Monday, June 17, 2013

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

First, a tangent, though I do think it circles back appropriately... This past Saturday, my husband and I needed to run a bunch of errands--pick up a dress from the tailor, go to Banana Republic, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Michaels, and visit several furniture stores we'd never been to before. A few minutes before heading out, I plugged all the locations into GoogleMaps, reorganized the stops to minimize our driving time, and we were off, typing in the addresses in my GPS as we went along. And at some point I started thinking about how much more time such a trip would have taken pre-Internet. Looking up stores in phone books; trying to find addresses on a map; having to call and get verbal directions; stopping at stores along the way when we got lost. The Internet (and computers and cell phones and GPS units...) have made navigating our world so much easier, but, in doing so, have they also made us much less clever and resourceful?

Now, this is obviously not a new question, but it's a question that's key to Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which pits the power of Google (literally) against human ingenuity and resourcefulness. In the novel, Clay is a recession-era unemployed young person, who agrees to be night clerk at a mysterious, and primarily customer-less, 24-hour used bookstore. At the same time he meets Kat, an up-and-coming programmer at Google, he also discovers that certain books in the store contain a type of code--which he inadvertently cracks one evening using a computer program. This leads to a secret cultish society, running around New York's hackerdom, a cardboard digital camera, and using the entirety of Google's servers for three seconds (among other things).

A bad analogy would be to call the novel a kind of techie, less annoying Da Vinci Code, though it's not nearly as puzzle driven. Instead, perhaps, it's more an ode to "cool"--both the cool that is Google, and the cool that is making a miniature in-detail town in your living room. The Google love can be a bit heavy, to the point where (close to manic pixie dream girl trope) Kat can be pretty annoying, though Google probably can do (nearly) everything, so I suppose I can't say anything. Also, everyone in the novel is pretty much absolutely amazing at everything... doesn't everyone need some dumb friends?

Speaking of characters, Clay, Kat, and the rest--Mr. Penumbra, Clay's childhood friend Neel, kinda-villain Corvina--are all fairly flat. They're hipsters (well, okay, Mr. Penumbra and Corvina are old, so they're not, but all the young characters are) who have plenty of time and money to go on adventures and be into weird things the rest of us are too "square" to get (a month away from thirty and see how curmudgeonly I get?).

But, back to the initial question. So, does the power of the Internet win over that darn human mind? Of course not. In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Google is awesome, but the brain (and friendship!) still triumph technological brawn. Way to have a boring response to a pretty interesting question.


  1. I've had this book described to me as THE book for book lovers, so I bought it around Christmastime and it's been waiting patiently on my bedside table for a free moment or two of my time. I'm sad to hear that it fell flat for you! I'm hoping that I love it anyway.

  2. You know, I heard similar things, but I feel like the novel really isn't about book lovers (or book loving). For a novel that takes place in a bookstore, there aren't any characters who read or discuss literature. I suppose there's something about loving old books, but the love seems more about the physical book than the love of the story. Hope it works more for you!