Robin Sloan
The Society
April 2021

Cold start

A vividly colored drawing of a pineapple flower with cockroaches crawing along the leaves.
Pineapple with Cockroaches, 1702-03, Maria Sibylla Merian

This spring, a hum­ming­bird reared two chicks in a tiny nest nearly within arm’s reach of my front steps. The view was obscured by a spray of branches, but, find the right angle, and you could see straight into the cup of the nest: where two birds began their lives as pea-sized eggs and bal­looned into scrawny young crea­tures who even­tu­ally hov­ered out into the world.

Neither my phone’s cam­era nor my DSLR could cap­ture the nest or the birds it contained. With my eyes, I’d spot the lit­tle babies, the dark nee­dles of their beaks; then I’d raise a device, and they would dis­ap­pear into a murky tangle.

I went out to spy on them every day, gig­gling with delight like a total creepazoid, and it made me realize, again, the degree to which the human eye is NOT a cam­era. Our view of the world is so deeply and care­fully filtered; not just in terms of color and light, but some­how also atten­tion and life.

I was frus­trated that I couldn’t cap­ture and share what I was seeing, but over the month or so of the nesting/hatching/growing process, that became part of the appeal. And no, I’m not going to do that thing where I now lov­ingly describe the hum­ming­birds, ~conjure them~ with language; that’s not my point.

My point is: a hum­ming­bird reared two chicks in a tiny nest nearly within arm’s reach of my front steps. It was great.


It’s been a sea­son of intense writ­ing over here; wake, write, get a sandwich, write, make dinner, read a lit­tle, maybe watch an episode of Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma (I love a title with an excla­ma­tion mark and a colon), sleep. That is, unfortunately, all I’m going to say; I’ve long since learned my les­son about hyp­ing a project before I have a man­u­script in hand. But I do want to tell you that this new book is far along: still in the nest, yes, but it has long out­grown its pea-sized egg.

Must be a scrawny young creature.


A cou­ple of sum­mers ago, my friend Jesse Solomon Clark appeared at the lab with a vin­tage portable organ and said, “Let’s make this into some­thing.”

More recently, Jesse reviewed the video he cap­tured while we worked and edited it into a brisk recap of the project.

Jesse provided the portable organ, the music the­ory, and a large dol­lop of elbow grease. I pro­vided addi­tional grease, as well as B+ pro­gram­ming skills and C- elec­tron­ics skills. I’m happy to report that this became one of those “level up” expe­ri­ences: the project’s scope so far beyond our capa­bil­i­ties (oops) that we had no choice but to expand them.

It’s a really lovely video, just a minute and a half long; take a look at Alouette.


Over at Fat Gold, we’re run­ning a lit­tle flash sale, offer­ing up what remains of the Cal­i­for­nia extra vir­gin olive oil we sent to sub­scribers in March. It’s an opportunity to “sample” a sub­scrip­tion and see what the expe­ri­ence is like, zine and all. It is also, more straightforwardly, an oppor­tu­nity to get some good olive oil!

Also, this shipment’s mag­net is a stunner; Spring (The Procession — A Chro­matic Sensation) by Joseph Stella, painted 1914-1916.

Fat Gold flash sale
Fat Gold flash sale

The way things work around here is, I bookmark all the beau­ti­ful pub­lic domain art I find … and then I either send it with this newslet­ter, or put it on a mag­net 😝


I mentioned this to the Read­ing Room committee, but I’ll add it here, too, because I’m proud of the com­pact­ness and coher­ence of the project: back in February, I invented an odd kind of poem that depends on language, code, and luck.

This was on the lead­ing edge of the Win­ter 2021 NFT boom; as you’ll see, the poems have lightly cryp­to­graphic properties, and, believe it or not, I sold them! I have since burned out totally on NFTs, but I still like this kind of poem, and I’d like to do more with it in the future.


There’s a newsletter I enjoy called Why is this inter­est­ing?; it feels like the curated cor­re­spon­dence of a wide cir­cle of friends, with edi­tors Noah and Colin at the hub. The newslet­ter’s tastes run towards the cos­mopoli­tan and infrastructural; WITI is the friend with cool lug­gage who wants to talk about under­sea inter­net cables.

I have con­tributed two edi­tions myself. Both started as replies to edi­tions I’d received … and both got out of hand. Very con­ver­sa­tional, very fun.

Here’s my Breeding Ground Edition, about some uncon­ven­tional (almost utopian) urban plan­ning in Ams­ter­dam.

