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Meta Mastery: Robin Sloan’s Literary Journey Through the Tech World’s Narrative Labyrinth



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Name: Jason Ke

Diving Into the Digital Age with a Legendary Storyteller

Spending several hours in the company of the digital era's most renowned storyteller, Robin Sloan, he shares a pivotal insight on science fiction. This revelation is the piece I've been searching for, a window not only into his mind but perhaps into the essence of narrative itself. I quickly look at my voice recorder to confirm it's capturing every word. "Memory is full!" it displays.

Completely occupied! That derisive little punctuation. I don't give in to fear. Rather, it's as though I lose touch with sanity. A portion of me remains engaged in conversation with Sloan about science fiction. Meanwhile, another part of me, for lack of a better term, is abruptly pulled away, as though by an invisible force, into a surreal sideline of existence where the concepts of time and space barely make sense. In this space, I'm faced with a clear mission: to figure out how to craft this profile, or face failure.

I reassure myself, telling myself that all is well. There's no issue if I can't recall Sloan's words verbatim. I can rephrase them. Besides, initially, that's not even necessary. In the opening paragraph, simply mention that a deep understanding exists. It's a timeless method to captivate the audience.

For those unfamiliar with Robin Sloan or indifferent to his thoughts, there's a straightforward solution. Simply assign him a remarkable title that demands attention. Consider dubbing him "the essential author of the Bay Area," though aim for something less region-specific. Or perhaps refer to him as "the ultimate programmer-writer for programmer-writers," but aim for something less niche. Perfect, we've got it: He's known as "the leading novelist in the tech industry."

(Indeed, this might be completely accurate. Can you name any other authors residing in the Bay Area, who previously worked at Twitter, maintain wonderfully geeky websites, and program as a hobby? His works are a hit among the tech community, aren't they? His initial novels became a staple in book clubs across the board. Whether by design or coincidence, Sloan stands as the best in his field.)

So it seems you're at the start, I muse quietly to myself, lost in thought. Yet, there's another crucial piece you must bring into the picture. Likely, it's the exact topic of your current conversation with Sloan, somewhere in the realm of our day-to-day lives. Namely, the idea that: this guy has a penchant for layering his narratives. He does it all the time. Once mentioned, "The top films are those that reflect on cinema itself, the greatest novels are those that explore the concept of storytelling." It's essential to highlight that Sloan's debut, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, essentially revolves around literature. And his latest work, Moonbound, delves into a narrative featuring a hero embroiled in a well-known saga—thus, it's a narrative about narratives (with the storytelling duties handed to a distant future offspring of the intelligent sourdough starter from his second novel, Sourdough).

Authored by Mark

Authored by Adam Bumas

Authored by Boone Ashworth

By Christopher Null

This approach will effectively reassure the audience that there is nothing deceitful, excessive, or an elaborate cover-up for journalistic oversight happening here. Far from it! What this aims to achieve is far more intriguing: a narrative on the process of crafting a profile, adopting the self-reflective tone of the subject at its core. It will be iterative and multifaceted.

Otherwise, it might become incomprehensibly lost. There's just a single method to discover.

As I regain consciousness, my surroundings are unfamiliar. Sloan and I had been dining at a Taiwanese restaurant he loves, close to his workplace in Berkeley. Suddenly, we're outside and night is falling. Glancing at my watch, I realize I've somehow misplaced half an hour.

Alright, I've returned to my senses and I'm eager to divulge my insights. I convey to Sloan that whatever I end up writing concerning him will likely turn into a meta-narrative about the process of writing about him. And it doesn't really matter that the voice recorder ceased to function, but then I pause to ponder. "Shouldn't the story also fundamentally address the incident with the recorder malfunctioning?" I inquire. Sloan chuckles in agreement.

Continuing on this topic, I propose, there invariably comes a time in a profile where it's essential for the author to illustrate the physical traits of the subject in question. “How about for a twist,” I offer, “you give me a description of yourself?” After pondering briefly, he responds: “Well, he’s definitely tall, that’s clear.” “Plus,” he mentions after a pause, “he’s without hair.”

I have to admit, this gentleman is quite delightful to be around—silly, always up for a challenge, and very warm. If he embodies the stereotype of a tech enthusiast, he's definitely the kind that opens his arms to everyone, without being overly self-centered. For example, when he mentions his early interest in large language models, well before they became a hot topic in the AI community, he does so with a nonchalant eye roll and shrug. This gesture seemingly excuses any potential arrogance. (That is, unless you're skeptical of this particular kind of self-awareness, where simply acknowledging one's own potentially dubious behavior seems to shield one from critique.)

Authored by Mark

Certainly! Although you haven't provided

Unfortunately, you didn't provide

By Christopher Null

Thus, it's natural that our conversations increasingly delve into the realm of linguistics, semantics, and the essence of communication—although Sloan didn't foresee language emerging as the pivotal technology in AI advancements. He believed it could have been image processing or another area entirely. However, with language now leading the way and its newfound ability to generate text, he's thrilled to distinguish himself as a writer unlike any AI. His latest release, Moonbound, marks his debut into the science fiction genre, and he regards it as his most eloquently crafted and authentically human narrative to date, without a doubt. It represents his boldest venture yet, in terms of themes, character development, and even its use of punctuation. When I mention his particular fascination with the use of colons in the book, he passionately defends his stylistic choice to employ sentences that intriguingly incorporate not just one but two colons—a construct you wouldn't find in the outputs of ChatGPT, obviously.

