Robin Sloan
The Society
October 2021

The spirit in Vault B

Life of Nichiren: Prayer for Rain Answered, ca. 1835, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Life of Nichiren: Prayer for Rain Answered, ca. 1835, Utagawa Kuniyoshi

The rain has come! Not as vio­lent as I expected; just persistent. It rained all night and it will rain all day.

Today’s install­ment is a col­lec­tion of things that have lately cap­tured my atten­tion and curios­ity. As always, my hope is that you’ll skip around and per­haps find one or two that are inter­est­ing to you.

On Tuesday, I’ll send a newslet­ter with a link to a new project. I’m excited!


Why mess around? Let’s hear

ROBIN'S REVIEW OF THE GREEN KNIGHT

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2019, Ryan V. Lower
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 2019, Ryan V. Lower

Back in August, the pro­duc­tion com­pany A24 made The Green Knight avail­able for stream­ing on one night only, a fun idea. Obviously, I was very inter­ested in this new adaptation, so I eagerly bought my ticket, set­tled in, and, well … 

I didn’t like it. But this shouldn’t come as any surprise, and it doesn’t really say much about the movie. Why would you EXPECT a per­son who’s read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight a dozen times, who loves its gal­lop­ing language, to enjoy the movie adaptation?

That’s the core of it: The Green Knight was over­whelm­ingly visual, barely verbal, and for me, the poem’s mag­net­ism is all in the words. I think it would have been cap­ti­vat­ing to see Dev Patel and the rest of the cast rat­tle off those allit­er­a­tive lines; funny and weird, mov­ing and virtuosic. Instead, the movie’s spare dia­logue rarely rose above a rasping whisper.

(What is up with the 21st-century movie whisper, anyway? I’m not enough of a cinephile to fol­low the tracer dye on this one. I noticed it in the brand-new Dune adaptation, too; as if the film­mak­ers had chal­lenged themselves: how few words can we ask the actors to say, and how fully can they aspirate them?)

Here’s where I have to acknowl­edge that my cin­e­matic pref­er­ences are uh deeply idio­syn­cratic. I like movies in which peo­ple talk nonstop. I think the mark of great dia­logue is that you don’t even NEED to “perform” it; the mean­ing is there in the words, and when those words are great, you could just buzz them out through a speech syn­the­sizer and still find yourself moved.

I think more actors ought to just buzz them out!

Keanu Reeves is, for me, an exem­plar in this regard, which totally sounds like an under­handed com­pli­ment but totally is not; I truly think he’s the best. Of course, he prob­a­bly would not describe his own act­ing this way, but it has seemed to me that, in his mod­ern roles (including John Wick, so terrific) he is just … say­ing the words. Almost as if read­ing them from cue cards.

Which, remem­ber: that’s exactly what Mar­lon Brando did!

Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando share a scene in The Godfather. There is an enormous white cue card taped to Duvall's shirt, presumably below the camera's line of sight. It is awesome.
Robert Duvall on the set of The Godfather, wearing one of Brando's cue cards.

The movie of my idio­syn­cratic dreams, furthermore, has no emo­tional meltdowns. It’s a movie in which many things — not all, but many — go exactly accord­ing to plan. It’s a movie not about bro­ken people hurt­ing each other, but rather good peo­ple working together.

There’s drama in that, too.

That’s the other thing about The Green Knight. The Sir Gawain of the poem is, in fact, very nearly morally per­fect. It’s annoying — the Pearl Poet makes that pretty clear — but it’s authentic. Gawain wor­ries deeply and con­stantly about being a good per­son. The poem’s great twist comes at the end, when he makes a sin­gle mistake: he flinches from the Green Knight’s blade.

The poem’s Green Knight says later:

As a pearl is more prized than a pea which is white,
so, by God, is Gawain, amongst gal­lant knights.
But a lit­tle thing more — it was loy­alty that you lacked:
not because you’re wicked, or a womanizer, or worse,
but you loved your own life; so I blame you less.

The Green Knight, the movie, flips this around completely: its Gawain sort of sucks, and it is only at the very end that he sud­denly finds moral ballast, and doesn’t flinch when — is this a spoiler? You get the point.

