Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, coverMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore starts with Clay, one-time web designer for a hip and trendy bagel store, being laid off as NewBagel, trying to survive in a harsher economic climate, rebrands itself as the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company, and don’t see a flashy website and chatty Twitter account as part of their new, old-time image. So Clay retreats down the ladder of technological evolution by landing a job at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, whose upper technological limit is a ‘decrepit beige Mac Plus’ and a series of old, handwritten sales ledgers.

The store has some odd rules and odder customers, some of whom belong to a sort of subscription service which allows them to come in at any hour, often in a state of frenzy or distress, return an odd-named volume (KRESIMIR or CLOVTIER) and take another odd-named volume out in its place — always from the ‘Waybacklist’, whose books are not for sale, and whose contents (when Clay ventures to look inside) are strings of apparently random letters. Everything has to be logged in the sales ledgers, from the customer’s card number, to any random details of their appearance and demeanour.

Bored by his long night shifts, Clay brings in his laptop and idly starts building a 3D map of the shop. Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Kat Potente (who works at Google, and is thoroughly immersed in the techno-optimisim of Silicon Valley), he starts to log customers’ withdrawals — and comes up with a surprising pattern that ultimately leads him to the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an organisation devoted to decoding the final great work of Aldus Manutius, ‘one of the first publishers… right after Gutenberg’.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book with a foot planted in each of two worlds. There’s the world of new-tech, as represented by e-readers, digital books and Google (whose vast computing power is, at one point, entirely harnessed to try to decode Manutius’ work: ‘on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything…’), and there’s the other world of old-style print books, a world known to Googlers as ‘OK’:

“Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know, and have ever known.”

But it’s not a novel that comes down entirely on the side of new tech or old knowledge. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about coexistence, working together, friendship — among people and technologies. For, as Clay points out, today’s ‘OK’ is yesterday’s new tech:

“Printing… was basically the internet of its day; it was exciting. And just like the internet today, printing in the fifteenth century was all problems, all the time: How do you store the ink? How do you mix the metal? How do you mold the type? The answers changed every six months. In every great city of Europe, there were a dozen printing houses all trying to figure it out first. In Venice, the greatest of those printing houses belonged to Aldus Manutius…”

It’s a fun read, driven by an inventive mystery-quest plot and some easy-paced, zingy writing, my favourite example being this description of Kat Potente:

“She’s wearing the same red and yellow BAM! T-shirt from before, which means (a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical T-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

I suppose it falls into the same category as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a favourite novel of mine that I reviewed on this blog back in 2007. But Flicker takes its narrator on a quest through the history of film, and ultimately leads to him discovering a secret society on the verge of unleashing worldwide destruction. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about books — printed books and ebooks — and its secret cult, The Unbroken Spine, is no way near as dangerous as Roszak’s Oculus Dei.

Another thing that added to the book’s charm was its being set in San Francisco, a city I only visited once, briefly, for a few hours (Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park), but which has somehow come to be a far more real imaginative presence thanks to novels such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and, perhaps more than any of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s films The Birds (which starts in San Francisco) and Vertigo.