Sunday, October 27, 2013

Penumbra's Conundrum

When Clay Jannon takes a job at a bookstore that is open all night, he wonders what is up.  The store has few if any best sellers, random classics that Clay assumes are the store owner's favorites, and a whole library's worth of books that are not for sale.  The customers are as odd as the bookstore itself.  A few "normal" people come in, but Clay is more likely to encounter odd customers who are desperate for a certain book from the lending library, and immensely relieved find it.  Because he is working the night shift and has so few customers, Clay has a lot of time on his hands.  As a beginner computer geek, Clay designs a method of tracking what the lending library customers check out, and he notices a strange trend.

In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan, the primary conflict is between the old and the new.  A 500 year old society is studying old books of codes in an attempt to find the secret to immortality.  Across town, a newish company, Google, has a team working on discovering the same secret, but through modern and futuristic technology instead of ancient codes.  Clay is the force that leads the two groups to work together, with those focused on the past embracing technology, and the Googlers challenged by "OK", which is what they call "old knowledge".

Penumbra had some of the feel of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, with technology doing amazing things which are taken for granted by the users.  Both books are also similar in that the key to solving the puzzle is hidden in plain sight in the same manner.  I'm not going to spoil that one for you - read the two books and you'll know what I am talking about.  A difference, however, is that Penumbra is set in the modern day, and the reader is left wondering which of the technologies that Sloan describes really exist, and which he invented.  Predictably, I spent time Googling just that as soon as I finished the book.  Some of the reviews that I have read have warned that Penumbra was written in 2012, and will only be relevant in 2012, because of its reliance on then current technology that will soon be dated.  I couldn't disagree more.  Sloan did choose to use the name of a real company, Google, and to talk about things that Goolge may or may not really be doing.  But even if Google does have the technology that Sloan describes, it won't be available to or understood by non-techies for years.  At one point, Mr. Penumbra compares Google to a start up company from his day, Standard Oil.  Yes, it is possible that Google won't be here in 50 years, but it will still be discussed and its practices will be studied due to the revolution that it caused.  Sloan seems to be saying that the new technology doesn't make the old knowledge irrelevant, and instead, the old knowledge can enhance the technology.

Sloan grew up in Troy, Michigan, which is a neighbor to my village.  Despite its great school system and affluent residents, Troy has struggled to support its library in recent years.  In fact, its voters have decided more than once that the library is not worth keeping, and should be closed.  Fortunately, for now, reasonable minds have prevailed, and the library remains open.  I was happy to stumble upon this great interview where Sloan credits the Troy Public Library specifically for his success as a writer.  I'm happy to link to the interview, so that when future Troy voters Google "why should we keep the Troy Library open", there is one more chance that they will find the interview with a great author crediting their library for giving him "a reason to write".   

I checked the NYT Notable Book list for 2012, and was shocked not to see Penumbra there.  I'm not the only one.  Penumbra, and another book that I loved from 2012, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, were both listed on Flavorwire's list of "25 Notable Books Unfairly Overlooked by 'The New York Times'".  I absolutely agree with Flavorwire.  Penumbra was also picked by BookPage as one of the 25 Best Book Jackets for 2012.  It's funny how many books made both Flavorwire and BookPage's lists.  Anyhow, I totally agree with BookPage too.  Although the cover, which you can see at the top of this post, looks relatively plain, I was surprised when I turned off my light to go to bed, and could still see the books on the cover glowing.  The glow in the dark cover could have seemed really childish and gimmicky, but for this particular book, it was like a neon sign twinkling outside of my window, reminding me that while I may be going to sleep, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is still open, and waiting for me.

Next Up:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Still Listening to:  Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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