Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Review: 'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore' by Robin Sloan
Technology is, almost by definition, disruptive. This is great for most people - it makes things quicker, easier, safer, and so on - unless you're the one who is being disrupted. Speaking in terms of entertainment, we've seen this represented primarily through the woes music labels, movie studios, and, increasingly, book publishers have experienced with the onset of digital distribution and availability, as well as the basic fact that people now have more entertainment options than ever at their fingertips and purchasing and consumption habits have changed. It's nice, then, when the old and the new can play together, which is exactly what happens in Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. It might be a work of fiction, but what a work it is.
If the title sounds familiar, it might be because it was a short story written by Sloan several years back. The novels is bigger (duh) and delves into the ideas only hinted at previously. If you've read at all Sloan's website, Twitter feed, short stories, or subscribe to his mailing list (all recommended) the substance of Mr. Penumbra's won't surprise you. He embraces technology and new ways of doing things while still being in love with what came before. That's what we get in the novel - a clandestine cult, Google, volumes upon volumes of old tomes, more Google, the printing press, and also Google. Twitter's thrown in there, along with Amazon; there are references to video games and movies, and obscure-to-some authors get mentioned. Weaving the new and the old, the modern and the classic, seamlessly is Sloan's real strength, which is good, because it happens throughout the novel.
Of course, there's also a story to be had - you know, the plot and characters and whatnot - and that works out, too. Main character Clay is the ultimate everyman: skilled but perhaps a bit aimless, questioning things while simultaneously going along for the ride. He's the perfect point of view, discovering a brave new world just as the reader is. His host of friends and acquaintances work well, giving voice and perspective to the different points that Sloan is trying to make. They're clever and funny and frustrating and individually unique. The story moves along at a quick clip, providing enough twists and mysteries to keep things interesting while not being tedious or overly complicated. Really, it's just fun. It's exciting. It's the Raiders of the Lost Ark of tech novels. The combination of plot, characters, and familiar techno-talk make for an entertaining read that you can get through with a smile the whole time.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (the novel) has been out for a few months. I just got around the purchasing it (with my Amazon giftcard, a fact that seems to fit rather snugly with the novel) and in the interim have had the opportunity to read some reviews - not to sway my opinion, as I've already decided I like Sloan and his writing, but just for fun - and a oft-written criticism is that the references in the novel will date it in no time as technology continues to change everyday. I think that's somewhat missing the point. Technology changes rapidly; I think Sloan knows that and indeed embraces it. It's exciting and challenging. It speaks to the larger theme of the novel, about how some things are fleeting and others are more permanent and how you recognize which is which and what that means to you. While I understand the comments - Facebook might fall off like Friendster and make the references moot - to me it's just another layer of the novel and, when no one knows what Gchat is in a decade, it will make the novel resonate that much more.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the very definition of a contemporary novel - contemporary as in today, right this moment. Don't let this deter you as you worry about the novel's future, though. Enjoy it in the moment, revel in the details that you experience in your everyday life, and go along for a fun, clever ride. There's no reason to not read it. The only choice you'll have to make is: hardcover or eBook? (The hardcover glows in the dark. Just sayin'.)
Posted by Colin Lalley