Robin Sloan
main newsletter
July 2022

Visions

Far, Far Away Soria Moria Palace Shimmered Like Gold, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen
Far, Far Away Soria Moria Palace Shimmered Like Gold, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen

This newslet­ter is a fun one, with lots to explore and think about. First, I’ll review my upcom­ing releases, then share some inter­est­ing work from other peo­ple. I’ll also describe a recent encounter that I found both allur­ing and unnerving … !

Upcoming releases

Remember, here’s the drumbeat ahead:

You’ll be able to find those every­where books and e-books are sold.

The Suit­case Clone’s audio­book edi­tion is also due on August 2, and the fine folks at Macmil­lan Audio are run­ning a sweepstakes to win a free copy! You can enter here; the sweep­stakes runs from today through August 1.

Here’s a peek behind the audiobook scenes. Ear­lier this year, I corresponded with the audio­book’s pro­ducer, who asked if I had any notions for the nar­ra­tor’s voice. I wrote back:

I think this nar­ra­tor is very amused by humans and their vexations — by life, the universe, and everything — so, a sense of irony, of play, will be more appro­pri­ate than an entirely seri­ous read. Not that it should sound silly; rather, I’m think­ing of lis­ten­ing to some­one speak­ing and, even though you can’t see their face, you feel some­how that they’re just on the verge of smiling … 

Later, the pro­ducer sent me three clips to review, each a dif­fer­ent per­former read­ing a short pas­sage from the novella. Then, we dis­cussed which audi­tion we liked best … and dis­cov­ered we were in agreement! Pavi Proczko was our pick; you can hear his per­for­mance of the novella’s intro­duc­tion here.

Noteworthy publications

A new voice

I had the plea­sure to look at an early copy of a new book of poetry, writ­ten by Chuck Ladd, titled A Quiet Place in Okla­homa. Chuck’s col­lec­tion is deft, meditative, and, on cer­tain pages, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s the kind of work that invites every­body in, even those new to poetry.

By the end, A Quiet Place in Okla­homa shines as brightly as Camelot.

A book with a spare cover, showing the title and a map of Oklahoma in dark purpled/red against a plain tan background.
A Quiet Place in Oklahoma

This book is the project of two pub­lic school teach­ers in Texas: Chuck Ladd is, of course, the poet; Alex Sim­mons is the edi­tor and publisher. It’s a beau­ti­ful piece of work, in form and con­tent both, and it made me laugh. What’s bet­ter than that?

My copy is the hard­cover edi­tion; there’s a neat paperback avail­able, too.

(If there is any­one read­ing this newslet­ter who works at a regional press in Texas or Okla­homa: I think you ought to snap this one up!)

Being counted

Dan Bouk’s new book, Democracy’s Data, will be pub­lished by MCD in August.

This is the kind of project that begins with a very spe­cific sub­ject that you’re not quite con­vinced can be inter­est­ing — the … 1940 … Census? — and then uses it as a pry bar to crack open cos­mic ques­tions: about democracy, government, families, and lots more.

A book with a cover showing its title with each letter a different color, red-blue-black, giving an impression of complexity, perhaps mild chaos.
Democracy's Data

At the book’s core is a ques­tion that couldn’t be more rel­e­vant to the 21st century, not just in terms of democracy, but also the inter­net and its vast, watchful plat­forms:

What the hell does it even mean for a person — a real, whole, complex, sov­ereign person — to be counted?

I’ll tell you more about the book later this year — odds are, I won’t shut up about it — but, for now, I’ll say that Dan’s web­site and newslet­ter are worth following, if only for the vision of a scholar at the top of their game: rigorous, revelatory, engaged with the world, and — never to be overlooked — writ­ing with grace and style.

The kind of essay that makes you want to View Source

Robin Rendle’s new essay is so clev­erly constructed! Here, he gives us an argu­ment about pho­tog­ra­phy … in which the text occludes all the photographs.

I would call this a “tap essay”, like Fish. Note the care­ful struc­tur­ing of the text — its allo­ca­tion to dif­fer­ent “cards”—and the rhythm, which is almost oral. Terrific.

Readers so inclined should View Source on Robin’s essay: look at that CSS and JavaScript, so light and sturdy! It’s ener­giz­ing to know that such a snappy pre­sen­ta­tion is avail­able so “cheaply” in mod­ern browsers. I am taking notes.