Earlier on the same day, Sloan and I were at a salvage yard, surrounded by a vast collection of old doors—sliding, narrow, glass, and even metaphorical ones—when he shared the different directions his career in writing might have taken. It was in 2010, coincidentally the year he joined Twitter, that Sloan decided to independently release three short stories on his personal website, exploring genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary life in San Francisco. Of these, the one set in the present day unexpectedly gained popularity and eventually laid the groundwork for his novel "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore," which was published two years later, just after he had left Twitter. For a while, Sloan believed this success defined his literary style. His next book, "Sourdough," came out in 2017, also set in San Francisco. In between, Sloan had the opportunity to speak at Google, earning him recognition in the local area, especially among tech-savvy readers who appreciated his ability to capture the essence of tech culture and transform it into engaging narratives.

I describe Sloan's work as "nominally realist" for a specific reason: Sloan never fully embraced the label. In "Penumbra's," there's a distinct technomystical tone when delving into themes of books, history, and Google's influence. "Sourdough" reaches its peak with the appearance of a colossal bread creature at a tech-forward culinary event, predating the baking frenzy brought on by the Covid pandemic. Essentially, elements of science fiction were eager to emerge in both novels. For instance, in "Penumbra's," several characters are found deeply engrossed in dragon tales, and one noteworthy part involves a character prompting another to conjure up a sci-fi narrative set in the far future.

Set in a distant future, several millennia from now, "Moonbound" features an array of dragons. Alongside these mythical creatures, the narrative includes wizards, articulate beavers, and intelligent swords. The protagonist, Ariel de la Sauvage, whom Sloan humorously acknowledges as having a "nerdy name," is an orphan residing in a castle with a destiny to extract a sword from a stone. The story is recounted by an AI, who observes, "This tale was familiar to me," yet acknowledges its unique twist, being reshaped and condensed in a novel manner. The plot is characterized by its cyclic nature and intricate layering.

Authored by Mark

Authored by Adam Bumas

Authored by Boone Ashworth

By Christopher Null

Sloan is convinced it belongs to the genre of science fiction, specifically the "hard" variety, arguing that all elements within it could potentially exist. The story is narrated by an entity that describes itself as a chronicler, originating from a lineage that dates back thousands of years, with its distant ancestor humorously likened to ChatGPT, with the addition of a sourdough starter and a dash of allure. Yet, "Moonbound" also ventures into the realm of pure fantasy, drawing heavily on the tale of King Arthur but presenting it in a condensed and reimagined form. To equip himself for the task, Sloan immersed himself in the works of legendary storytellers such as Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, and the creations of Studio Ghibli, an influence that's evident throughout the narrative, including direct references to these inspirations. "Moonbound" intriguingly blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy, suggesting they might not be distinct genres after all. Sloan has teased the possibility of two follow-up novels if the initial installment achieves enough success, with the second installment promising an adventure into outer space.

Sloan maintains that the complex layers found in his work were not predestined when he first penned Penumbra over ten years ago. As someone who meticulously records his thoughts, he has evidence showing that the initial concept for Moonbound was jotted down two years after the release of Penumbra. I'm skeptical of his claims, I tell him; the process of artistic creation doesn't follow a straightforward path. In my view, it's no coincidence that the storyteller in Moonbound constructs an eternal space, detached from reality, in which to foster ideas or face oblivion.

Conversely, there's a universal inclination towards a straight narrative, storyline, and timeline—this applies to Sloan, myself, and perhaps even to language models. In the narrative of Moonbound, the AI narrator persistently poses one straightforward question, repeatedly over hundreds of years. This question echoes throughout the novel, as if it's constantly on Sloan's mind, and it dominated much of our conversation. It's possible this question lingers in the back of everyone's mind. The question, of course, is:

Authored by Mark

Authored by Adam Bumas

Sure, please provide the text

Crafted by Christopher

What unfolds afterward?

Late into the evening, I find myself at home, slightly under the influence, attempting to get into the latest science fiction hit movie. However, I'm finding it hard to focus. There's something nagging at me.

I hit the pause button on the film and reflect. The entire night was spent in the company of Robin Sloan, the most celebrated contemporary novelist in the tech realm, and just when it mattered most, my voice recorder let me down. However, it's okay. Actually, it's better than okay. I've devised a strategy to navigate through this obstacle. In fact, I've already managed to work my way through it.

What's my concern, then? The conclusion? My only task is to fulfill the initial expectation and at last disclose the—

Aha! The deep understanding. Right. That's the issue troubling me. My memory is overloaded! In other words, amidst all the self-soothing and self-praise involved in the planning over the past several hours, I've entirely lost track of what Sloan's significant realization was. The very point I was leading up to. Vanished.


This isn't my first time in this situation. I remain calm.

I reassure myself that my profile is about to reach its peak brilliance. It's a stroke of foolish genius! Now, with the crucial understanding that forms its foundation missing, it will transform into what it might have always been destined to be: a timely, almost real analysis that delves into the very concept of adopting a meta perspective from the outset.

Isn't this reflective of your experiences with Sloan? Was there not a time when you directly confronted him, presenting a full argument against the concept of self-awareness? You criticized it as deceptive and a facade, dull and reminiscent of college dorm discussions, something people resort to when they lack genuine substance, all while deluding themselves into believing they're exceptionally smart. Sloan listened to your argument, only to cheerfully, in his typical manner, express his disagreement. He then shared his perspective (and you would summarize, of course): Engaging with literature, films, or art deepens our comprehension of these mediums as forms; hence, art that acknowledges and explores its nature as an art form represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement.

Indeed, those were his words. You're going to mention that. You're tasked with crafting this profile. It will descend into obscurity, and therein lies its purpose.

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