Here’s my Urban Man­u­fac­tur­ing Edition, about some uncon­ven­tional (almost utopian) urban plan­ning right here in my neigh­bor­hood 😎


This album by the Nor­we­gian sax­o­phon­ist Håkon Korn­stad has been on loop in my house­hold for the past few weeks. I think Kathryn might be near­ing her break­ing point, but not me. I could lis­ten to it for another whole sea­son. I’d bet­ter find my headphones … 

Its dis­cov­ery was charmed: once, on our way to Ams­ter­dam (where I learned the things I wrote about in that WITI, linked above) Kathryn and I stopped over in Oslo, and on our first night there, lying totally awake, will­ing our­selves to sleep, the sun still shin­ing out­side our hotel room, we lis­tened to the radio — good old fash­ioned ter­res­trial radio — and heard the first song on this album. This was a few years ago; I’ve had it saved since then, and lis­tened to it many times, but it wasn’t until recently that I “discovered” the album; the whole­ness of it, the vitality.

All in all, a fun way to encounter a work of art.

The album is avail­able on Spotify and every­where else; if you, like me, mar­vel at tracks 6 and 7 in par­tic­u­lar, the way the oper­atic voice mixes with the loop­ing saxophone: be sure to watch this video afterward.


One of the great hon­ors of pub­lish­ing nov­els has been the chance to par­tic­i­pate in com­mu­nity read­ing events around the United States. You know the format:

ONE X, ONE BOOK

where X can be a city, a campus, a county, or, in very spe­cial cases, a whole state. (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book­store was once the selec­tion for Read­ing Across Rhode Island.)

About a month ago, I joined the pro­ceed­ings of All Henrico Reads, orga­nized by the Hen­rico County Pub­lic Library in Virginia. My appear­ances were remote, of course; but it turns out, even dis­tance can’t dimin­ish the warmth of an event like this. My inter­locu­tor for the big evening con­ver­sa­tion was an HCPL librarian, Lind­sey Hutchison, and her ques­tions were per­cep­tive and generative. The ques­tions that fol­lowed from the library com­mu­nity were just as good.

It hap­pens every time; like a great gust of wind, you see it before you feel it, a rip­ple in the grass, and then, WHOOSH, it hits you: these peo­ple really read the book. They really thought about it.

It’s worth acknowl­edg­ing and cel­e­brat­ing the qual­ity of attention these events drum up for the books they select; there is almost noth­ing else like it, in any medium. Certainly, in no other circumstance, what­ever the nom­i­nal size of the audi­ence, has my writ­ing received remotely the same level of … “atten­tion” doesn’t even cap­ture it. Engagement? Care? The inter­net is so good for so many things, but in this regard, it just can­not compete. Falls flat on its face.

By way of small advertisement: I love doing events like these. Both Sour­dough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book­store are appro­pri­ate for read­ers of all ages, or nearly all, and both sug­gest plenty of inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions and ~pro­gram­ming~.

I mean … if they’re good enough for Rhode Island!


A beautifully detailed and vibrantly colored drawing showing multiple stages of a moth's life.
Convolvulus and Metamorphosis of the Convolvulus Hawk Moth, 1670-83, Maria Sibylla Merian

I read Hank Green’s novel An Absolutely Remark­able Thing and I loved it.

It’s the kind of novel that made me excited about nov­els in my early 20s, when I was first won­der­ing if it would be pos­si­ble for me to write one myself. (I didn’t actu­ally do it for a long time after that, but that’s when I started to wonder.) And what I mean by that is: it’s a novel about NOW, the froth­ing future-present cap­tured in a totally accurate way.

The books that were most impor­tant for me at that time were William Gibson’s Blue Ant trilogy, and while William Gib­son and Hank Green are very dif­fer­ent writ­ers, their cen­tral objec­tives seem, to me, very similar: they are out to map the unevenly dis­trib­uted future, the human expe­ri­ence of it, and like, share it back: “This is where some of us are today. This is where you’re headed. Get ready.”

Hank Green’s map reveals the abstract space of social media, the weird con­tours of that par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of fame. He’s clearly writ­ing from expe­ri­ence; his char­ac­ters describe the ebb and flow of atten­tion with tex­ture and specificity. This is not Old Nov­el­ist Yells at Cloud. But/and, along­side his ren­der­ing of “this is where some of us are today”, Hank con­jures a new, or ultimate, form of social media; an almost utopian vision. It’s very sci-fi and totally provocative.

Until I read those Gib­son books, I had of course enjoyed fiction, but I don’t know that I’d encoun­tered fic­tion that did THAT SPE­CIFIC THING, and I found it totally thrilling. Read­ing Hank’s novel — this is going to sound like hyperbole, but I swear it’s not — I felt that lit­tle chan­nel in my brain open­ing up again.

Anyway, it’s a really sharp, use­ful book, and a plea­sure to read. It was also a super best seller, so it’s not like it needs more recognition … but I think this is the kind of novel that gets a bit underrated, critically. And I think that’s because there aren’t enough peo­ple in the crit­i­cal estab­lish­ment with the expe­ri­ence to appre­ci­ate its verisimil­i­tude, its depth; and also because of the biases around what “counts as” lit­er­ary fic­tion, even now, in 2021.