Digital slipperiness

I appre­ci­ated Hal­lie Bateman’s reflections on the chal­lenges of shar­ing art on Insta­gram circa 2022:

In recent years, as Insta­gram has become a less hos­pitable place for artists, I’ve strug­gled to main­tain a pres­ence there that feels gen­uine to me. I don’t want to make TikTok-style process videos, or make art respond­ing to heart­break­ing world events. I don’t want to make comics about my per­sonal life, or even share updates on cur­rent projects. The algo­rithm now guar­an­tees a luke­warm response to nearly any still image I post, and I don’t want to get discouraged.

I’ve come to believe the fun­da­men­tal prop­erty of dig­i­tal media is slipperiness. Dif­fer­ent plat­forms are different kinds of slippery at dif­fer­ent times. Insta­gram is presently: extremely slip­pery — squirming its way out of all its old con­tracts and expectations, strug­gling to become some­thing basi­cally unrecog­niz­able to its long­time users. Bummer. (And, I’m sure I’m not the only user whose ad load has increased 5X or more. It reeks of desperation.)

I think per­son­i­fi­ca­tion here can be useful. Think of the friend who is dazzling, attractive, protean — and unsteady, and unreliable. They are magnetic; you enjoy being around them, reflect­ing their glow! But, if you are wise, you know how to bracket and buffer the rela­tion­ship.

Think also of the friend who demon­strates solid integrity; upon whom you can rely totally. There are other forms of media that fit this figure; it won’t sur­prise you to hear that I think the print book is one.

It’s okay for peo­ple, and media, to be different; to have dif­fer­ent strengths and weaknesses. It’s just impor­tant to under­stand who and what you’re dealing with.

Seeking solid ground

Here is my pro­posal for a new protocol, one that might open up some inter­est­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties on the inter­net. This was my lab newslet­ter back in June; it received a warm, engaged response, and I have con­tin­ued to develop the idea — along with the code back­ing it up — so I thought I’d share it here, too.

Whether or not my pro­posal goes anywhere, I want to report that I found writ­ing in this way — imagining in this way — both chal­leng­ing and ener­giz­ing, and I’d rec­om­mend it to anyone; par­tic­u­larly those any­ones who feel uncom­fort­able inside the the inter­net of the 2020s.

Digital media is slip­pery because it’s mutable, and if it’s mutable, it means new forms — new ways of relating — are always pos­si­ble. Why not take the time, and do the work, to imag­ine some­thing new?

A shape of things to come

The Water Sprite, 1904, Theodor Kittelsen
The Water Sprite, 1904, Theodor Kittelsen

Here’s my tale of an odd dis­cov­ery online, which offers

The other day, I was lis­ten­ing to Spo­tify’s rec­om­mendations, after the platform’s algo­rithmic radio sta­tion had picked up where my short playlist left off. An inter­est­ing track came on; its whompy brass reminded me faintly of Too Many Zooz.

Nice sound, I thought. I wonder what else this artist has pro­duced … 

The answer was: vir­tu­ally noth­ing. “Danni Richardson” appeared to be one of those artists with just a hand­ful of tracks avail­able on Spo­tify, of which this one, titled Romilda Geb­bia, was by far the stand­out hit, with 91,000 plays.

Oh, well, I thought. Back to the algo­rithmic radio sta­tion.

Except: the next track was the same. I don’t mean that it was Romilda Geb­bia again. This one was nom­i­nally different: Veneranda Caputa, by Brett Byrne. But its core was unmistakable, barely hid­den beneath the veneer of different tim­ings and dif­fer­ent timbres.

Both tracks a mere 45 sec­onds long — more vibes than songs.

That’s very weird, I thought. Onward.

Except: the next track was the same. And the next! AND THE NEXT!

I’ve col­lected these tracks in a playlist so you can lis­ten for yourself, and hear the strange repetition. There are far more ver­sions than the ten I’ve pinned here — definitely dozens, pos­si­bly hun­dreds — and Spo­tify’s algo­rithm will obe­di­ently deliver them to you in the Rec­om­mended section, down below the playlist.

In all of them, you can detect the under­ly­ing composition, its essen­tial elements: call that Romilda Prime.

Part of the story here is clear. Some mystery pro­ducer devel­oped a scrap of a song that sounded appeal­ing, and rather than put all their wood behind a sin­gle arrow, they decided to make dozens — hun­dreds? — of vari­a­tions and inject them all into the system, all in dif­fer­ent places. The artist names and track titles are nonsense; to me, they carry the clear fla­vor of AI text generation. For album art, our mys­tery pro­ducer has used the most banal stock pho­tog­ra­phy you have ever seen — almost impressively boring.

Beyond that, it’s all ques­tions.

