MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan

Anyone who knows me reasonably well will know that I am still, for the most part, avoiding digital books. I am a bibliophile–I love physical books and I take pride in the way they line my walls and, ever increasingly, tower towards my ceiling. It’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of ebooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and I know there’s amazing stuff happening around the world that I can’t begin to wrap my head around. The ability to hold hundreds of books on one device has revolutionised the reading experience. And this is a good thing; it’s just not a “for me” thing. Technology’s bright future truly does excite me. Sloan’s deliberate blend of all sides to the literary world’s digital revolution is the reason why Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has become my first five star-rated book of 2012. There’s something here for everyone and Sloan’s witty and intellectual prose makes Penumbra’s journey a highly enjoyable one, no matter your digital persuasion.

Clay Jannon is out of sorts. He’s 26 and he has known success. Unfortunately, he has also lost success. He is in search of a new job after having been laid off from NewBagel, a bagel-making start-up based in San Francisco. While wandering the streets in search of HELP WANTED signs, he comes across a narrow and dizzyingly-tall bookstore–Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Employment was relatively easy to achieve, and Clay soon finds himself drawn into Penumbra’s strange and curious world. The shelves at the front of the store hardly stock what you would call bookstore titles, but the back section, affectionately called the Waybacklist by Clay, is a different story (pardon the pun) entirely. In an attempt to cure the boredom of his late night shifts, Clay, along with some handy data visualisation methods, uncovers something unusual about the Waybacklist and the eclectic insomniacs that frequent the store.

But now, with the data in hand, I’m building my model of the store. It’s crude–just a bunch of gray blocks slotted together like virtual LEGOs–but it’s starting to look familiar… Simulated light from the simulated windows casts sharp-edged shadows through the simulated store. If this sounds impressive to you, you’re over thirty.

In the first instance, Penumbra appears to be a light-hearted homage to the extraordinary world of unique bookstores. But when you dive in deeper, Penumbra lays out both sides of the physical versus digital debate to draw some interesting conclusions. Google features prominently in the story, along with an ancient printing press from the earliest days of publishing. Data visualisation is as important to the story as old-fashioned data extraction in all its painstakingly coded (and, for that matter, decoded) glory. Old knowledge versus new knowledge is investigated in an easily understood and accessible way and it is a testament to Sloan’s writing ability that such a complex and multifaceted debate can be brought to life in such a realistic manner. There’s also a bit of a love story thrown in…

This girl has the spark of life. This is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay. I’ve tried many times to figure out exactly what ignites it–what cocktail of characteristics comes together in the cold, dark cosmos to form a star.

It’s best to go into Penumbra with as little knowledge of the plot as possible–I have tried my best to be light on the details. Almost every angle of the physical versus digital debate is represented in the story. Both extremes (that technology can do anything versus technology having no place in old, well-established traditions) and the tensions that exist between them are there, along with those who are young and excited about what the future holds, and those who are older and desperately trying to keep up with the pace. Penumbra is optimistic of the role technology can play and features some incredible (and real!) technological advancements throughout the pages. If Sloan’s creations don’t exist, they are well within the realm of possibility. At the same time, Penumbra suggests that technology’s seemingly infinite wisdom is, indeed, finite. Presently, there are still limits to technology’s power, despite what Google enthusiasts might suggest. This is quite true–Sloan weaves one particular character into the story who is obsessed with old knowledge, or traditional knowledge, and suggests that there is still a lot of this type of knowledge that has not yet been digitised. The debate is balanced and while no persuasion in the book is given particular precedence, Sloan’s own preferences may have been revealed–upon publication, certain editions of Penumbra have a glow-in-the-dark book jacket. Show me an eReader that can do that!

Penumbra is more than just a novel–it’s a new take on the digital publishing discussion, and a very relevant take at that. It feels like technology is on the verge of a major breakthrough and the divide between a high-tech fantasy world and an analog society is reaching breaking point. At its very heart Penumbra is a celebration of books and stories, irrespective of production method. It is quirky and bold and, at times, mysterious and thrilling–it’s everything you want a story to be, and more. Booklovers everywhere will adore it, and I was one of them.

A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

 If I may be so bold, an open gesture to Mr Robin Sloan:

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