Robin Sloan
The Society
October 2021

It will think you are crunching bones

Spectra of various substances, 1868, R.H. Digeon
Spectra of various substances, 1868, R.H. Digeon

In California, at last, the rain has come; a storm is sched­uled to hose down the whole north­ern half of the state this weekend, more pre­cip­i­ta­tion in 48 hours than the past eight months. Here in the Bay Area, our just-ended “water year”, which runs October-September, amounted to about eight inches of rain. This storm, the first of a new water year, could dump five inches on us!

This is actu­ally NOT a good thing for Fat Gold’s harvest but I will permit it.

I have a ton of stuff I want to share; for a change of pace, I’ll do it across four installments, Saturday-Sunday-Monday-Tuesday. This one focuses on books; Sunday’s will include my Green Knight review, muhuhuha; Monday’s will be a dis­patch to the Media Lab com­mit­tee (which you can always join, if you like, using the link in the email you received from me); and then, in Tuesday’s newslet­ter, I’ll release a new project!


Let me tell you about an uncanny encounter with a pub­lisher.

The cover of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, stark black with an illustration, in white, of a spooky figure standing in front of a tree.

A while back, I came across Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, by J. Fur­cifer Bhairav and Rakesh Khanna. It belongs to one of my favorite genres, which I’ve spo­ken about before: encyclopedias, glossaries, and dictionaries, par­tic­u­larly those that catalog … well … ghosts, monsters, and demons!

Even so, I was not pre­pared for how deeply this book cap­ti­vated me. For weeks, I read it over break­fast and before bed. I car­ried it everywhere, includ­ing into the bathtub, sev­eral times. The appeal was manifold: brisk writ­ing; lin­guis­tic diversity; gen­uinely new-to-me mythic imagery; great illustrations!!

An illustration from the book, showing a creepy ogre-like monster with slavering hounds at his side.

If you fol­low me on Instagram, none of this is news to you, because I was, dur­ing those weeks, con­stantly post­ing snip­pets of the book. Here, the saliva of doom:

Airi is in the habit of spitting a lot. His saliva is extremely poisonous. If a glob of it lands on someone, that person is doomed to die within a few days unless healing rituals are performed.

Here, the flick­er­ing aonglamla, what an image:

This spirit ... has a tendency to flicker. One moment she's there, the next she's gone. The reason for the flickering, some say, is that she becomes invisible whenever she makes direct contact with the ground. You can only see her when she is floating in a pool of water; or if she hops; or if she steps on her hair while she's walking.

Here, robot assas­sins from thou­sands of years ago!?

Bhoota Vahana Yanta means 'spirit movement machine.' The term is used for several varieties of robot drone assassins and sword-wielding machine-men mentioned in the Lokapannati, a Pali-language text written between 1000 and 1200 C.E. by Saddhammaghosa of Thaton, but conerning events that took place much earlier, around 500 to 200 B.C.E.

And here, perhaps my favorite image in the whole book:

Despite being fearsome and bloodthirsty, Faru Furetas are quite cowardly and easy to fool. One way to scare a Faru Fureta away is to noisily crunch breadfruit chips. It will think you are crunching bones. This will convince the monster that YOU are much more dangerous than IT, so it will hightail it back into the water.

I think Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India is exem­plary of what a book can be, how it can operate. It’s a bridge across space, time, and language. As a phys­i­cal book, it’s innately random-access, great for brows­ing (although I was so cap­ti­vated I basically read it straight through). In form and con­tent both, this is the kind of vol­ume that, if you dis­cov­ered it on a shad­owed shelf in a used book­store, would make you giddy with delight.

Having had such a strong reaction, I decided I ought to prop­erly inves­ti­gate the book’s pub­lisher, Blaft. Well, its web­site is great, its offer­ings totally compelling, sooo of course I bought $200 worth of books. Blaft is in Chennai, so I knew ship­ping would be slow, and that was fine with me. I love a book order that arrives long after you’ve for­got­ten about it. “What’s this? Oh, yeah … OH, YEAH!”

A cou­ple of days later, I was head­ing out to grab lunch. At the pre­cise moment I hopped onto the sidewalk, a figure was approach­ing the gate; we star­tled each other. This figure car­ried a large box, but was not an agent of the USPS. The figure was, in fact, Rakesh Khanna, CO-FOUNDER OF BLAFT–!!!!—whose par­ents (I learned, there on the side­walk) live in the East Bay. Rakesh was vis­it­ing them, and he kept at their home a cache of Blaft titles, so, he fig­ured he’d just make this delivery himself.

Here’s the best part: I was head­ing out in the man­ner that had become customary, which is to say, I had my hat, my phone, my keys … and my copy of Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, tucked under my arm. I held it up, wag­gled the book at its co-author and co-pub­lisher.

The whole encounter was almost more uncanny than charming; almost.

A collection of books laid flat for inspection, all published by Blaft. Their covers are colorful, some showing cyborgs and/or women drinking from skulls.

