Moonbound's cover. Illustration by Na Kim. Courtesy of Robin Sloan.

Dragons on the Moon

An interview with Robin Sloan on his new book Moonbound.

Moonbound (02024), the latest novel by Robin Sloan, takes you on a journey. It begins with the invention of faster-than-light space travel, the creation of artificially intelligent dragons by futuristic humans, and a war between humans and dragons waged in the skies and on the moon, followed by ten thousand years of darkness. That’s just the prologue of the story — four pages of set-up before the fun really begins.

Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (02012), was a captivating oddity:  a story that started in the familiar context of tech boom era San Francisco and ventured into the weirder and more elusive territories of  secret societies and cultic mysteries. Moonbound pulls off a similar trick on a grander scale, taking the trappings of classic fantasy and science fiction stories through the ages and using them to tell a thrilling coming-of-age story that combines far-seeing, heady speculative fiction with punchy, propulsive adventure.

It’s also chock-full of ideas on long-term thinking — and references to The Long Now Foundation’s work. Sloan has long been a supporter of Long Now (Member number #127) — he even spoke at the 02010 Long Conversation. We were excited to get the chance to catch up with Sloan and discuss the science and stories that informed Moonbound, his writing process, and how beavers might debate each other. 

Moonbound's cover. Illustration by Na Kim. Courtesy of Robin Sloan.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Long Now Foundation: How would you describe Moonbound for those who have not had the chance and privilege to read it? 

Robin Sloan: I'm notoriously bad at describing my own books. Maybe that's common. The book is its own description. If you could describe it easily, you wouldn't bother writing it. 

I can go at describing Moonbound two ways. One is a bit meta: this is my attempt to put a book up on a shelf that I have drawn from my entire life, but especially when I was a young reader. For me personally, that shelf has books like The Chronicles of Narnia, the Books of EarthSea, by Ursula K Le Guin, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, the adventure stories of Rosemary Sutcliffe, as well as certain Studio Ghibli movies. At a certain point you realize that you've benefited so much from a certain tradition or set of traditions and the impulse grows to pay back into the bank and try to put another little brick in the wall for other people to enjoy in years — and hopefully generations — to come. So that's how I want the book to work in the world.

But: why write this book for that shelf? And the answer is just that, of course, these are the things I'm interested in and these things are as diverse as the Arthurian mythos and all the fun tropes and tools of fantasy along with the sort of large scale imagination that science fiction demands. And I tried to mash those things together and make something that was fun and interesting to read.

There’s a lot about scale in the book in a way that's very near and dear to Long Now. 

Of course! To hear you react to that — maybe, I should get better at saying this is an adventure about scale. It is close to the heart of the book.

The potted description on the website that you give is “The year is 13777. There are dragons on the moon,” which immediately hits you with both temporal and spatial scale in a very dramatic way. That 11,000 year gap between the present day and where this book settles is quite vast. On that scale question: what was appealing about having a gap of that magnitude built into the novel?

That is a good identification. Most people would agree — readers of science fiction along with writers — that there is this real phase change. 50 years in the future, a hundred years in the future — that’s one set of questions and challenges. When you go into the thousands, certainly the multi-thousands, it's a different imaginative challenge. I very specifically wanted to take that on.

Long Now was an influence on me. I've been attending the lecture series in San Francisco from its beginning in the early two thousands. Those were a powerful influence on me — both the lectures and the whole line of thinking, going out to five digits. It's important that it's 10,000 years. The extra digit just destabilizes everything. When you get to that range, it knocks you out of your consensus, ready-made futures. It zooms past our Star Trek imagination. You have to answer the question: Well, okay, what else? And then, the fun begins.

What was really striking was how you managed to cultivate ideas in this story that have kinships with those of the present day, but still had obviously very deep divergences. On your preview site for the book, you wrote that an essay called “The Widening Aperture” about the widening spatiality of playing Final Fantasy II and seeing the map expand from this small medieval kingdom into a whole wider world where you can fly around and see a whole mix of futuristic and non-futuristic elements. You compare it directly to the experience of sitting in a dark auditorium in San Francisco for a Long Now talk, and having your temporal perspective expanded. That's also a feeling that I had when I was reading the book. There were moments in the book where you intentionally created those zoom out moments of “Oh, there's more to this.”

Yes, yes. It's a fun thing to do as you develop as a writer. I've been writing fiction for many years now, and I've been able to see myself get better and more capable. In the early days when you're first starting out, you're just trying to write something that's comprehensible and readable. As you get further along, you access that way of working where you actually can say, I want to produce a very particular feeling — like those bumps in scale. There's sort of a discontinuity to them as well, which I think is helpful. It's not a completely elastic thing.