I meant to leap straight into the sequel, but a book on trade inter­posed itself, and then I had to read *REDACTED* to fig­ure out how to *REDACTED*, so A Beau­ti­fully Fool­ish Endeavor still awaits.


A the­ory of fiction on the web: it must play at being some­thing else. Sim­ply post­ing a blob of text and duti­fully label­ing it “fic­tion” falls flat; the medium works against it, often fatally.

I thought of this read­ing a recent edi­tion of Mark Slutsky’s newslet­ter, about the Institute for the Study of 3:32pm, April 10, 1954, which I will not label “fic­tion”.


Not unrelated, here’s a para­graph from Franco Moretti:

And yet the novel has also been widely regarded as a form that tried, for at least two centuries, to hide its fictionality behind verisimil­i­tude or realism, insist­ing on cer­tain kinds of ref­er­en­tial­ity and even mak­ing exten­sive truth claims. If a genre can be thought of as hav­ing an attitude, the novel has seemed ambiva­lent toward its fic­tion­al­ity — at once invent­ing it as an onto­log­i­cal ground and plac­ing severe con­straints upon it. Nov­el­ists appar­ently lib­er­ated fic­tionality, for eighteenth-century prac­ti­tion­ers aban­doned ear­lier writ­ers’ seri­ous attempts to con­vince read­ers that their invented tales were lit­er­ally true or were at least about actual peo­ple.


Here is a mov­ing piece by Nick Cornwell, who you know by another name, about the rela­tion­ship between his par­ents Jane and David Cornwell … who you know by another name.


The Over­fit­ted Brain: Dreams evolved to assist generalization, a 2020 paper from Erik Hoel at Tufts:

That is, dreams are a bio­log­i­cal mech­a­nism for increas­ing gen­er­al­iz­abil­ity via the cre­ation of cor­rupted sen­sory inputs from sto­chas­tic activ­ity across the hier­ar­chy of neural structures. Sleep loss, specif­i­cally dream loss, leads to an over­fit­ted brain that can still mem­o­rize and learn but fails to generalize appro­pri­ately.

I am always, always here for fresh hypothe­ses of dreaming!!

(And I’ll take the oppor­tu­nity to remind you, again, of my closely-held belief that a novel is lit­er­ally a packaged dream.)


There are a cou­ple of writ­ers who send newslet­ters that I think of as “ideal” and when­ever I receive them, I think “ugh … why can’t mine just be like that?”

(Because it can’t. Sorry.)

One is Louise Penny, whose newslet­ters come on a clock­work schedule, just like her books.

The other is Ed Brubaker, a ter­rific writer of comics and more. In a recent edi­tion, he wrote about how it feels to have laid some of the groundwork, in comics, for the Mar­vel Cinematic Universe:

And of course, today the FAL­CON AND WIN­TER SOL­DIER show debuts on Disney+, which I sadly have very mixed feel­ings about. I’m really happy for Sebas­tian Stan, who I think is both a great guy and the per­fect Bucky/Winter Soldier, and I’m glad to see him get­ting more screen time finally. Also, Anthony Mackie is amaz­ing as the Falcon, and every­one at Mar­vel Stu­dios that I’ve ever met (all the way up to Kevin Feige) have been noth­ing but kind to me … but at the same time, for the most part all Steve Ept­ing and I have got­ten for cre­at­ing the Win­ter Sol­dier and his sto­ry­line is a “thanks” here or there, and over the years that’s become harder and harder to live with. [ … ]

So yeah, mixed feeling, and maybe it’ll always be like that (but I sure hope not). Work-for-hire work is what it is, and I’m hon­estly thrilled to have co-created some­thing that’s become such a big part of pop cul­ture — or even pop sub­cul­ture with all the Bucky-Steve slash fic­tion — and that run on Cap was one of the hap­pi­est times of my career, cer­tainly while doing super­hero comics. Also, I have a great life as a writer and much of it is because of Cap and the Win­ter Sol­dier bring­ing so many read­ers to my other work. But I also can’t deny feel­ing a bit sick to my stom­ach some­times when my inbox fills up with peo­ple want­ing com­ments on the show.


Andrew Liptak, whose newslet­ter on the cul­ture and indus­try of sci­ence fic­tion I’m find­ing indispensable, pub­lished a piece about sci-fi’s roots in the west­ern, and the way that influ­ence has dis­torted the genre’s view of space explo­ration. I thought this was so sharp:

But while the imagery of the Amer­i­can west­ern pro­vides use­ful inspi­ra­tion for writ­ers and space advocates, it’s an anal­ogy that doesn’t hold up when it comes to depict­ing the harsh real­i­ties of inter­plan­e­tary exploration. There are other his­tor­i­cal peri­ods and activ­i­ties to draw from, like the explo­ration of Antarctica, that would be bet­ter suited for ground­ing one’s narratives.


