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This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan. You, too, can receive these! They go out every Sunday.

Week 26, set a course for the aesthetic of my youth

Pines Along the Shore

Pines Along the Shore, 1896, Henri Edmond Cross

It’s been a run of gorgeous days here, and the neighborhood fruit is all coming into ripeness at once. The cherries were a feast for the robins and crows; the apricot tree that hangs over the fence into our yard is dropping its fruit right now—I just heard one a minute ago, a declarative THUMP on the ground—and the sidewalk plums need just a few more days. Maybe a week.


The other day, a Twitter friend retweeted these snapshots of a project-in-progress –

https://twitter.com/ra/status/1141885099044233216

– and reader: I swooned. The creator Ramsey Nasser linked to a live 3D version—try it!—and, wow, something about that sharp pixelated look is absolute catnip to me.

I mean, I get it; I have now officially reached the point where my taste has looped around and set a course for the aesthetics of my youth. I’m not alone; you might have seen the new-ish, very successful video game called Return of the Obra Dinn, which calls back loud and clear to the black-and-white aesthetic of early Macintosh games:

It’s beauuutiful

Ughhh look at it! Pure unadulterated one-bit dither dust!

So, Ramsey Nasser’s one-pixel lines stayed in my head all night, and they were still there when I woke up in the morning. I knew I had to get the code running myself. The pleasure of “view source” is that… you can!

https://twitter.com/robinsloan/status/1142098610978357249

Here’s my own live 3D version. Give the model a moment to load, then drag it around!

Look at those pixels. Look at those LINES!


You could title a novel Scramjet. Better yet, a book of poetry. Neither would have anything to do with propulsion. It’s just a strange word with an appealing shape. SCRAMJET!

Have you seen photos or videos of those vapor cones that form around airplanes traveling near the speed of sound? It’s iconic; here’s a good example.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why monstrous booms and vapor cones occurred at the speed of sound exactly. It seemed… random? Lucky? But then I started thinking of it not as “the speed of sound” but “the speed at which air can still get out of the way.” Or, stated another way, “the speed above which air CAN’T get out of the way.” And suddenly it all makes sense!


A Zoo in Winter

I finished reading Jiro Taniguchi’s A Zoo in Winter before bed last night. I knew Taniguchi from The Walking Man, his series of largely wordless tales chronicling (you guessed it) a man walking. Encountering the world. That’s all! There are panels that depict the walking man simply enjoying the breeze. Turns out, that’s a difficult thing to draw! Taniguchi was a master. He died in 2017.

Those lines.

Look at those LINES.

Having read The Walking Man, Taniguchi’s A Zoo in Winter was odd to encounter, because it’s… full of words! It’s a quasi-memoir of his arrival in Tokyo in the 1960s, the beginning of his manga apprenticeship. His depiction of the strung-out hothouse manga studio environment is delightful. The book pairs well with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, the memoir of another great manga artist—albeit a VERY different one.

Honestly, I think if I’d read these books when I was fourteen I probably would have had a totally different life!


La Smorfia Napolitana! Extremely into it!


Valley with Fir (Shade on the Mountain)

Valley with Fir (Shade on the Mountain), 1909, Henri Edmond Cross

I finished watching The Wandering Earth on Netflix. This took about five viewing sessions total, which, for a two-hour movie, might not sound like a ringing endorsement… hmm. It’s just that I always found myself watching it before bed, and I would nod off, and then have to go back a few scenes when I started again…

ANYWAY, the plot goes like this: Way ahead of schedule, the sun decides it’s going to grow into a red giant and toast the solar system. Humanity resolves to save Earth. Which is to say: move Earth. Enormous engines are built into the planet itself. A great voyage begins!

The movie, made in China, is based on a story by Cixin Liu—who also wrote The Three-Body Problem, which I’ve written about before—and it unfolds on the largest possible scale. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the movie’s antagonist is basically… Jupiter?!

I really, really appreciate Netflix’s aggressiveness in licensing and introducing TV shows and movies across borders. My sense is that, pre-streaming, there were some deep-set assumptions about what kind of “foreign” media would work in the U.S., or anywhere. Simply by trying a lot of different things, Netflix has shown that there’s an appetite for more, and weirder, media in translation than anyone ever expected.


I am always thinking, on some level, about archives and libraries, and it’s striking how many of the most interesting, vital pieces of our media environment today are “living organisms” that, denied their networks of sustenance, will cease to function and/or become illegible.

Examples range from something like Fortnite, the massive video game that is always shifting, always evolving—there’s no static “thing” you can point at—to the movie called Bandersnatch, Netflix’s quasi-interactive presentation that is available (of course) only from Netflix’s servers. There’s no open standard for quasi-interactive movies (yet?); if Netflix goes down, Bandersnatch goes with it, forever. (By all reports, this would not be a huge loss, but what about the next one—the quasi-interactive movie that really IS a work of art?)

To be clear, I’m very glad Fortnite and Bandersnatch exist! The point here isn’t “make stable, static books and movies, please.” The point is, we—the players and viewers of these things, and also, honestly, the people who produce them—ought to be thinking about how they might make it into an archive some day.

The archivists, for their part, are already out there thinking hard. They could use a little more support.


Landscape with Stars

Landscape with Stars, ca. 1905–1908, Henri Edmond Cross

☄️R

June 2019, Oakland

Here, at the bottom of the page, I shall say again: the newsletter is the best way to keep up with new offerings.

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