I’ve now dipped into my Blaft haul. The vol­umes of Tamil Pulp Fiction are, as expected, amazing: tran­sects through a vibrant print cul­ture in which the median author seems to have pub­lished about 500 books. The bio­graph­i­cal sketches are as much fun as the stories, which is say­ing a lot, because the sto­ries are WILD.


There are so many book pub­lish­ers out there of exactly this scale and spe­cificity, and they are, to me, the marrow of the medium. I mean “mar­row” in the sense of, like, “secret cen­ter of pro­duc­tion”; or, as Horace Porta­cio says in Sourdough,

From the Old Eng­lish mearg, the inner­most core. The hid­den heart! It makes our blood in its secret chambers. That is Mr. Marrow’s ambition, I believe. The pro­duc­tion of new blood.

Discussing the work of pub­lish­ing with ~internet peo­ple~, you often encounter a reflex­ive belief in the value of disintermediation. The inter­net person who says “YEAH, we need to finally get rid of those PUBLISHERS” sees them strictly as parasites, slow­ing and con­strict­ing the ideal rela­tion­ship between author and reader. This per­son believes the direct link is what every­one involved actu­ally desires. The direct link — and liberation!

Now, I appreciate a direct link. I have pub­lished a ton of things on my own, and here I am, linked to you directly.

But if pub­lish­ing was only direct links, if it only pro­duced the kinds of books that emerge from that par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship — that geometry—then it would make for a bleak shelf. I’m not sure how best to artic­u­late this … many books just don’t work that way. Many books need to be trans­mit­ted through a thick mesh rather than a laser-straight link. When you step into a book­store or a library and you get that feeling—you know the one — I believe it is this mesh you are sensing.

You’re stand­ing inside of it.

I feel like the peo­ple who make the most noise about “liberating” authors from their pub­lishers (and musi­cians from their labels, etc., etc.) are the ones who … don’t actu­ally enjoy books that much? Any medium-serious reader has their favorite pub­lish­ers, their reli­able foun­tains of fascination: Belt Publishing, Locked Room, Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, Paul Dry Books, Heyday, FSG Originals … 

Publishers like these don’t just ferry fin­ished work into the mar­ket­place (although they do that, too); they actu­ally sum­mon new work into existence. The idea of Daniel Heath Justice writ­ing a per­fect slim vol­ume about badgers on his own is nonsensical. But his Bad­ger is a beau­ti­ful book, so I’m very glad Reaktion’s ani­mal series gave him a rea­son to write it.

These are not even all the ones I have
These are not even all the ones I have

I will cede a bit of ground to directness: I think read­ers (medium-serious and up) really ought to pur­chase books directly from these small, spe­cific pub­lish­ers when they’ve iden­ti­fied some as favorites, the way I have. It makes a huge dif­fer­ence finan­cially as well as, I think, emotionally. It’s nice to “see” your customers! I say this with some confidence, based on my Fat Gold experience. We sell a lot of olive oil through retailers, and we are very happy to do so … but I love ship­ping Fat Gold straight to peo­ple’s homes best of all.

And who knows … if you order straight from the pub­lisher, he might show up on the side­walk in front of your house.


Six kinds of electric light produced in tubes containing different gases, 1868, M. Rapine
Six kinds of electric light produced in tubes containing different gases, 1868, M. Rapine

Craig Mod released, just a few days ago, a short doc­u­men­tary detail­ing the pro­duc­tion of his lat­est book: printing, checking, sewing, binding, ship­ping. In the video, it’s inspir­ing to see all these real peo­ple — and all their great machines!—working together toward the goal of mak­ing a ves­sel that, with luck, will carry Craig’s words and images down the river of time on a longer-than-average journey.

Some would claim Craig for the direct-link model, but I think he is just a very small pub­lisher with a very spe­cific list 😎

And, OKAY, even if we cede his beau­ti­ful book to the direct-linkers: that’s sort of my point. I am delighted to have access to a sys­tem of pub­lish­ing capa­cious enough to include Craig, Blaft, Belt, FSG, and every­thing in between. Lib­er­a­tion is not cur­rently required. Now, if you’d like me to tell you about some real problems … 


I received a phys­i­cal copy of Tamara Shopsin’s new novel, pub­lished just this week, a per­fectly com­pact and appealing object:

A copy of LaserWriter II, with its black and white cover evocative of a pixelated printer test page.

I really loved this book, and if mid-1990s Mac­in­tosh com­put­ing played any role at all in your life, I am con­fi­dent you will, too.


A double rainbow, 1868, R.H. Digeon
A double rainbow, 1868, R.H. Digeon

Just look at the trea­sures avail­able at 50 Watts Books, the new online book­store estab­lished by Will Schofield, whose 50 Watts is one of the web’s great troves. Think of the authors behind those books; think, too, of the pub­lish­ers.

That’s it for today. See you tomorrow!

From Oakland, before the storm,

Robin

Sent to the Society in October 2021