How about “power plant cold start videos” as a genre?

It’s really worth mak­ing time for this nerdy, humane narration of a small-ish hydropower plant’s startup process, which unfolds through rigid engi­neer­ing but/and also requires a deeply intu­itive touch; “surfing a power plant on a river,” our guide tells us. Amazing.

This plant in Fin­land is uhhh some­what larger, but the prin­ci­ple is exactly the same. Wait for it … waiiit for it … 


That sec­ond link is via The Prepared, which I feel com­pelled to recommend, strongly, again. It is prob­a­bly my sin­gle favorite newslet­ter. For me, it’s come to rep­re­sent a curious, crit­i­cal engage­ment with the real phys­i­cal world, at nearly every scale, from hob­by­ist elec­tron­ics projects to (as above) 300-megawatt power plants.

I feel like the newslet­ter already “sells itself” to the mak­ers of the world, pro­fes­sional and ama­teur alike … but hon­estly, every­one ought to read it, because it’s just so con­sis­tently eyebrow-raising and smile-producing.

Samuel Johnson, updated: “Sir, when a reader is tired of The Prepared, they are tired of life.”


Lately I’ve under­stood the word “ambivalent” in a dif­fer­ent way. I think its pop­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion shifted at some point toward “I don’t have an opinion” or “it really doesn’t mat­ter to me”; a kind of cool, low-energy state. But that’s not what the word means at all. To feel ambiva­lent is to have many thoughts at once, some of them contradictory; to hold them, unresolved, in your head.

I find this use­ful because I feel ambiva­lent about a lot of things!

Iris Murdoch, by way of Alan Jacobs:

The achieve­ment of coher­ence is itself ambiguous. Coher­ence is not nec­es­sar­ily good, and one must ques­tion its cost. Bet­ter some­times to remain confused.


Just as I was get­ting ready to send this, a newslet­ter came in, bear­ing a line too deli­cious not to share. Here’s Mandy Brown with a short assess­ment of Kazuo Ishiguro’s lat­est novel, chan­neling the great one:

I also read Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, hav­ing evidently com­pletely forgot­ten how strongly I disliked his last book, The Buried Giant. After fin­ish­ing it, I recalled that Le Guin had politely mur­dered him, not only for the hack­neyed writ­ing but also his choice to use fantasy tropes while evi­dently har­bor­ing a supreme dis­like for fan­tasy. (“It was like watch­ing a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audi­ence, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”) I suppose Klara isn’t as bad as it could have been, given that it was writ­ten by a dead man. But I can’t recommend it.


Earlier this spring, in an online event for Point Reyes Books, I inter­viewed Kim Stan­ley Robin­son about his novel Min­istry for the Future. Just a few minutes before we were set to begin, there was a surge of new arrivals; a bit of a surprise, hon­estly. Where had they come from?

In the chat, they hap­pily explained: they’d just been in the audi­ence for a dif­fer­ent online event, orga­nized by Powell’s, fea­tur­ing Bill McK­ibben and Eliz­a­beth Kolbert; near its conclusion, both writ­ers had expressed their admi­ra­tion for KSR, and, oh yes, isn’t he doing an event right after this? Yes, he’s being inter­viewed by some dweeb from the Bay Area … 

So, a not-insignificant frac­tion of their view­er­ship just … hopped over! They came in hot, a bit raucous; it had the spirit of a bar crawl; wonderful.

This past year trans­formed book events, obviously, and I don’t think they’ll sim­ply snap back to the way they were before. I mean — a lit crawl across hun­dreds of miles, a swarm of read­ers flow­ing from one vir­tual room to another! That’s too cool to aban­don entirely, right?


A beautifully detailed and vibrantly colored drawing showing multiple stages of a moth's life.
Common or Spectacled Caiman with South American False Coral Snake, 1705-10, Maria Sibylla Merian

Can you believe these illustrations?? They are the work of Maria Sibylla Merian, who lived and worked at the turn of the 17th century. You can see a col­lec­tion here.

The hummingbird chicks have taken flight, but I don’t think they’ve gone too far, at least not yet. There seem to be more hum­ming­birds around the house; sometimes three or four at once, which is, yes, about two more than usual. The little nest is empty. Do hum­ming­birds reuse them? I guess I’ll find out. For now, I still spy it between the branches some­times, a lit­tle gray-green capsule, no big­ger than a golf ball. An XL walnut.

They build them out of, among other things, spider webs.

From Oakland,

Robin

Sent to the Society in April 2021