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