Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore pits new technologies against old, think Google vs. Name of the Rose


Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, published by Farrar Straus Giroux,
is a very smart novel that pits new technologies against old (think Google vs, Name of the Rose) and in the process, it examines what language tells us about meanings. 
Is our consciousness transformed by the medium? Marshall Mcluhan, sage of communication, believed the medium is the message and that technology is the content. In Don DeLillo’s The Names, clashing languages form a furious Tower of Babel. Sloan has similar questions about the language of technology and how it’s shape shifting us in the 21st century. But that may be his next, darker book.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore is an entertaining mystery wrapped in a love for the miraculous tools of our 21st century technological genius. Language, code, is the heart of this mystery, which begins in a strange bookstore of unreadable books. Clay Jannon, web site designer, is desperate after being laid off from his job. He’s walking San Francisco’s steep streets, when he sees the sign in the bookstore offering work. The owner, Mr. Penumbra, is an ancient-looking wizened man with an inner animation. He gives him the late night shift, shows him a book to record details of customers, and tells him not to read the books.

The narrow cavernous shop has a few dusty regular books below high shelves filled with obscure volumes.  Clay climbs to these on precarious ladders at the request of occasional customers. He has time to wonder why these customers are old eccentric people, who come at odd hours and never pay. Then he learns the store is a kind of lending library for a mysterious club and the books are all in code. Clay can’t imagine what it signifies and begins to construct a computer model of the store. Late one night, working on the model,  he meets Kat a beautiful hacker girl, one of the Google geniuses, who are planning the future on their idyllic campus. 

Clay wants Kat, as much as the visionary and well moneyed Google lifestyle. When he completes the webmodel of the bookstore, the result means he’s solved the mystery of a lifetime in weeks. Penumbra explains that the book borrowers are acolytes of an ancient order, which reads books written in the Founder’s code. Mr.Penumbra enlists Clay, Kat and the Googlers to crack that code and reveal the secret of life. The Googlers bring all their considerable brains and technology to the task.

By doing so, Mr. Penumbra runs afoul of the order's austere establishment. The consequences are huge in the circuitous plot of this clever novel. Clay, the resourceful works with Kat, Matt, one of the last special effects artists to use glue and scissors, and Neal Shah, whose software program for perfect breasts has spawned an industry, to save Mr.Penumbra, the bookstore, in an epic race against time.

Whether he gets the girl or not, I won't reveal. The most fun is to see Google squared off against the dead Founder. And there’s an immortal type face. I look forward to Robin Sloan’s next take on the strange transition between major technological eras in which we find ourselves.

SW