A Year in Reading: Robin Sloan


I read more than one book in 2017, but the one is all I’m going to tell you about, because come on: there are a lot of other Years in Reading to get through here.

I received an advance copy of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous in the summer and it hasn’t left my mind since. It’s an important book that adds significantly to science fiction’s storehouse of futures, and I tend to think we need those very badly: not easy dystopias, and not naive world’s fairs, but REAL futures: textured, grounded, exciting, unsettling.

Among other things, Autonomous:
* imagines a disturbingly plausible scenario for the stealthy reintroduction of slavery;
* draws a new map for the future, where all the really interesting stuff is happening not in Palo Alto and Shanghai but Moose Jaw and Casablanca; and
* sets a new benchmark for the depiction of robot-human relationships in fiction.
I read so many books, and forget so much of what I’ve read, that I consider any indelible image a sign of great success. Much of Autonomous has already faded in my memory, but that romance, between robot Paladin and soldier Eliasz—the slow awakening, the uncertainty and distress, the caressing of gun ports—it’s with me now forever.

Thus ends the era that began with “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.” Starting in 2017, and thanks to Autonomous, there is a new standard.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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A Year in Reading: Robin Sloan

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It’s 2012 and a lot of people are talking seriously about programming as a new literacy. Program or be programmed, Douglas Rushkoff says, and there are more and better ways to learn than ever before.

But there are still vanishingly few places where you can learn what it feels like to code.

This summer I reread Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman, and I don’t know if it’s strange or perfectly reasonable that this is the case, but: Ullman’s 15-year-old memoir is still the best rendering of our new relationship with code that anyone has produced. It is in no way historical; it could have been written yesterday. In fact, I think it fits our world better than it does the world of 1997. Back then, the accelerating dot-com boom was, for most people, strange and remote. Today, who hasn’t at some point copied and pasted a fragment of JavaScript? If we don’t all have a relationship with code, we have, most of us, at least flirted with it.

Okay, so one counterargument might go: Why read about what it feels like to code when you can just learn to code and feel it yourself? But come on. We cook, and we also consume great writing about cooking. We watch movies, but we also read movie reviews. A great rendering of an experience makes the experience better; it drives it deeper. It helps us (see things, feel things) we wouldn’t otherwise have (seen, felt).

Here’s Ellen Ullman, for instance, on messy programmers:
Requirements muddle up; changes are needed immediately. Meanwhile, no one has changed the system deadline. The programmer, who needs clarity, who must talk all day to a machine that demands declarations, hunkers down into a low-grade annoyance. It is here that the stereotype of the programmer, sitting in a dim room, growling from behind Coke cans, has its origins. The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: all this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought. The messiness cannot go into the program; it piles up around the programmer.
I look across my desk and I say: Ohhh.

Ellen Ullman won’t hold this throne forever. There’s a wave of dual citizens rolling in, a whole generation of liberal artsy writer/programmers, and certainly a few of them will pause in their labors long enough to render the experience in words. It might take a while. I myself tried to put a bit of the feeling of code into my novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — but I’m only a so-so programmer, only a citizen and a half. The extremes of these new feelings are not accessible or really even comprehensible to me.

So for now, I’m waiting, and while I’m waiting, I’m rereading Close to the Machine.

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Bringing Book Scanning Home

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If Dan Reetz didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Cory Doctorow to invent him.

I met Reetz at New York Law School’s D is for Digitize conference over the weekend — two days devoted to the Google Books settlement and its future. It was a room filled mostly with lawyers and professors, along with librarians, publishers, a contingent of students… and Dan Reetz.

I have to paint the picture. He comes into the conference room — big, beautiful and brand-new, almost antiseptic — in a dark coat, hefting a huge black duffel bag.

Out of the bag comes a flat, mechanical-looking form of no recognizable use. It’s mutant Ikea.

It’s a transformer.

In a flurry of twists and clicks, Reetz folds it out and snaps it together —

— and when it’s finally assembled, it looks something like this:

It’s pure 21st-century ingenuity. Reetz designed his first book scanner because, as a grad student at North Dakota State, he was appalled by textbook prices. Then he built it, in two days, from old digital cameras, cardboard, and scrap parts; a friend wrote the page-processing software.

Reetz’s latest model, the one pictured above, is built not from junk but from laser-cut plywood, and it folds down and fits into an overhead luggage bin. It’s perfect for book-scanning special ops.

As important as the scanner itself is the community around it. It’s small, but growing: engineers, developers, academics, and even the occasional intellectual property lawyer.

Now, line Dan Reetz up with the other Dan at the conference: Dan Clancy, who directs Google Books. To review: Google has scanned more than 10 million books, the many of them still copyrighted but long out-of-print, and therefore unavailable unless you can get to a big university library. The Google Books settlement provides one path to make those books available to everyone, online.

So at one end of the spectrum, we have Google’s ambition and scale: the vision of a complete digital library and the unique ability to actually pull it off. At the other end, we have Dan Reetz’s ingenuity and openness: the delight of a $200 book scanner and a PDF parts list ready for printing if you want to make your own.

Although there was plenty of teeth-gnashing in that conference room — and truly, there’s a lot not to like about the Google Books settlement — I think the Reetz-Clancy continuum augurs good things for the future of books. On one end, the recognition that books have to live online now, and that publishing has to operate at internet scale. On the other, the passion for (obsession with?) independence and the cottage-industry craftiness that’s been the best part of book publishing for so long already.

It was encouraging to have both ends in the same room — part of the same conversation.