The Tech World’s Greatest Living Novelist, Robin Sloan, Goes Meta

So, inevitably, we talk a lot more, and meta-ly, about language, words, meaning—though Sloan doesn’t think it was inevitable that language would be the breakthrough AI technology. Could’ve been vision, he says; could’ve been something else. But now that it is language, and now that it can write, he’s excited to be the kind of writer the machines are not. Just take a look at Moonbound, which comes out today and is Sloan’s first proper work of science fiction. He thinks it’s his best-written, most human-sounding book so far—by far. It’s certainly his most ambitious: thematically, characterologically, even punctuationally. I point out his creative devotion, in it, to colons: and he launches into a defense of sentences that contain not one but two: which ChatGPT, of course, would never.

Earlier that day, at a nearby salvage yard, in a section devoted to hundreds of old doors, Sloan told me about the various paths his writing life could’ve taken. (Surrounded, I repeat, by doors. Sliding doors. Narrow doors. Glass doors. Meta doors, metaphors.) Back in 2010, the same year he started at Twitter, Sloan self-published three short stories on his website: one fantasy, one sci-fi, and one set in modern-day San Francisco. The one that happened to take off—and then formed the basis of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which came out two years later, shortly after Sloan left Twitter—was the nominally realist one. So he thought, for a time, that that’s the kind of writer he was. Sourdough, which followed five years after that, in 2017, was also set in SF. He gave a talk at Google somewhere in there, became kind of a thing in these parts, beloved by literate techies who saw in him a writer who understood both the incredible happening-ness of tech culture and how to novelize it.

I use the phrase “nominally realist” because: Sloan never entirely qualified. Penumbra’s gets pretty technomystical about books and history and the power of Google. The climax of Sourdough involves a massive bread monster at a futuristic food fair (a few years before the baking craze of the Covid era). There were, in other words, sci-fi stories in both books straining to break free. In Penumbra’s, multiple characters are literally reading books about dragons, and there’s a scene in which one character challenges another to imagine a sci-fi story set many thousands of years in the future.

Moonbound is set many thousands of years in the future, and there are a number of dragons in it. There are also wizards, talking beavers, sentient swords. Sloan’s hero, Ariel de la Sauvage (a “dorky name,” Sloan writes; it’s self-awareness all the way down) is an orphan boy who lives in a castle and is destined to pull a sword from a stone. “I knew this story,” says the AI narrator, but “it was different-shaped here, compressed and remade.” It loops. It layers.

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