a wizard read
Here’s what happens next:
My new novel will be published in June 2024 by MCD. Nine months to wait —
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 —
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 —
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 —
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.
Here’s a question for you: what are the truly great author websites?
- They must be legible and readable (though not stark or generic)
- They must be fast to load and navigate
- They must offer more than just a CV or bibliography (but the “more” can be … nearly anything)
Whose website springs to mind? It doesn’t have to be an author of books —
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
We learn the same lessons over and over, forgetting and remembering, forgetting and remembering. That’s not failure —
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:
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:
- a playlist from some creative eminence;
- that eminence’s notes on their playlist; and
- 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!
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 —
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter around September 29.