This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan.

Week 8, puzzle fiction

Erwin Blumenfeld at 50 Watts

Erwin Blumenfeld at 50 Watts

In a roundabout way, last week’s mention of So Many Books reminded me of the existence of 50 Watts, which is one of the web’s great archives of design and illustration, an absolute wormhole of delight. Visit only with the knowledge that you might never emerge.

This week,

  • Writing.
  • I didn’t quite finish that lab reorganization, and not for lack of effort. I'll show you my ahem progress down at the end of the email.
  • I received permission from an author’s estate to do a live reading (streamed over the internet) of a novella that I love. This week, I’ll figure out when to do that. It is a really, REALLY good book; in fact I think it’s close to perfect. My rough notion is that I’ll do a different live reading once a season, to complement and balance my annual reading, around Christmastime, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
  • Olive oil bottling!

Proposed: puzzle fiction as the descriptor for a loose category of books adjacent to mystery, science fiction, and certain kinds of YA. These books do not have to literally present a puzzle or code; they just have to be interested in the processes of puzzle-making and puzzle-solving as well as the mental state—not unpleasant—of being puzzled.

The founding document of puzzle fiction is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Borges wrote puzzle fiction; so did Eco. The manga called Death Note is VERY interested in how people puzzle their way through problems of knowledge and information. The recent novel The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is for sure puzzle fiction, and so is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, of course.

Another book that belongs on the puzzle fiction shelf is Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, a head-spinning novel that stretches huge swaths of time and space across the frame of a noir-y murder mystery. It is one of those books that, as you’re reading, sort of becomes your world; you look up and see—on the sidewalk, at the coffee shop, in the sky—afterimages of what’s happening on the page.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

At some point, Nick made it known that the mysterious matrix of numbers on the book’s opening page constituted a code, and so, on a plane flight, after finishing the novel, still flush with its secrets, I tried my hand at cracking it.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

I failed.

Later, I got even more serious and wrote a small computer program—I was going to brute-force it!! This, too, failed. Nick has since informed me, gently, that the code’s solution has a lighter touch. It’s the kind of thing, he says, that once you see it, you can’t believe you ever didn’t see it.

I still don’t see it!

If you’re a normal think tank, you call your bundle of proposals intended to make it easier to raise healthy, happy children something like A New Vision for American Families or maybe, if you’re feeling edgy, NextChild: Policy Priorities for Parents in the 21st Century.

Yep. Okay.

If you’re the People’s Policy Project, you call your proposal: THE FAMILY FUN PACK!

The People’s Policy Project is pretty excellent all around. Solid ideas, winningly presented.

I used to watch movie trailers devotedly; Apple’s trailer site was a frequent destination. The habit fell away years ago—it felt like it was all low-budget horror movies for a while there?—but I do still enjoy a fun trailer, and this is a fun trailer, for a movie with a premise like a fizzy science fiction short story:

What if everyone in the world forgot that The Beatles had ever existed?

What if just one person remembered, and that person was a struggling musician?

Space Teriyaki!

Sonoko Arai at 50 Watts

Out of nowhere the other day, a memory struck me: I took a playwriting class once! I had completely forgotten. This was at Michigan State. The teacher was Arthur Athanason, and he was a character from a play. Short, dapper, intensely dramatic; when the spirit moved him, which was often, he would shout.

In that class, we’d been assigned to write a scene—just one short scene—and another student turned in a draft that featured two people in a dingy room, one of whom was tied to a chair with a string of Christmas lights that were, of course, lit. The student was a very stylish writer—his words popped on the page—who was fully in thrall to the Tarantino aesthetic. This was 1999, maybe 2000.

Athanason was not impressed. You don’t need a string of Christmas lights to make a scene dramatic, he said. You don’t need someone tied to a chair. If you do have those things, your scene must be dramatic indeed—dramatic enough to balance them, to EARN them—and this scene (he told the student) does not rise to that level.

He wasn’t quite cruel, but close.

Begin with an encounter at a bus stop, Athanason said. Once you’d made the bus stop dramatic, then maybe, maybe, you can work your way up to the dingy room and the chair and the lights.

That always stayed in my head, although I forgot the source. For a long time, I thought I’d read it somewhere: the person tied to the chair with Christmas lights as a symbol of—and warning against—flashy narrative excess.

Even as an undergraduate who didn’t know much about anything, it seemed clear to me that Arthur Athanason was a big person in a small town.

News from the Republic

Tom Ewing, whose music newsletter I have recommended to you before, supplies my favorite sentence of the week, in bold below:

[T]here’s a clash in mood which is productive, unlike the flat synth atmospherics of Zadig The Jasp, a “mallwave” act whose LP was the most disappointing thing I played. Tomita and Lateef arrive at strangeness obliquely—Zadig tries to hustle it up, like a psychogeographer on an LRB deadline.

I always appreciate a turn of phrase that feels hyper-targeted at maybe two thousand people. A simile with a laser rangefinder.

The “Tomita” referenced in Ewing’s graf is Isao Tomita, whose album Snowflakes Are Dancing—an electronic interpretation of Debussy (!) released in the 1970s (!!)—has, Ewing believes, a strangeness that is real and unhustled. I agree. Last fall, I got my hands on a cassette tape version (!!!) and it was, for a while, my driving music, its spacey tones made spacier by the wobbly playback of our truck’s old tape deck.

Snowflakes Are Dancing, by Isao Tomita

He looks pleasingly Spock-like, doesn’t he?

It’s worth listening to the album’s opening minute. At first it sounds sort of plainly vintage, but then it blooms and gets weirder and, I think, quite atemporal.

Somebody should sample this, fast.

Here I am!

Reorganization in progress


February 2019, Berkeley

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

Have a question? Spot a typo? Your story didn’t arrive? Email

hony soyt qui mal pence