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 … !
Remember, here’s the drumbeat ahead:
- August 2: digital release of The Suitcase Clone
- September 6: print release of Sourdough’s new edition, with The Suitcase Clone bundled
- October 4: print release of Penumbra’s new edition, with Ajax Penumbra 1969 bundled
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.
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.
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!)
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 —
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 —
I’ll tell you more about the book later this year —
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 —
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 —
I think personification here can be useful. Think of the friend who is dazzling, attractive, protean —
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 —
Whether or not my proposal goes anywhere, I want to report that I found writing in this way —
Digital media is slippery because it’s mutable, and if it’s mutable, it means new forms —
A shape of things to come
Here’s my tale of an odd discovery online, which offers
- a puzzle,
- a naturally-occuring Borges story, and/or perhaps
- a preview of media ecology in the decade to come.
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 —
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 —
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 —
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 —
I hate it, because of course it troubles every intuition I have about what it means to be an artist —
It’s the media version of a phenomenon that’s common across the food delivery services. Here’s a picture snapped in my neighborhood:
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!
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.
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 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:
The unflappability here; wonderful:
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.
There’s a lot of this in Miyazaki’s movies: the drama and delight of work.
Of course … it’s also cool when Porco flies the plane through the canals of Milan.
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.
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.