Robin Sloan
main newsletter
September 2023

What would
a wizard read

A colorful ukiyo-e print showing a dramatic figure peering into the distance, with the moon high above. It has the crispness of a comic book.
One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, Image 25, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1885

Here’s what happens next:

My new novel will be published in June 2024 by MCD. Nine months to wait — but that’s a finite amount of time! I encourage you to begin to get excited. I am already vibrating. I’ll share the title in due course; one must parcel out the thrills. I will also have a lot to say about my influ­ences and intentions.

For now, I’ll offer this.

Readers of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore might recall my fictional homage to the fantasy sagas of my youth: The Dragon-Song Chron­i­cles, written by Clark Moffat, beloved by Clay Jannon and his best friend Neel, pivotal to the plot of the novel.

It’s easy and comfort­able to draw threads of fantasy and science fiction into notion­ally “realist” fiction. As an author, you get to enjoy the buzz, safely buffered from the risks. I say this without scorn; it’s exactly what I did in my first two novels, with great results.

But what lies beyond homage? What happens when you decide it’s past time to pay into the bank you’ve been drawing from? To not just celebrate, but participate?

There’s a section in Penumbra where Clay imagines the author of The Dragon-Song Chron­i­cles walking into the bookstore for the first time:

Penumbra would have asked: What do you seek in these shelves?

Moffat would have looked around, taken the measure of the place — noticed the shadowy reaches of the Waybacklist, certainly — and then he might have said: Well, what would a wizard read?

This new novel is my answer to that question.

What I’d like to do in this newsletter, over the next nine months, is assemble a rich intro­duc­tion and companion. Some of that material has leaked out already, of course … the bit I wrote earlier this year about C. S. Lewis, his balancing and patterning, is an example. I’ll write up more bits like that, one per newsletter edition or so, and organize them into a little mini-site. (Yes, this is mostly an excuse to design a mini-site.)

This companion will be about books, and more than books. In the cover letter that intro­duced an early draft of this novel, I wrote at length about the overworld maps in classic RPG video games like Final Fantasy II — the way they worked, the feelings they produced. Throughout, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — the manga version, Miyazaki’s magnum opus — has never been far from my mind. It’s going to be fun and satis­fying to work through these influ­ences and bring together the multi­media cosmos of this novel.


This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.

Cute and light

For the New York Times, I reviewed What You Are Looking For Is in the Library, a novel by Michiko Aoyama, trans­lated by Alison Watts.

I waited to send this newsletter because I knew the review would be published this week. I love how it turned out, and, to pull back the curtain a bit: the editorial process was very thorough, with several drafts, lots of notes. Here and there in the American mediascape: editing endures!

My review became a mini-manifesto in defense of a certain kind of story:

Reading “What You Are Looking For Is in the Library,” I felt preemp­tively protective, because it is the kind of story often dismissed as “cute” or “light.” Those labels don’t capture the muscu­larity of what’s happening here, nor do they capture the risk: Of course, kindness can be cloying. Good luck can be eye-rolling. [ … ]

Over and over, Aoyama demon­strates how it’s done. In her Hatori ward, good fortune is not arbitrary or unearned; it is never a gauzy gift from the universe. It arises instead from action, expe­ri­ence and wisdom. Her char­ac­ters appre­ciate each other; they are grateful to each other; they recognize in each other quality and potential. (Put these folks in a labo­ra­tory dish with the dramatis personae of a cynical HBO show and they’d anni­hi­late each other, matter and antimatter.)

In the review, I focus on the skill required to make kindness and good fortune compelling in a novel. For you, reading this newsletter, I have reserved the ornery flipside:

How many more novels, TV shows, and movies do we need exploring yet another flavor of badness, charting yet another journey of self-destruction, physical or moral or both? It’s like … yeah, I get it! This kind of work might have been reve­la­tory once; that time has passed. Too often (and here I’ll get extra-ornery) the creative cover story that goes “I’m inter­ested in these deeply flawed char­ac­ters … I like writing about broken people” is simply an excuse to revel in depic­tions of violence — physical or moral or both.

I believe it is time, instead, for creative inves­ti­ga­tions of decency, virtue, and goodness. If that sounds boring: yes! That’s why the project is needed! Let’s learn how to render complex and compelling the char­ac­ters who are trying their best to live correctly — and sometimes, gasp, even succeeding.

Longtime readers of this newsletter will appre­ciate the fact that, with this review, I got the word “eucatastrophe” into the New York Times. This is NOT its first appear­ance in those pages; that was in 1972. This might however be the first time it has been cited with appreciation.

Here is a wonderful glimpse of the NYT’s vast clipping and photo library, a.k.a. the morgue. In the old days, a newspaper reporter would decamp to the morgue to bone up on a subject or a story. In an era before the internet, it was a proprietary, quasi-magical source of infor­ma­tion.

I had occasion, recently, to rewatch Superman, the 1978 version with Christo­pher Reeve. In this viewing, the scenes set in the newsroom of the Daily Planet leapt out at me: an amazing environment, drama­tized near its historical peak.

Those places are gone now, and it’s too bad.

Nominations, please

Here’s a question for you: what are the truly great author websites?

Some parameters:

Whose website springs to mind? It doesn’t have to be an author of books — maybe you’ve come across a compelling journalist’s roost, or the tidy home of a web writer, someone who blogs passionately. (Although, in my estimation, a “truly great author website” must encompass more than just the blog.)

Send me your nominations. I’ll select a few and share them in my next newsletter.