Not only am I happy with how it worked in Moonbound — with the scale that this book ends up at — but the vision is for a series and we’ve got more scale to go. My hope is that this one finds a substantial enough readership that it will merit at least two more books in the series. The vision for the second book is to go from the macro regional to the truly planetary, and we will find out the fate of all of Earth in this weird time period. And then the third one, obviously we’ve got to go to space. We’ve got to go to the stars and see what operates and what kind of stories are going to unfold on the very largest scale. I would love to do that. That just sounds like a fun challenge and a fun set of feelings to produce.

There's so much in this book on that planetary scale, whether it's the networked intelligence of a robot pilgrim that's a pretty core character or other notes about different animal intelligences and societies with distinct ways of seeking knowledge. A lot of that felt very — not ripped out of the headlines, but — influenced by recent philosophy of biology and a lot of other work on planetary intelligence and planetary reckoning. A few months ago, I talked to Nils Gilman and Jonathan Blake of the Berggruen Institute, who recently wrote a book about planetary governance. What work was influencing your thinking? In terms of science fiction, there's always an element that is borrowed from the science and the technology that is happening in the present day.

I would say it's a mix of the sort of general osmosis of the things we know now, some specific references, and some personal experience. There's lots to choose from in terms of the things that humans are coming online to in terms of a more manifold understanding of kinds of life. For me — I think readers of my previous novel Sourdough (02017) will get this very clearly — microbial life is a big deal, both in the world and in our own bodies. At this point I feel like the science is pretty settled. We are committees and the vast community of empires rising and falling in our guts are affecting our mood and what we want every day. We're in conversation with them. There’s an obvious sort of connection between that and the fungal narrator in Moonbound and the narrator's relationship to the protagonist, Ariel. I will say very specifically, there's a book that inspired me called Ways of Being. It's by James Bridle, who is such a wonderful thinker who has cut a very interesting path through publishing and art. Ways of Being is great, highly recommended in part because he does such a great job of casting a really wide net and synthesizing other people's findings and research and stuff. And with every chapter there are nine science fiction stories you could go and write just based on the chapter.

But to your point: what’s actually exciting is that it's not a list of two potential influences. It's a vast web and the last few decades have seen science and scholarship and popular culture coming online to these different ways of being on this planet. It's really good. There are a lot of things in our culture that are not healthy and going in the wrong direction, but I think that one is actually very healthy, and is ultimately a necessary development.

One thing that shows up a little bit in Bridle — less about biology and more about modern life and the way it's changing — that I have just been really conscious of myself, is something that connects to Clovis, my robot pilgrim character. And that’s this question: Are we not in more than one place at once now? Right now, I'm in your room and you're in my room, right? The singular eye of life and experience used to not admit these kinds of connections — this sort of spooky action at a distance. Now, most of us walk around with a phone and that phone is constantly spider-webbing us out to — I mean, who knows? For every person, it's different family and news and weird fascinations. It does actually demand a reconsideration of our points of view. In Moonbound, there's a line where the narrator is learning about Clovis, who has multiple awarenesses around the world. The narrator says, actually, the Anth [the near future human society in Moonbound] did this too. People did this too — they just never did it as gracefully as Clovis did. 

On that note: the perspective of the chronicler at the heart of Moonbound is very interesting. The line that was striking to me, and is quite Sourdough-esque, is “I live by the logic of yeast and that logic is multiplicity.” Later in the story, there are entities that are what we would call artificial intelligences and humans trying to understand them that exist and think on the scale of millions of dimensions. That felt very influenced by what's happening technologically and what people are talking about culturally around artificial intelligence. So could you tell me a little more about that influence on this novel?

It's an interesting contrast. The planetary and interspecies multiplicities element: that was something in the air for the last 10 years. The AI side of it, the high dimensional spaces where thought is suspended in this weird, unimaginable, but very potent space, is a direct result of my preoccupation and experimentation with AI language models. Hilariously, this was before they got powerful and popular. I timed it wrong! 

From about 02016 until about 02021, I spent a lot of time tinkering with that stuff. By temperament and constitution, I'm a technical tinkerer with all sorts of things. This was so far before ChatGPT — it was much more of a toy. But even in the early days it had a real poetry to it. Some of the text it could generate was weird — I couldn't write that, those strange computational dreams. That drew me into that world. 

I was going to try to use some AI tools that I built to write a novel or part of a novel. That did not work out. It wasn't actually very much fun and the result wasn't good enough. It wasn't what I wanted to put my name on and share with the world, but the mechanisms, the math, the theory of how these things work was super provocative — just really just interesting to think about. I put that stuff straight into this book. 

