Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
HarperCollins, 288 pages
Clay Jannon is out of work. It’s 2008, and the San Francisco area is already overflowing with unemployed web designers. Competition is fierce for the few available jobs in Clay’s field, so Clay decides to go for a walk downtown to check out the help wanted signs in shop windows. When Clay reaches what he dubs the “euphemistic” part of town, he notices a tiny independent bookseller requiring a night clerk. Clay opens the door, and is mesmerized by what he sees. Though the floor space is small, books line the walls three stories high, accessible only by using a tall wooden library ladder. Fantasy fiction surrounds the front desk, and the silver-haired proprietor, most wonderfully named Ajax Penumbra, emerges to ask Clay what he seeks from the shelves. Clay, who grew up reading Tolkien-inspired stories and playing Dungeons & Dragons, is utterly enchanted.
Clay is hired immediately and brings the store into the twenty-first century by crafting its virtual presence. He creates a 3D, interactive model of the store that can identify the location of every book in the catalogue. He works on a web page, and he pushes online coupons to the phones of book lovers who are not allergic to dust and happen to be close by. He also watches the customers, and learns that they can be divided into two groups – late-night, casual book browsers, and wild-eyed, rumpled academics, who urgently demand specific titles at 3am, and always from the upper shelves. When Clay discovers that these selections are written in some sort of code, and when his 3D model reveals something disturbing in the store’s arrangement, Clay begins a quest of his own. He enlists the help of Penumbra, his best friend from the Dungeons & Dragons days, and a girl-wizard who specializes in data visualization at Google to uncover what mystery the frenzied researchers are working so hard to solve.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is witty and fun, written in a voice resonant with Douglas Coupland’s. Like Coupland, Sloan also uses his fiction to explore serious issues; in this case, the precarious relationship of books and technology, the nature of work, and the search for meaning. It’s existentialist in philosophy, but hopeful and brave, and the distillation of ideas on the final page merits thoughtful consideration.