But really the baseline of web design is so low because there’s a lack of tenderness, care, and empathy. It’s because we don’t see the making of a website as a worthy profession. It’s because we hope to squeeze the last bit of juice from the orange by mulching people in between modals and pop ups and cookie banners.

The thinking path

A colorful ukiyo-e print showing a dramatic figure bowing with a sword, with the moon high above. It has the crispness of a comic book.
One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, Image 21, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1885

We learn the same lessons over and over, forgetting and remembering, forget­ting and remembering. That’s not failure — it’s life! It’s being human.

One of my lessons relearned is the profound problem-solving power of the walk. I used to be world-class. I’d get stuck on some writing question, feel the subtlest hitch in my flow, and, SPROING, I’d be up out of my chair, spring-loaded, already halfway around the block.

But then I lost my knack, somehow, my spring; and for a couple of years, while I still walked plenty, for errands and pleasure, I didn’t walk to think; didn’t pack my brain with a problem and go.

I’m happy to report I rediscovered the practice recently, to great effect. It has a long and distin­guished heritage. There’s a great bit from Robert MacFarlane’s book Old Ways, in which a wise man

told me once about how [Charles] Darwin had constructed a sandy path which looped through the woods and fields around his house at Downe, in Kent. It was while walking this path daily that Darwin did much of his thinking, and he came to refer to it as the “Sandwalk” or the thinking path. Sometimes he would pile a series of flints in a rough cairn at the start of the path, and knock one away with his walking stick after completing each circuit. He came to be able to anticipate, [the wise man] explained, a “three-flint problem” or a “four-flint problem”, reliably quan­ti­fying the time it would take to solve an intel­lec­tual puzzle in terms of distance walked.

SOLVITUR AMBULANDO: it is solved by walking. Remember this!

There’s no question: we are deep into a golden age of Actually Serious science jour­nalism and explanation. It’s never been better, if you know where to look.

Quanta Magazine is of course the great, central example.

Another example, new to me, is the YouTube channel PBS Space Time. Here’s an episode on superluminal time travel. I almost can’t believe how hard-core and “graph-y” this material is. Wonderful, wonderful.

Here is a fabulous old logo treatment for Mattel Electronics:

A logo treatment for Mattel Electronics, the characters all chunky and computer-y, surrounded by blocky little sprite characters caught in various poses. It's all in black and white, which only makes it better.
It's just so chunky

Critical Ignoring as a Core Compe­tence for Digital Citizens! Yes!

Steve Jobs had a partic­ular blind spot when it came to networking:

At the same time that he was ordering AppleTalk [circa 1984] Jobs still didn’t under­stand the need to link computers together to share infor­ma­tion. This anti­net­work bias, which was based on his concept of the lone computist — a digital Clint Eastwood character who, like Jobs, thought he needed nobody else — persisted even years later when the NeXT computer system was intro­duced in 1988. Though the NeXT had built-in Ethernet networking, Jobs was still insisting that the proper use of his computer was to transfer data on a removable disk. He felt so strongly about this that for the first year, he refused orders for NeXT computers that were specif­i­cally config­ured to store data for other computers on the network. That would have been an impure use of his machine.

I truly cannot get enough stories of this kind, from this partic­ular era. Of course, it is only self-interest; as a young user of Macintosh computers, in the 1980s and 1990s, these decisions (made in a far-off place called California) were formative.

I’m not sure I’d be asking questions like “what would a wizard read?” today if my parents hadn’t brought home a Mac Plus all those years ago.

What a pleasure to read Adam Roberts on Susanna Clarke and her block­buster Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This is deep, tele­scoping stuff. If you are inter­ested in fantasy, in literary influence, in culture: it’s worth your time.

Adam’s reread of The Lord of the Rings earlier this year was a feast. All of his posts combined (they are linked, one to the next) form the richest, smartest, most inter­esting companion to this book you can imagine. If you have appre­ciated LOTR in the past but/and it’s been a while since you dipped in: now might be the time, with Adam Roberts at your side.

While we’re talking about LOTR … this clever matrix of char­ac­ters is legit­i­mately useful. You could sketch out a compelling dramatis personae simply by starting with this grid and filling in the blanks.

I love Sam Valenti’s Herb Sundays newsletter, a tripar­tite offering. With each edition, there is:

  1. a playlist from some creative eminence;
  2. that eminence’s notes on their playlist; and
  3. Sam’s sparkling, perceptive celebration of that eminence.

I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t listen to the playlists. I do, however, read parts 2 and (especially) 3 with great interest. Sam’s raison dêtre is clear:

It’s also a chance to give flowers, as it were, I try to write an obituary for the still living. Why wait?

Here is a great framing from Frank Lantz:

Making [video] games combines everything that’s hard about building a bridge with every­thing that’s hard about composing an opera. Games are operas made out of bridges.

Here is a sci-fi short that’s crisp, creepy, and absolutely prescient. Slaughterbots!?

I have known about this YouTube channel, DUST, for years, yet somehow I can never quite rev myself up to watch. The fault is mine!

A colorful ukiyo-e print showing a dramatic figure standing before a field of flames, with the moon high above. It has the crispness of a comic book.
One Hundred Aspects of the Moon, Image 68, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1885

This edition’s art presents just three of the aston­ishing prints from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. Hop over to the Library of Congress and explore the rest. Like so much ukiyo-e and nishiki-e art, these images seem, to me, too sharp and stylish for their time — bright clear harbin­gers of comic books and anime. What an eye. 1885!

From Oakland,


P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around September 29.

September 2023