Looking at it that way, I suppose the poem and the movie make a fine pair: inversions, com­ple­ments.

I think often of these para­graphs from a piece by Alice Gregory, part of the old Book­ends col­umn in the New York Times, reply to the prompt “can a vir­tu­ous char­ac­ter be inter­est­ing?”:

Living vir­tu­ously is hard. It takes gen­er­a­tive intel­lec­tual work that is far more inter­est­ing than the defen­sive­ness of “being bad.” I would rather con­sider the chal­lenges that go into a con­sciously lived life than the inevitably hurt­ful prod­ucts of a cruel one.

A truly rad­i­cal 21st-century nov­el­ist wouldn’t ask us to see our­selves in made-up villains, and then, hopefully, revise our opin­ions of the real ones in our own lives. Rather, they would ask us to see the ardu­ous and often acro­batic effort that goes into liv­ing a life of com­mon decency. They would coerce us into believ­ing that virtue is inter­est­ing and fun to think about and far more daz­zling to encounter than malevolence.

It’s in that spirit that I believe a “proper” adaptation, one that took up the task of dra­ma­tiz­ing a truly — annoyingly — vir­tu­ous char­ac­ter, would be more inter­est­ing, and a more urgent project for this 21st century, than The Green Knight.


I dis­covered this after send­ing yesterday’s newslet­ter: from Blaft, a brief “tour of Chennai’s pulp fic­tion print­ing presses, lend­ing libraries, pave­ment bookstores, and readers.” This is a per­fect com­ple­ment to Craig Mod’s video: the mate­r­ial real­ity of book pro­duc­tion, totally dif­fer­ent and yet some­how spir­i­tu­ally just the same!


The upcom­ing video game Lem­nis Gate is a mul­ti­player first-per­son shooter in which the play­ers take turns looping through the same level sev­eral times, each addi­tional run adding a “layer” of action that can affect what hap­pened before … oof, it’s dif­fi­cult to describe! But/and it looks fun to play, maybe? I found this playthrough from Dor­rani Williams totally winning; it’s fun to watch him slowly grok the concept himself.


Life of Nichiren: Rock Suspended by the Power of Prayer, ca. 1835, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Life of Nichiren: Rock Suspended by the Power of Prayer, ca. 1835, Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Tell me if you recog­nize this sentiment, evi­dent among many tech peo­ple, ven­ture capitalists, cryp­tocur­rency boosters, etc.:

I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things, and how then should its pos­ses­sor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever peo­ple for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who, thanks to money, am capa­ble of all that the human heart longs for, pos­sess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, trans­form all my inca­pac­i­ties into their contrary?

Guess who!


A ques­tion for you. What’s a good music doc­u­men­tary that dives deep into stu­dio record­ing and pro­duc­tion? This might be some­thing on YouTube, rather than, e.g., Net­flix … I’m not really inter­ested in per­sonal sto­ries or band drama — rather, I want to see peo­ple record music in space together.

My curios­ity has been sparked mainly by this old 2002 arti­cle from Sound on Sound, detail­ing the base­ment pro­duc­tion of the first Strokes album:

Then, about a week later, I got a call from Julian, say­ing “Gordon, we are scared.” I said “Why are you scared, Julian?” and he said “We don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get our sound again.” I sud­denly realised that they were think­ing of the EP that we’d done as “their sound”, and Julian said “Is it OK if we come back to your base­ment and try those three songs again?”

And of course I love Brian Eno’s argument, trans­mit­ted to me through Jesse Solomon Clark, that the stu­dio itself is an instrument, one you can learn to “play”.

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

As always, I’ll slip any interesting replies I receive back into the newsletter (respecting your quotation preferences, indicated above); check back occasionally to find those.

I think I’m look­ing for some­thing with the approx­i­mate nerdi­ness quo­tient of Pensado’s Place, except with real footage of musi­cians and pro­duc­ers at work in the stu­dio, rather than recall­ing their tech­niques in retrospect.

(The episode of Pensado’s Place that fea­tures Finneas, bet­ter known as Bil­lie Eilish’s producer — he is also her brother — is SUPER fun, with Finneas explain­ing that he has been geek­ing out on Pensado’s Place videos for years!)

