Why Robin Sloan is the Future of Publishing (and Science Fiction)
On his blog, Robin Sloan describes himself as a "writer and media inventor." I'm not entirely sure what a "media inventor" is, but I assume it has something to do with how he manages to break just about every rule of publishing I can think of and make it work.
Take his novella "Annabel Scheme". It's just under 28,000 words long or a hundred pages or so (depending on the font). Conventionally, there's just no market for a work of that length. Sure there are exceptions, like the special edition that independent press Tachyon brought out of James Marrow's Slouching Towards Hiroshima, but that was a rare event. Generally, it's too long for magazines and fiction websites (which usually top out at 10,000-15,000 words) and too short for books (which start at 50,000 words). It's not that someone might not want to read a 100-page work of fiction—why not?—but the infrastructure just doesn't exist to get it into people's hands. So Robin turned to the Internet, specifically Kickstarter, a website full of people trying to raise money for art projects, independent film, theatre, magazines and so on. He created PBS-style pledge levels, offering, for different levels of "membership", PDF copies, print copies, surprise gifts, your name in the acknowledgements even behind-the-scenes peaks at his work on the novella (as he wrote it!). He said if he raised his goal of $3,500 for the work, he would release a PDF of the book free for everyone. Shockingly, he raised $13,942 dollars by almost 600 donors, more than most novelists get as an advance on a first novel. Not bad for a self-published, unpublishable novella.
"To me," says Sloan, "the point isn't always to get a story out into the world by any means necessary. Just as often, it's to try out new technologies and new platforms; sometimes it's to experiment, play and learn."
To this end, Sloan has experimented with various strategies of releasing his stories, none of which involve sending them out to publishing "gate-keepers." He made a story available for sale on the Kindle with the caveat that after 100 sales he would put it on his website for free. He wrote a story in exchange for a pair of pants. He wrote a story from start-to-finish on an airplane ride. He wrote a story and then offered the rough draft to his Twitter followers for editing. He asks his readers to remix and rewrite his stories. He has made a game of making canny use of the Internet and social media without ever doing anything that remotely resembles the traditional publishing model.
Of course, none of that would matter very much if he were a terrible writer. But he isn't. I consider him one of the most shockingly original Science Fiction writers working today, and his stories are plenty of fun to read. Which isn't to say he's perfect; in Annabel Scheme there are plot problems, an unevenness of style, sentences that don't quite make sense or seem to be missing a verb. In other words, it reads like a draft in need of an editor, with the rough edges of a novice writer that will hopefully be sanded down as he continues to develop. The fact that he would even consent to release something to the public at this stage speaks something to his bravery, foolishness or hubris, depending on your perspective. This is perhaps the greatest price of his relentless experimentation, and his successes in spite of these problems speak to the power of his raw ideas, ideas which make a lot of big-name Science Fiction writers look like they're standing still. While Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow and Vernor Vinge fantasize about the Singularity or augmented reality or 3D printers that can reproduce themselves (which, incidentally, all appeal heavily to juvenile power fantasies), Sloan is writing a fiction that speaks to a world in which we find ourselves not exactly emancipated by technology but simply hyper-connected by it, our identities as people redefined by the media we share, media which we embrace and deeply care about even when it leaves us bewildered, co-opted, and reduced in a thousand ways to algorithms. It isn't "hard" Science Fiction, not by a long shot, but most "hard" SF long ago stopped being able to figure out how to be relevant to most readers (as can be seen by their sales figures), with its greatest practitioners, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, turning instead to the present day, on the one hand, and history and alternate history, on the other. Sloan, however, has found an entirely different and exciting avenue of attack.
In Sloan's world, quantum computers, rather than creating the nerd rapture, create a Nick Harkaway-style surreality fog that often warps those who live inside it, and yet is still a haven for hallucinogenic drug users looking for a new kind of fix. Businesses start, fail and become fabulously wealthy around coffee tables in a cafe where you can buy shares in the latest start-up along with your latte. Raves start spontaneously in the middle of a field where kids hold up their cell phones, all dialed in to the same music from an alternate reality. Souls can be sold to demons on an eBay-style auction site. Google Headquarters is not in a conventional building at all, but organic crystals grown over the landscape like a coral reef, with the offices in tents and pavilions in its slopes and valleys. "The crystal is somehow computer memory, processing power, and fiber-optics all in one. It radiates wi-fi. It runs on sunlight.". This is not what our world is like, but it's very much what it feels like. It's as if Sloan has tapped into some kind of primal dream of what it means to live in our techno-saturated time, and that dream spills out all over his pages.
If he can keep it up, Robin Sloan deserves huge success, success of at least William Gibson proportions. He represents what new technology is capable of producing, in terms of content as well as production and distribution. Robin Sloan is a literary techno-prophet, and we'd do well to pay close attention to him.