Photo courtesy Nick Bilton
Last winter it seemed like every blog I read and every bookstore mailing list I was on were recommending Robin Sloan's novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore to me, like some kind of algorithmic literary conspiracy. When I finally got my hands on it, it was clear that this was a guy who not only cared about the story laid out on the pages within (an ex-tech guy stumbles upon a mysterious secret society when he begins working the late-shift at the titular bookstore), but who also deeply considered the package without. The cover of Penumbra, designed by Rodrigo Corral, is an abstracted bookshelf that, much to my inner kindergartener’s delight the first night I took it home, glows in the dark.
His interest in both “content and container” informs much of his work (see Fish: A Tap Essay, if you have an iPhone, and if you have the web, the blog he keeps with Tim Carmody and Matt Thompson, Snarkmarket), and makes him what he calls a “media inventor." When I moved to the Bay Area at the end of February, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk to Robin in person about his processes and his preoccupations, the false dichotomy of physical books and digital technologies, and his own thoughts on all things Internet as someone entrenched inside new media.
Robin asked me to meet him in Oakland at Highwire Coffee, where we sat down and chatted for an hour and a half. A frenetic talker whose emphatic gestures and sound effects give you the feeling that he’s genuinely excited about almost everything, Robin riffed on pet octopi (“It’s pretty complicated… but we were like, pet octopus! It will learn to recognize us!”) and Bay Area adventures (“You go for a drink at Duarte’s… and you just think of the butts that were on the barstools before you and you go, wow man! I’m part of a great chain of humanity!”) and an Internet of other things too. I feared this would slide into the dreaded TL;DR zone if I were to include them all. Here's our interview, edited lightly and condensed.
MOTHERBOARD: You've called yourself a citizen of the Internet. I wanted to know more about that. Do you think that everyone is, or does it require a certain level of involvement or a particular attitude?
Robin Sloan: I don’t think everyone is. I can’t say I have a fully baked master theory of this, but I would say that I think most people born at a certain time are more likely to be citizens of the Internet. I don’t even know if that means, by definition, younger people are more native than not. I almost feel like it’s gonna be a dumb, boring infrastructure for them and they’ll barely even be conscious of this thing that is the Internet. When I was in high school, Instant Messenger was just coming online and we were all kinda knitting ourselves together in these weird little meshes. And then I went to college really a few beats after the web was blooming. Then I have been an adult and started to work at some of these companies as things like Twitter and the whole social web had come online. I feel like maybe being part of something while it’s growing or having something grow up with you makes you feel especially twinned to it somehow. I also felt a certain kind of proprietary, yeah! This is my town! This is my team! You’re not a citizen of the Internet by using it. I think you have to feel that allegiance somehow.
To do your "media inventing," you use the iPhone or YouTube, where you do your “Summer Reading” series. How does the durability or accessibility of some of the media you’ve used help to disseminate information or to tell stories?
What you can see right now and what you will see going forward is me hedging my bets a little bit. I think were that not the case—if it wasn’t kinda questionable whether anything we make right now on the Internet is gonna be accessible in five years, to say nothing or ten years or fifty years—then you’d be dumb just not to make everything for the Internet. I think it is obviously the most interesting medium, broadly speaking, the most interesting canvas for words and pictures and everything else. But right now, it’s super brittle and all those questions – will it last? Will we be able to access it? Will it be broken? Will it be funky? – those are all the right questions to ask.
If people are using the Internet and all of these new kinds of technologies to tell those stories, what do you think our libraries will look like or feel like in the future?
I don’t have an answer, but I feel like it’s the right question. Libraries need to always be something – there should be a place that has that feeling. The important thing is not somehow that it has all the books because they don’t actually have all the books. But it is the feeling of being able to walk down the shelves and kind of let your eyes de-focus a bit and just let something catch your eye. I heard someone talking the other day about how their kids have a favorite Dewey Decimal range. You know, man, they love zero to a hundred because it’s UFOs and yetis and aliens. How awesome is that? I don’t want to say you can’t do that on the internet. I mean, of course there is serendipity on the Internet, but I just think being able to literally walk through human knowledge is pretty awesome.
