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 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 the aftermath of an event. Maybe that event 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 achieve vaporization, anyway. (The nuclear metaphor is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Zygmunt Bauman uses this image 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, central to the strange stability of our 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 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