in

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.


What using artificial intelligence to help monitor surgery can teach us

What using artificial intelligence to help monitor surgery can teach us