San Francisco's Marina Branch Library, designed by Tom Eliot Fisch / Field Paoli (Photo by David Wakely)
I feel like people are divided – you either feel that magical feeling with books or you feel it about the Internet. Your work seems to say that it’s one hundred percent compatible. Why do you think people feel strongly one way or the other — the physical vs. the virtual.
I think those feelings are way overstated and we get hoodwinked a bit by pundits and people whose job it is to rile people up. They write columns or they have panels at South by Southwest and the title is always like, “The Digital Future of the Book, Question Mark” or “Print Versus Digital.” It’s always very combative and, like, choose sides! The apocalypse! Book Armageddon! I think most people – I don’t have data to back this up, but I really believe it strongly – most people who really love books, they read a ton of print books and they read a ton of e-books and they like them both for different reasons. Unfortunately, that’s unsatisfying as a future prediction for the pundits. Headline: People Read All Sorts of Things for Different Reasons, It’s Kinda Complicated and Messy and Will Be For a Long Time. It doesn’t make a good panel or a good prediction, but I think it’s true.
Are there any new technologies and tools that you’re excited to be using in the future?
I’m still most excited about tablets. They’re still nascent – they are in this people-are-kinda-getting-excited-about-them phase. I just feel like there have not been any interesting books, for lack of a better word, made expressly for tablets yet, which is crazy to me. Obviously, you can read Kindle books on your tablet; we’ve seen graphic novels – it actually turns out to be a really good way to read comic books. But there’s no new thing yet. There’s a lot of room for invention, but I would definitely like to be one of those inventors.
I mean, of course there is serendipity on the internet, but I just think being able to literally walk through human knowledge is pretty awesome.
What’s special about it is that you have this canvas onto which you can put words primarily – you can make words really, really beautiful and you can also add images in this really flexible way and they can respond to people’s touches. I look at mine sometimes and think, how did we get this? I think they’re magic mirrors. Like a lot of magical new technology, we just spend a little while putting old stuff onto it, shoveling webpages and comic books and stuff into this container because that’s kinda all we’ve got.
The truth is I’m being a little unfair because people have made some pretty interesting stuff. Simon Winchester has this book called Skulls and it’s pictures of skulls. The iPad app is actually, truthfully, cooler. It’s better than the book and, in some ways, seems more like the primary product because they took the time to photograph these skulls all the way around from the very beginning. They were planning to make this thing that would allow you to rotate these skulls and look at them up close. I will concede that I’m always just so much more interested in fiction than nonfiction. It’s the dwindling example. Like, kid’s books? Kind of a good sampling of stuff. Nonfiction? Eh, a few here and there. But then you get to fiction and storytelling and it’s almost an empty set.
Is there any way you like to consume or produce things? Do you have a routine or is it more nebulous than that?
Right now, it’s not very interesting because I’ve been writing another book and will be for some time. So that’s kind of like: sit down, turn the internet off, type, and just do that over and over. I guess the short answer is no, but later this year, when I have finished up a chapter of the book I’m working on now and kind of return to some digital stuff, I would actually like to come up with a process. The last couple things I’ve made have been kinda… not exactly nebulous, but more like jumping from rock to rock and without planning too many leaps ahead.
What's the new book about?
Mmm, it’s a mystery. I’m not even being too – what’s the word? – coy, because it’s still pretty mysterious even to me. I think it’s fair to say that I have a couple themes that I’m just preoccupied with and they will find themselves into this book. One is technology and another one is here, the Bay Area. I just think it’s a wonderful, interesting place and it makes a great setting.
A cardboard book scanner.
So have you fallen in love with anything on the Internet lately? Or off of it, too?
I definitely have. There’s this one game – I always feel so guilty playing it, not because I feel guilty playing games… it’s just so nerdy! I’m afraid people are gonna look over my shoulder. It’s called Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. It’s very D&D. I find it fascinating for two reasons. One is just the cards – the cards are so beautiful. But the other thing is that it’s absurd. You’re playing a card game on a digital screen. It’s this sort of absurd simulation of physical things.