How did our mys­tery pro­ducer make these variations? Was it a long after­noon with Able­ton Live, swap­ping out instruments, fid­dling with the piano roll? Or is this an automated, indus­trial process? Do they have the abil­ity to run a command, python generate_vari­a­tions.py --base=romilda-prime, step away, and return to a folder of crisp new MP3s?

What are the eco­nom­ics of this project? These variations have done pretty well; the ones I inspected each have some­where between 50,000 and 200,000 plays. If Spo­tify pays a third of a cent per stream, and there are 30 vari­a­tions with those numbers, that’s in the ball­park of $10,000. (Of course, a mys­tery pro­ducer capable of pup­peteer­ing all these fake artists is also capa­ble of buy­ing fake streams … )

One pre­sumes our mys­tery pro­ducer would not just do this once. So, have they dis­patched a whole fleet of these hazy “song clouds”? Are there other “primes” lurk­ing in Spo­tify’s catalog, with dozens or hun­dreds of vari­a­tions? How could you pos­si­bly find them? You couldn’t, except by accident.

(I have seen spec­u­la­tion that it is Spo­tify itself cre­at­ing these song clouds, and I will just say that, for my part, I doubt this. Mostly because, as a big, resourceful, cre­ative organization … I think it would do a bet­ter job with the names and the album art!)

I wonder, at last, about the rela­tion­ship of this par­tic­u­lar “prime” to Spo­tify’s algorithm. I’ve never seen the rec­om­mendations set­tle so quickly into such a deep groove; once the algorithm got the taste of Romilda Prime in its mouth, there was no get­ting it out. Is that a mat­ter of chance? Maybe our mys­tery pro­ducer has spun this wheel many times, and it’s only with Romilda Prime that they hit the jackpot. They found a sound that is per­fectly seductive, not to humans, necessarily, but to the one lis­tener who counts most: the algo­rithm.

So … like a lot of things in 21st-century media, I both love this and hate it.

I love it, because it’s so strange, so dizzying, and — credit where due–because our mys­tery pro­ducer is truly going with the grain of the medium, in a way that no one merely “making albums” does, at all. What could be more 21st century, more “liquid mod­ernity”, than releas­ing your music as a haze of vari­a­tions into the swirling cur­rents of the algo­rithm?

I hate it, because of course it trou­bles every intu­ition I have about what it means to be an artist — the very idea of authorship! There’s some­thing espe­cially cyn­i­cal about the spe­cific exe­cu­tion here, too. I can eas­ily imag­ine another ver­sion of this project that uses inter­est­ing track titles and gen­er­a­tive album art, so that grop­ing around for the hid­den “prime” might feel more like piec­ing together a puzzle, less like leaf­ing through junk mail.

It’s the media ver­sion of a phe­nom­enon that’s com­mon across the food deliv­ery services. Here’s a pic­ture snapped in my neighborhood:

Yeah, those are all definitely the same place
Yeah, those are all definitely the same place

A sin­gle kitchen oper­at­ing under many names to increase its algo­rithmic “surface area”; another shape of things to come.

A new voyage

My band The Cot­ton Modules, formed with the com­poser Jesse Solomon Clark, also goes with the grain of the 21st century: our process com­bines AI tools with human skill and imagination, metab­o­liz­ing a huge archive of recorded music into some­thing gen­uinely new and exciting.

Currently, Jesse and I are work­ing on our sec­ond album. Last week, we sent a newslet­ter describing its sci-fi storyline:

Centuries from now, colonists climb aboard a mas­sive space­ship bound for Bethel 66 J, a promis­ing exoplanet. The ship car­ries an arse­nal of ter­raform­ing equipment, a liv­ing seed bank, and a com­plete archive of Earth culture. As it crosses the orbit of Jupiter, pick­ing up speed, the ship’s pas­sen­gers climb into their cryo-chambers. They’ll pass the light years in slumber, watched over by two caretaker AIs.

This is not the first of these voyages, but it is absolutely the worst.

The newslet­ter continues, explain­ing (a) the diegetic role our new album plays on this worst of all space voyages, along with (b) the feel­ing behind the whole project.

The newslet­ter also includes a demo track that will only be avail­able for a lim­ited time. Fans of colony ships and/or coastal feel­ings might appre­ci­ate the vibe!

