December 10, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan is one of those stories that makes me want to live inside it. But in this case, I kind of already do. The book takes place within my experience of the Bay Area and is set "at the intersection of books and technology." It has a friendly, funny style and an awesome cast of characters. And it's joining my list of favorites.

Our protagonist is Clay, a designer recently laid off from a startup "founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel." (Incidentally, right before the novel's publication, Sloan discovered that someone's actually doing this.) Clay gets a job working the night shift at a quirky bookstore where eccentric customers rush in frantically after midnight asking for volumes from the store's mysterious collection. Clay isn't sure what's going on, and he doesn't know how to find out, because Mr. Penumbra has instructed him never to look inside these books, and they can't be located on Google.

The word "Google" appears in this novel at about the same rate as in my daily conversation, which is to say, frequently, and with as little self-consciousness. This gave me a wonderful dizzy feeling. It's like when I read MICROSERFS right after moving to Silicon Valley, and I got to a description of a particular freeway interchange, and then later that day I drove past that exact cloverleaf.

In many ways, MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE is MICROSERFS for 2012, with a literary twist. The characters represent the new generation of geeks. They live in San Francisco rather than Silicon Valley, though a job at Apple is still the holy grail. They think as comfortably about design as code. At one point Clay hacks together some 3-D graphics in Ruby, describes his creation, and says, "If this sounds impressive to you, you're over thirty." Guilty as charged.

Of course eventually Clay opens one of Mr. Penumbra's strange books, and this starts him off on a wild quest to discover the secrets of a peculiar literary society. Along the way he falls in love with a brilliant Googler and visits the Google campus, which is just a bit more Googley than in real life. (He has to use the visitor line at the cafeteria, because employees' food is personalized to improve their brain function.)

This is the most book-loving book I've read in a long time, which is impressive for a story that keeps bringing up Google and Ruby and the internet. If you love books, if you're exhilarated rather than dismayed by the implications of technology interacting with books, and especially if you're excited about a book that mentions both source code and shelf talkers, this is the book for you. Consider buying the hardcover. It glows in the dark.

You can find out more at Robin Sloan's web site, including interviews and the short story that evolved into the novel.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chuck Wendig offers an entertaining step-by-step explanation of how he writes a novel: "For me a novel is essentially a lesson in drunk driving (DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE THIS IS A METAPHOR): it's me starting at the beginning and then revving the engine and speeding sloppily and swerving dramatically toward what I've conceived to be the ending."

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