What else have I fallen in love with? I don’t really keep up with comics, but there’s this one called Prophet. So one of the themes in Penumbra – it doesn’t get that much play in the book, but it’s in there and it’s one that I care a lot about – is this idea of imagining the future, the far future. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a good prediction, bad prediction, serious prediction, frivolous prediction – I’ll take it. For that reason, I’m a big fan of this comic. Essentially, it was a comic book years and years ago, a kinda not very good superhero comic by this guy Rob Liefeld. They just stopped at some point – they gave up on it. I don’t know how it came about, but they decided to start it up again in some different people’s hands. But much time has passed. Instead of it being today, it’s the far future and Earth is cold and forgotten and there’s empires stretched out across the cosmos. I won’t try to describe it. I will say that I’ve been pretty mesmerized by it and its weird, dark vision of the future.
Like a lot of magical new technology, we just spend a little while putting old stuff onto it, shoveling webpages and comic books and stuff into this container because that’s kinda all we’ve got.
I’ll pitch you one more: I think that M. John Harrison, who you should totally follow on Twitter, might actually be the best writer alive today, sort of secretly, quietly. Man, his last book came out recently and I finally got it. I decided I wasn’t gonna wait for the U.S. edition so I tracked down a U.K. book and I read it a little while ago. I’ve actually had a hard time recommending it to people because I’m like, It’s good! Don’t you see it in my eyes? There’s science fiction-y stuff, but also, in the same way that Alan Moore has done it many times, it’s disassembling the foundations of science fiction. It’s a great trick to be able to pull off: one, to have fun with the trope, but two, at the same time, look back and say, this is crazy right? Just to be clear, this is ridiculous. Maybe he thinks it’s more deconstruction than celebration – he could very well say that. I think it just somehow does both so you get to just have fun, but also see this thing, this genre, for what it is at the same time.
SXSW 2013. Photo by Barry Pousman
South by Southwest just happened. Did you go?
No. I’ve only been a couple of times. Some people I know have a more fraught history or a sort of fraught relationship with it. I kinda dipped my toe in a few years ago and it’s too much to process. There’s more of an imperative when you’re working for a tech company or are part of the tech world. I’m sorta trying to de-tech or de-startup-ify.
Everything I hear is that it’s almost like a weird psychology experiment where at any given moment, somebody is like, so, would you like a thousand dollars or something else awesome worth a thousand dollars? You can only choose one! It’s all these impossible choices and so no matter what you do, you always feel like you’re kinda disappointed or, ooh, that other thing was the really amazing one! That’s the problem. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
San Francisco and environs can feel like that too. Where do you stand on it? What advice do you have for people who are new to the Bay Area?
I would say the intra-city thing for new residents is make sure you check out the Inner Sunset neighborhood and the Inner Richmond along Clement Street. The little neighborhood at Ninth and Irving is kinda the best way to get into Golden Gate Park if you wanna take public transit. There’s this bakery and all these little shops and restaurants and it just feels like a storybook. I mean, it’s really, really, really, really nice. You can get whatever you wanna get, a coffee and a scone from the bakery, and you can walk straight a block and a half into Golden Gate Park. And it’s good times.
Go to the branch libraries. I wrote part of Penumbra in the branch library just off of Clement Street. That neighborhood is super polyglot—I would say one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of San Francisco is the one just north of Golden Gate Park. There’s a huge Russian contingent, a lotta Chinese people—in some ways, it’s the real Chinatown, much more so than the downtown Chinatown--but also Thai and Burmese and Vietnamese and everything. It’s not like there’s a Russian shelf or a Chinese shelf -- it is even thirds: English books, Russian books, Chinese books. It’s just really fun to walk through the Russian section and be like, whaaat?
I think it’s the time to explore sort of promiscuously. When I first arrived, I thought of San Francisco as San Francisco. In fact, what makes San Francisco good, I’ve come to believe, is that in itself it’s pretty cool, but it’s surrounded by this belt of awesome stuff. If you compare it city to city against New York or Austin or whatever, I really don’t think it measures up that well, but if you compare it region to region against those places, I think it comes out way ahead. In San Francisco, if you pick the right time of day – it can’t be Friday afternoon – and you conscripted some friends and you drove through the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, from engine ignition to being on top of a mountain, it's twenty minutes, which is pretty ridiculous. There’s just so much to explore in any direction.
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