The discussions in the book of high dimensional spaces and the way that these systems take information and knowledge and hack into it in this weird way that's in fact all real. That's not fantasy, it's not science fiction, it is how they work. One of my dreams for the book is that a person reads it — maybe someone on the younger side, a high school student or early college student — and a year later they take their first machine learning course at Michigan State University, or whatever, and they go, “I'll be damned. I already understand that.” Because they read it! They learned from what the scholars at the College of Wyrd were doing in Moonbound.

There were so many moments in the book where, if I had read them when I was 12 or 15, I would then, in the next half decade after that, have had so many points of connection in biology class, in a computer science class, and so on.

That’s what I hope is the multichannel appeal of the work. You're trying to reach a lot of people in a lot of different ways, of course. But the readers that I really hope connect with the book are those precocious, curious, 13 to 15 year olds who are ready to have their minds opened.

There is a lot about biology and biotechnology and artificial intelligence in the book, but the most striking technology in the story is story itself, the power of narrative as a sort of cultural technology. Tell me more about the sort of role of myth and storytelling in itself as part of Moonbound.

In an odd way, that's the part that I have the fewest cogent things to say about, even though it actually is the most important. When I sat down to start this book in particular, I was so excited to have the opportunity to play with — I think of it as the cultural keyboard. There are these keys of these archetypes and these symbolic patterns. It’s not just King Arthur — it's deeper stuff. It's quests and swords and wizards and all of that. 

Anyone who reads my previous two novels sees very clearly that they're written by someone who really likes fantasy and science fiction. But the novels themselves almost encase that in a buffer of our real world and the contemporary, and they provide other pleasures. They're good. For this one, I thought, I get to finally play the keyboard and actually activate those symbols. I don't have a deep theory for why this is so compelling — I have no great academic paper I'm waiting to write on the power and resonance of myth through culture. It's there, though. It's obviously there, and it's so much fun. It's fun in the same way that people who get the job to write Spider-Man comics or Batman comics have so much fun. You get to play with the good toys, you know? It doesn't have to be corporate property, though. It can be these wonderful symbols and archetypes that are just free for everybody.

You’re working in a lineage here.  Actually, you're working, as all fiction writers are, in multiple lineages. You've got the Arthurian lineage very clearly in the story, but also the heady sci-fi lineage of Le Guin and more modern writers like Becky Chambers and Ada Palmer. How do you balance that with writing something that is quite, in fact, novel and new as a story?

Part of it that unlocked it for me was that I have come to understand the influences of my influences better. To put one example out there: I recently reread C.S. Lewis and his thoughts about writing and the writers that he loved. Those are writers like George McDonald, who is quite forgotten, and William Morris, who's not forgotten, but his weird fairy romance epics are not very heavily read anymore. It was cool to read those and see clearly how C.S. Lewis was the transmitter. He absorbed some of the best parts of those writers. He made them new at his time, which is obviously not new anymore, but it was enough to put some spin on the ball and keep it going for a century. 

It’s a little presumptuous to claim a spot in any lineage that illustrious, but that’s the attempt. I want to put some more spin on the ball, renew it in ways that make it accessible and interesting to new readers and keep it going. That's part of recognizing a lineage and stepping up to be part of one. It's not just about homage and repetition, it's about renewal. It has to be about renewal too, and then you just try your best and see what happens.

One example from William Morris. It was hard to read, but some of his books have such delicious images, some of which C.S. Lewis just lifted. One of his long books is called The Well at the World's End and involves this long, long journey to a magic well on a cliff facing the ocean. And that's where I got my Wyrm of Wyrd and the strange diving pool on the cliffs. So people will still enjoy this image, even if they don't know the first time they read it, that that's where it's coming from.

That's such a great little fact. You can see sort of this genealogy where these influential writers were also being influenced themselves. So you can see this chain going all the way back—

—to whoever is the first, and it's really energizing. It makes you understand that the ones you love were just readers too. They were engaged in exactly the same practice of reading something and thinking, “oh, man, that rules, that's awesome.” Then you just want to make more of it somehow, or you want to reflect it. It fills you up so much that there's an overflow and that spills out into this new thing.

What is your drafting process? 

The drafting process for this one was similar to my previous book, Sourdough. I have a very diligent and disciplined note-taking practice. I have many other weaknesses as a writer, but I think one of my Olympic-caliber strengths is being disciplined about capturing interesting thoughts and ideas I come across. It's a mix of little bits of science stories that I encounter, things I overhear people saying, and things that occur to me when I’m doing something else that I dictate into a voice note and send it. I capture all that stuff and I collect it all into one big stew pot. It’s a really productive process.