Good catastrophes

The Princess Picking Lice from the Troll, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen
The Princess Picking Lice from the Troll, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen

I had the plea­sure recently of host­ing Gabrielle Zevin at Green Apple Books in San Fran­cisco for the launch of her new novel.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomor­row is a tale of a cre­ative part­ner­ship across two decades, set in the video game industry. That back­drop was deeply appeal­ing to me, but/and the con­tours of the medium are less impor­tant than those of the rela­tion­ship. The book is beau­ti­fully done: confident, absorbing, and, in parts, quite experimental.

A book with a cover showing its title in bright, blocky letters, with Hokusai's Great Wave crashing in the background.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Gabrielle’s novel made me think often of the eucatastrophe.

That’s a term invented by Tolkien: the crash of good fortune. He called it

the con­so­la­tion of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more cor­rectly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joy­ous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can pro­duce supremely well, is not essen­tially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sud­den and mirac­u­lous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the exis­tence of dyscatastrophe, of sor­row and failure: the pos­si­bil­ity of these is nec­es­sary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) uni­ver­sal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giv­ing a fleet­ing glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The end of The Return of the King is a series of eucatastro­phes.

I would say that both Penum­bra and Sour­dough resolve into eucatastro­phes, and my new novel is, in some ways, about what lies beyond eucatastrophe.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomor­row is richly eucatastrophic. Gabrielle does not (as Tolkien says) deny the exis­tence of sor­row and failure; not for a sec­ond. But/and, it is the book’s bursts of kind­ness and openness — the way those things work in the world of the novel, exhibit real power, bend the plot in sur­pris­ing ways — that will, I believe, stick with me.

The Great Miyazaki Watch of 2022

I recently re-watched, in release order, all the movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki. These movies, along with Miyazaki’s manga ver­sion of Nausicaä of the Val­ley of the Wind, have influ­enced me as much as any­thing else on this planet, and I wanted to begin to make that influ­ence more conscious and structured, rather than totally uncon­scious and … blobby?

Accordingly: as I watched, I took notes.

I’d seen all but two of the movies before.

One of those new to me was The Cas­tle of Cagliostro, the first movie Miyazaki directed, before the found­ing of Stu­dio Ghibli. I slept on this one for too long! If it doesn’t have the emo­tional and mythic res­o­nances of the movies that came later, it sub­sti­tutes pure style:

Tap or click to unmute.

The unflappabil­ity here; wonderful:

Tap or click to unmute.

The other movie new to me was Porco Rosso, which fea­tures a dash­ing pilot cursed to look like a humanoid pig. I noted:

They never tell us how he got cursed! The omission — the lack of pathos — is radical. A rejec­tion of “the trauma plot”. The ambi­gu­ity at the end — fabulous.

The Amer­i­can ver­sion of this movie would be so much less inter­est­ing.

The pig is an ace pilot, and you could be for­given for think­ing the movie’s heart is its fan­tas­ti­cal dogfights — but I think that’s wrong. Its core, not only emo­tional but also moral and aesthetic, is earthbound: the detailed scene in which Porco Rosso’s air­plane is rebuilt in Milan.

Tap or click to unmute.

There’s a lot of this in Miyazaki’s movies: the drama and delight of work.

Tap or click to unmute.

Of course … it’s also cool when Porco flies the plane through the canals of Milan.

Tap or click to unmute.

The other thing I noticed, watch­ing the movies in quick succession, was the steady boom-boom-boom of the eucatastro­phes going off!

Kiki’s Deliv­ery Ser­vice is the key example. I noted:

There is so much kindness in so many of Miyazaki’s movies. Plots ani­mated by kind­ness. If peo­ple were not kind and open: noth­ing would happen!

The great twists in Miyazaki movies are that peo­ple and crea­tures turn out to be friendlier than you expect. The dog in the big house in Kiki.

Plots ani­mated by kindness: not sac­cha­rine or dull, but soar­ing and magnetic. Sto­ries about kind­ness that draw potent chem­i­cals into your blood just as surely as the thrillers do! That make your heart thrum, pull your cheeks tight. That tell you about the world, and what’s pos­si­ble in it.

This kind of art is just as deadly seri­ous as the baddest, sad­dest stream­ing TV series you have ever seen. Believe it.

Soria Moria Palace, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen
Soria Moria Palace, 1900, Theodor Kittelsen

This newslet­ter’s illus­tra­tions are the work of Theodor Kittelsen, drawn from the col­lec­tion at the National Museum of Norway. What a range: from rich paint­ings to moody etch­ings to draw­ings almost like cartoons! It’s totally compelling, and there is a LOT to look at; don’t miss the “Show more” buttons, seem­ingly neverending, at the bot­tom of the page.

From Oakland,

Robin

July 2022