560 gigatonnes C) and may be of sim­i­lar mag­ni­tude to the atmospheric car­bon pool (~850 giga­tonnes C)

Here’s the trick. When a tree falls in a forest, it decomposes, and all the carbon it fixed in its form is liberated, slowly but surely, back into the atmosphere. So, when you look at a forest, “what you see is what you get”, its car­bon stock­pile pro­por­tional to its living mass.

But the bog … oh, the bog. The dark magic of the peat bog is that dead moss drowns in cold water, and there, it does not decompose. It just … piles up, and the carbon it pulled out of the atmosphere remains trapped, with the old shoes, basi­cally for good. The bog is a car­bon sink that just sinks and sinks and sinks.

As a bonus, this accu­mu­la­tion hap­pens on civilizational, rather than geological, timescales; all the peat bogs on the planet are new since the end of the Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago.

The bog lover has logged on!

From Oak­land,


July 2021