Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012)

A victim of the economic slowdown due to the global financial crisis, Clay Jannon is an unemployed marketing graduate. His one career job was design and marketing for New Bagel, a company run by former Googlers who developed a machine that would make perfect bagels that were completely identical every time. When it turned out that the market didn’t want perfect identical bagels, the machine was refigured to produce burnt irregular ones. New Bagel went under, the Googlers moved on and Clay started looking for another job.

With his job search hampered by the myriad distractions offered by the internet, Clay starts printing out job applications and walking to the park to read them. One day while walking home, Clay sees an ad for help wanted in the window of a 24-hour bookstore. He enters, applies, gets the job and immediately begins work as a clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. Mr Penumbra’s is a bookstore made in two parts – the used bookstore in the front of the shop and the Waybacklist, a collection of old books that have never been registered on any official book database, that go up the walls of the odd, tall space. In his quest to digitise the store, Clay uncovers a secret society that has been searching for answers for 400 years and, with his friends who each have their own quirky technological specialities, goes on a quest to find the answers.

These two instances, where the new (perfectly identical bagels, the internet, technology) is compared and contrasted with the old (imperfect bagels, the printed page, a bookstore) and then integrated is the key theme of this book and I think whether or not you like Mr Penumbra's will depend on how well you think this theme was executed.  I am honestly not sure if I liked this book or not. I think questions about the integration of technology with publishing and the book industry are interesting. I think the digitisation of books is good because it makes book more widely available, often much cheaper and has much less stress on the planet because we’re not chopping down trees to print them and then shipping the printed book all over the world. However, I worry that the models used by Amazon and Google mean that authors aren’t getting enough of the royalties for the book industry to remain sustainable (not a lot of use having models to sell books if no good books are being written!). I also recognise that a shift to a largely electronic book marketplace will result in changes in the labour market in that some jobs will be lost (printers, probably some designers and typesetters) and some will be created (digital distribution). I think this book acknowledges this tension and explores it to some extent but, by reducing it to a question followed by an unrealistic and cheesy conclusion, it dismisses the complexities of the argument in favour of a Hollywood ‘let’s all just be friends’ happy ending.

This book is very computer driven. I am certain that I missed a whole bunch of references to computer stuff that probably affected how much I enjoyed the book. I didn’t know which of the computer language/design things were real and which were invented for diegetic purposes and I didn’t care enough to look them up. Also interesting with this book were the references to Google. Clay dates a girl, Kat, who is a Google employee and devotee and the book is quite critical of the role Google play in the digital world. I was surprised that Google allowed their name to be used, especially in such a negative portrayal. In the digital/analogue binary that this book divides the world into, Google is just a digital modern-day cult; a more public version of the secret society that funds Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.

I’m going to reluctantly give this book three stars. I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone I know (bad) but it has given me food for thought (good), so I’m placing it right in the middle of the star scale. If you’ve read it and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them but don’t let this review in any way influence your decision to pick it up.

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