“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is about a bookstore clerk in San Francisco. The store, owned by Mr. Penumbra (and, you guessed it, open twenty-four hours a day) is a bookstore lover’s dream: narrow, dark, books stacked tight and high, requiring a ladder for general accessibility. Clay gets a job on the night shift after losing his job as a web designer for a West Coast bagel company (anyone who’s had the misfortune of eating a bagel in San Francisco will understand how tenuous such a job would be). The job comes with a list of rules that sound threatening but are, of course, specially designed to encourage breaking: “You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all.” Clay quickly discovers that some mysterious business is transacted at the bookstore and begins a sort of madcap adventure to solve the mystery and help Mr. Penumbra. Along the way he uses the talents of his friends and makes new acquaintances in the technology world. His girlfriend, who works at Google, becomes integral to helping unravel the mystery.
The book is written by San Franciscan Robin Sloan, a self described “Media Inventor,” who clearly has both an enthusiastic zeal for the offerings of the digital age, and a reverential respect for much older technologies: books, typeset, codes—what his characters call “Old Knowledge.” Parts of “Penumbra” are didactic—Sloan’s character reaches out to the techy reader and pulls the neophyte in, describing programming languages, DRM, mechanical turks and even a DIY book scanner in a way anyone could understand. It’s fun how he mixes actual Google initiatives, like the self-driving car, with fantastical ones, like time-machines and organ regeneration (one presumes). Sloan, for one, welcomes our Google overlords. Read the rest of this entry »