Robin Sloan: Berkeley and its casual geniuses

Most places in the world have a genius or two. Berkeley is thick with them, and people who live here get to witness all the ways genius can play out, and be recognized — or not.

“There’s a thing that happens in the cafés of Berkeley…” Photo: Joel Ramirez

Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong resident, Berkeley tends to make a deep impression. For our tenth birthday, Berkeleyside invited six Berkeley writers to reflect on the city’s enduring appeal, as well as its flaws, and consider how it is changing — not always for the better. We published their essays — including the one below by Robin Sloan,  author of ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore’ and ‘Sourdough’ — in Berkeleyside’s printed 10th anniversary commemorative magazine, which was published in late 2019. We still have some magazines available. If you would like to receive a copy, see how below.  

There’s a thing that happens in the cafés of Berkeley when you sit and stretch your ears and pick up a scrap of conversation from the next table. Sometimes, yes, it’s pleasantries. Sometimes, sure, it’s politics. Other times, though — it’s particle physics! It’s synthetic biology. It’s AI.

And you realize that, once again, you have found yourself sitting beside one of Berkeley’s core archetypes: the casual genius. They’re everywhere! The person cruising behind you in the bike lane? He’s building a quantum computer. The person waiting, bleary-eyed for her coffee? She literally invented CRISPR.

Now, it feels good to say, oh, what an odd and pleasant thing, to live among Nobel Prize winners. But I don’t really care about the Nobel Prize winners.


Another kind of genius is, I believe, more important to this city.

I think of Philip K. Dick, whose vision of the paranoid fantastic shaped the pop culture everyone absorbs today. He lived in Berkeley. And, this is important: Philip K. Dick was not the amiable genius at the next table. He was, instead, the weirdo muttering in line at the grocery store. (Why is that man buying so much tuna fish?) I love his books, and yet, there is no doubt — none at all — that if I had met Philip K. Dick in Berkeley, I wouldn’t have liked him. I would have found him annoying and tiresome. Awkward and intense.

It’s so, so important that people are allowed to be awkward and intense. Berkeley is good at this.

In his life, Philip K. Dick did not go unrecognized. He had readers and fans; he won awards. The extravagant movie based on his short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” had been completed and was set for release the year he died.

But Dick was also an addict. He churned through relationships; grappled with dark visions; never seemed to make enough money.

Here’s Philip K. Dick abroad in France, accepting a literary award for A Scanner Darkly.

Here’s Philip K. Dick at home on Francisco Street, eating dog food to stay alive.

I often ride my bicycle through Dick’s old neighborhood, and when I do, I think of him on those sidewalks. His sidewalks! I don’t know how Philip K. Dick walked. I imagine him shambling, but maybe I’m wrong.

Here’s Philip K. Dick, walking to the corner store with a spring in his step.

Here’s Philip K. Dick, waiting in line behind you with a bag of chips and a bottle of beer.

Philip K. Dick, muttering to himself about alien satellites.

Philip K. Dick, holding the door for you.

Most places in the world have a genius or two. Berkeley is thick with them, and because of that, people who live here get to witness all the ways genius can play out, and be recognized, or not. Berkeley makes it clear: there are geniuses among us whose names we will never know. Maybe that’s fine! People are allowed to be awkward and intense, and they’re allowed to wrap their gifts in a cocoon of absurdity. They’re allowed to fail.

Berkeley is good at this. Like any virtue, though, it requires constant recommitment. Our might-be-genius neighbors are often… super annoying! They have no chill; they can’t take a hint; they wrote that weird note, didn’t they? They won’t clean their yard. They won’t move their van. They live in that van. They try our patience and they prick our bubble. What a gift.

Polite, capable neighbors make a city pleasant. Awkward, intense neighbors make its legend.

Here’s your neighborhood genius, incandescent with potential, weighed down by pain, walking grooves in a sidewalk of her own. She might have a few readers already. She’ll have a lot more, if you give her another decade or three. I want her path to be just a little easier than Philip K. Dick’s. I want her to live past 53, to grow old in her house, or her van.

Berkeley is good at this. It can be better.