Micah writes:

A bit of a sad movie because you knew it was the last, but Let It Be shows The Bea­t­les in the stu­dio devel­op­ing the tracks for the album of the same name. It’s also inter­est­ing from the per­spec­tive that they all were tired of each other but seemed focused on the work of mak­ing music.

I … did not know about this doc­u­men­tary! Sounds per­fect, hon­estly. Could I have found this via googling? Probably. Did I ask the Dou­ble Dag­ger omni-mind instead, and did it deliver? Yes, and yes.

Chase reminds me about Sonic Highways, the show in which Dave Grohl vis­its famous record­ing stu­dios with the rev­er­ence of a holy pilgrim. I’ve seen a few episodes and, indeed, totally loved. I should watch the rest!

Ben writes:

Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder trans­lated really well from pod­cast to Net­flix series IMO! Good in-stu­dio footage in parts, though largely retrospective. The Dua Lipa episode was fun.

Rob writes:

I would def­i­nitely rec­om­mend Doug Pray’s Scratch from 2001 (and not just because a quote from my review at the time very nearly made it on to the DVD cover). As you can prob­a­bly tell, it’s a doc­u­men­tary about “turntablism” hip-hop DJs, but watch­ing peo­ple like Q-bert, DJ Shadow, Mix Mas­ter Mike, and Rob Swift talk about how they achieve these incred­i­ble effects and the inspi­ra­tion behind them is pure joy.

JYB writes:

I immediately thought of Tegan and Sara’s making of The Con back in the early 2000s. The rea­son I still remem­ber this is because it shows how they built some of the songs and choices they made dur­ing pro­duc­tion (which was quite inspired by the stu­dio they had for that album). There’s some silly bits inter­spersed because Tegan and Sara’s ban­ter is leg­endary, but for the most part, it’s about the mak­ing of the album.

Levi writes:

Here’s one of my favorite bands show­ing all of their DIY ethos with a short doc­u­men­tary. I love the shots of the New Orleans neighborhood, the liv­ing-room jamming, and the hon­est cameos about the strug­gles of mak­ing a record.

Dan passed the ques­tion along to a top-flight music producer, who gave a fas­ci­nat­ing reply.


I loved this blog post from Alan Jacobs about the ses­sion musi­cian Jim Dickinson. Alan quotes Jim on his rudi­men­tary but effec­tive piano technique:

It’s so simple, it works in the stu­dio. It cre­ates space and ten­sion and all the things you want a key­board to do and it doesn’t get in the way of the damn guitar because rock and roll is about gui­tars. So, thank god I’ve had a career because I play sim­ple and stupid.

The whole post is terrific, and I con­sider it a point in favor of my hypoth­e­sis that, when it comes to writ­ing, or mak­ing music, or maybe any­thing, you can do it any way you want, as long as it works.

Sounds sim­ple, I know, but not enough peo­ple realize this!


Here’s Adam Tooze on writ­ing his­tory in media res:

Indeed, I would go further. I side with those who see “in media res”, not just as a styl­is­tic choice and a mode of his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal analysis, but as defin­ing the human condition — apologies for the bold­ness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given sit­u­a­tions define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, iden­ti­ties or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we our­selves contribute, thereby enrolling oth­ers as well.


Here’s Sheila Heti on “limerence”, new to me, a great word.


I have been try­ing lately to learn about writ­ing sys­tems beyond the Latin alphabet:

My inter­est here is not totally casual because, for my new novel, I have devised a fic­tional script. (It was, per­haps, inevitable that I would do this some day.) I bought a clutch of cal­lig­ra­phy pens — I’d never used one before — and set myself to mak­ing shapes; some­what by surprise, this lit­tle project became one of the most fun things I have EVER done. I’ll share more in due course.


Ha, you thought I was done talk­ing about Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India, didn’t you? The book boasts a long, detailed entry on yak­shis (or yakshinis, or yakshas), a broad class of super­nat­ural beings omnipresent in sto­ries across India, often (though not always) depicted as “beautiful women with large breasts who wear their hair tied in a knot,” e.g.