When I sit down to begin things, I just marinate in my own stew for a while. It'll be a couple of weeks and my task at that time is to go through those notes of all those things that caught my eye at some point. As you spend time with them, you start to gather things together and you start to see themes emerge or clumps. There are characters in here that are three different notes that sort of found each other and I put them together like a little Lego set, tick, tick, tick. 

So in some ways it's organic, but in other ways it's quite systematic. It's definitely not that I just look out the window and hope that something occurs to me. It’s all of these pre-gathered riches and weird thoughts that I shape together somehow.

The beautiful thing is there's a million ways to do it. There's not just one recipe. It works across genres too, fiction and nonfiction. If I ever give a writer advice, I tell them: however many notes you're taking now, you probably should be taking more and you should be a little more liberal with them. I do have sort of a persnickety thought, though. Some people I know are big note takers, but they want their notes to fit into this very orderly crystal palace of thought. I don't know if that is where good stuff comes from. It's not about building a perfect database of everything linked in the right way. That's not how thought really works.

On a tangentially related note — there's a very direct Long Now reference in the book, in the form of a debate format used by a firm of carbon accounting beavers.

Naturally, right?

In those debates, each speaker must agree with their opponent's reconstruction of their argument before the debate can proceed, which is something that is part of the Long Now debate format. What felt right about incorporating that in the storm of references and in the storm of ideas there — they're very interesting beavers, all named after naturalists. 

There are two levels to that.

One is that I went to two of the Long Now format debates back in the early days of the seminars, and I was astounded. I loved it. I had never even contemplated anything else like it. As the years went on, I only loved it even more, because you see a Long Now debate, and then you see another debate on TV and you're like, “oh no, this is terrible.” It was a profound thing to encounter. So I do believe it was inevitable that specific concept was going to make it into a story at some point. You can't have something that prominent in your brain and not have it get stamped out at some point. 

Intrigued by the Long Now debate concept? Watch this debate on Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years between Ralph Cavanagh and Peter Schwartz from 02006.

I would like to know if the 3D format of the debates appeared at the same time, or if those were separate somehow. I'm quite proud of that. Not only that they used the Long Now debate format, but that they do it with sculptures because beavers, of course, are fundamentally three dimensional and sculptural thinkers more than they would be linguistic thinkers. But together, it's great. I don't think anybody has ever written a scene quite like that before. That's a fun feeling to have — you put something weird and kind of new on the page.

There was a beautiful tension where the human characters who encounter it sort of get it, but then just bounce up against it and don't fully succeed in understanding this fundamentally non-human way of thinking about the problem.

There's a line later in the book where the chronicler says: “That's a dangerous technology.” It's not all just happy, rational smiles and handshakes to meet the requirement to truly and powerfully state your opponent's position in a compelling, strong way, in what some call the steelman. Because: what if it's so good that you suddenly believe it? I think that fear, that nervousness actually underlies the reaction to the Long Now debate format, and even other debate formats. I think a shadow of that fear underlies a lot of people's engagement with different debates in the real world. I really do.

A core question in the book, and in the text a core question of this age of humanity is: What happens next? What felt so potent about that as a question motivating a lot of this work?

That question is repeated several times in the text, and the chronicler owns up to saying that it is the great question etched into the core of their being, of their construction. In a lot of ways that is just me speaking straightforwardly. For me as — not even as a writer — as a person, that question has always been completely captivating and urgent. That’s driven my interest in science fiction, but also in the news: I am interested in what happens next. I want to know how it plays out. We have different crises and questions and uncertainties and instabilities in the world across all these dimensions, and I want to know what happens next.

I don't actually know to what degree that's universal. I think there's plenty of people,  whole cultural fabrics, that are frankly less interested in that, or even actively uninterested, which is fine. I don't intend “what happens next?” as having a ton of inherent value to it. However, I can't deny that for me, it's constitutional. If you're going to write something that means something, you gotta put your own most urgent questions into it. And for me, that's one of them. It's one of the questions that's stenciled under my heart,  so I have to put it in the book.

Well, what’s your own “What happens next?” What are you working on now that you finished this massive thing? It sounds like you've already got grand intentions for this series.

That is the great hope. It's not a foregone conclusion in the sense that if there's not an audience for more Moonbound, then I won't foist it upon anyone. But assuming that this book finds a fair readership, I've got grand visions. You should see the notes I've made and retrieved for books two and three of this saga, because there's a lot going on. But it is a book about scale in a very Long Now way. It’s about thinking about scale and how challenging yourself to think on larger scales in time and space is a very healthy thing: intellectually, politically, morally — probably good for your blood pressure, too. I would love to continue to both encourage and challenge people who read this, who maybe are not Long Now members who are already marinated in this kind of thinking, to join the fun.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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