Woman Beneath a Mango Tree, ca. 850
Woman Beneath a Mango Tree, ca. 850

The entry includes this story:

Today, [a pow­er­ful yakshi] is sup­posed to reside in the mys­te­ri­ous “Vault B” of the Sri Pad­man­ab­haswamy Tem­ple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, deep in prayer.

This tem­ple is so ancient that no one is quite sure how old it is. Ref­er­ences to the shrine appear in lit­er­a­ture that dates back to the Sangam Era, before the time of Christ. For the past sev­eral centuries, it has been man­aged by the royal fam­ily of Travancore.

There are at least six vaults in this tem­ple, des­ig­nated by the let­ters A through F. Five of these vaults were opened in 2011 fol­lowing a Supreme Court order, reveal­ing one of the largest hoardes of gold and jew­els any­where in the world, esti­mated to be worth more than US $20 billion.

As of this writ­ing, the huge iron door of Vault B remains unopened due to ongo­ing legal challenge. There are rumors of an even big­ger trea­sure lying within; but there is also a leg­end which says that any attempt to open the vault will result in catastrophe. To start with, it will sum­mon up a swarm of vicious demonic king cobras, but that’s not the worst part: it will also set free the fear­some Kan­jirottu Yakshi, who has been inside the vault pray­ing to Lord Narasimha for centuries. If her long med­i­ta­tion is disturbed, she will likely become more evil, pow­er­ful, and destruc­tive then she ever was before.

Other peo­ple believe that this is all super­sti­tious nonsense. They say that the sto­ries about Vault B only serve as a cover for cor­rupt temple offi­cials and gov­ern­ment author­i­ties who are slowly loot­ing the tem­ple’s trea­sures, sell­ing them to black mar­ket antiq­ui­ties traders for huge sums of money.

The best part is: this story is very much ongo­ing!!

If you do a news search for the tem­ple, you find head­lines like this one every few years: To unlock the cham­ber of secrets or not?

More recently, it’s had a rough time dur­ing the pan­demic:

The admin­is­tra­tors of Kerala’s Sree Pad­man­abha Swamy temple, one of the rich­est in India, informed the Supreme Court on Fri­day that the clo­sure of the tem­ple dur­ing the pan­demic resulted in a “financial crunch”.

Then, ominously:

It had also ordered a sec­ond committee to be con­sti­tuted to advise the admin­is­tra­tive committee on pol­icy matters. Both com­mit­tees should start func­tion­ing within the next two months and an exec­u­tive offi­cer should be appointed with­out delay, the rul­ing had said.

The pri­mary duties of the com­mit­tees would be to pre­serve the trea­sures and properties. They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B, con­sidered to be the rich­est among the tem­ple vaults, for inventorisation. The com­mit­tees would ensure that rit­u­als and reli­gious prac­tices are con­ducted as per cus­tom and on the advice of the Chief Thantri.

I have no addi­tional commentary. This rules.


Can we trace the resur­gence in “cos­mic fan­tasy”? I’m think­ing of projects like the 2010s comic book series Prophet, the ongo­ing Kill Six Mil­lion Demons webcomic, Jonathan Hickman’s lat­est X-Men sto­ries. Gideon the Ninth, in a way! The new pen-and-paper RPG Stillfleet, too.

It con­nects back to Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and the cosmic strain he brought to Marvel: Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Watcher, etc. Indeed, the large-format graphic novel Sil­ver Surfer: Black, pub­lished in 2020, is a per­fect exam­ple of the mod­ern cos­mic fan­tasy I’m think­ing about.

The video game Destiny also plays in this sandbox, and if we com­pare it to the same stu­dio’s pre­vi­ous offering, Halo, we see a wisp of tracer dye. The pro­gres­sion from Halo to Des­tiny feels like a retreat from “high mod­ern” sci­ence fic­tion — sto­ries of com­pe­tence and control — into some­thing darker and gnarlier, much more gothic. But like, still with shiny gadgets, sure.

It strikes me as a return to the Jack Vance-ian mode, along­side a relent­less tele­scop­ing of scale: the new cos­mic fan­tasy sort of begins with dark techno-gods twist­ing real­ity into knots, rather than cul­mi­nat­ing there. It’s a deep lineage, with links to Vance, to M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, even to the orig­i­nal Dun­geons & Dragons, which took both as inspi­ra­tion — but/and it feels like it’s newly resurgent, almost pri­mary.

(For the uninitiated, Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth is inter­est­ing to dip into, because it pre­fig­ures so much other science fic­tion, or sci­ence fan­tasy, or whatever; the first sto­ries were pub­lished around 1950. Vance died in 2013. He lived in the Oak­land Hills, and I would think of him when­ever I looked up at the line of dark trees and glinting windows.)

If you’re a reader of science fic­tion, or sci­ence fan­tasy, or whatever: have you noticed this resur­gence, too? And, if so, can you put your fin­ger on what might have cat­alyzed it? Conversely, feel free to tell me I have this totally wrong. It’s some­thing that’s flick­ered in my periph­eral vision for about a decade now; an influ­ence I am try­ing to be very delib­er­ate about accept­ing or rejecting.

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️


RIP Gary Paulsen. From an inter­view with NPR:

BALABAN: What ulti­mately saved a teenage Gary Paulsen was the library.

PAULSEN: And it became a sanc­tu­ary for me. The librarian — she watched me for a while. I was kind of this urchin, you know, a street urchin. Then she finally said, you want some­thing? I said, nah I’m OK. And she gave me a card and — hard to talk about it. It was a card with my name on it. And, God, nobody had given me anything like that. Nobody gave me any­thing.

It’s worth listening to the audio, so you can hear that it’s hard for Gary Paulsen to talk about, around 2:58. A library card is a pow­er­ful thing.


If you are, like me, a fan of Hayao Miyazaki and Stu­dio Ghibli, you will per­haps, like me, be shocked to dis­cover there is A MUSIC VIDEO you never knew about, ani­mated by the stu­dio in the mid-1990s. It’s fabulous: a futur­is­tic vision, simul­ta­ne­ously both totally Ghi­bli and totally strange.

Tap or click to unmute.

I dis­covered this thanks to a recent edi­tion of the Ani­ma­tion Obses­sive newslet­ter, for which I’m grateful.


I’ve been hav­ing an unex­pected amount of fun play­ing Brogue, a clas­sic in the “rogue­like” genre of video games, free to down­load for Mac, PC, and Linux.

Some of you read­ing this already know about rogue­likes: a kind of video game with deep roots — maybe the deepest — in which the world you explore (gen­er­ally a dank dun­geon) is never the same, and “game over” is permanent. There is no sav­ing your game, no restor­ing it. You just try, and fail, and try again, and the magic of the genre is: that turns out to be really fun?!

There are a whole host of mod­ern rogue­likes (or “roguelites”, some­what more forgiving) with slick graph­ics and clever mechan­ics and fancy things like “sound effects”. Brogue is deeply traditional: its dun­geons are built entirely from sin­gle Uni­code char­ac­ters. A stone wall is # … a magic staff is / … a great and ter­ri­ble dragon is D.

It’s so min­i­mal­ist that it works like read­ing: at first, the inter­face is just a spray of ran­dom char­ac­ters, but then, as you’re pulled into explor­ing and bat­tling and, inevitably, mak­ing dif­fi­cult decisions, it resolves into a kind of grip­ping dream, just the way a book does, just as improb­a­bly.

And that core rogue­like char­ac­teristic, the fact that each attempt brings with it a new dungeon to explore, unknown and unknowable, is really … exciting? Each dungeon is gen­er­ated from a sin­gle numeric “seed”, gen­er­ally ran­dom, but you can sock away seeds, and you can share them, too. I will reveal to you that I had a lot of fun in the dun­geon with the seed 282310737, mak­ing it down as far as level 12.


Tanmeijirō Genshōgo Fighting Under Water, 1856, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Tanmeijirō Genshōgo Fighting Under Water, 1856, Utagawa Kuniyoshi

These images are just amazing, aren’t they? The Met has a huge col­lec­tion of prints by Uta­gawa Kuniyoshi—almost too much to process.

That’s it for today! Media Lab com­mit­tee, more tomorrow. Every­one else, I can’t wait to share this new project on Tuesday!

From Oak­land, still get­ting hosed down,

Robin

Sent to the Society in October 2021