Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: An Ode to Geeks Ascendant

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a paean to  geeks – every kind of geek. It celebrates science geeks, stats geeks, conspiracy-freak geeks, secret society geeks, data-viz geeks, modeling geeks, gaming geeks , fantasy geeks, typeface geeks and even Peter-Jackson-Betrayed-Tolkien-‘cause-There-Was-No-Female-Elven-Warrior-In-The-Hobbit geeks. Geeks who read it will raise their eyebrows, nod slightly, and give a slight one-side-of-the-mouth smile. Those of us who were never quite in the geek clan but hung out at the same library carrel will feel embraced and welcomed by Robin Sloan’s sweet, funny book.

Sloan’s novel came out in 2012. It’s set in San Francisco, a year or two earlier. Clay Jannon, our hero, is a design-school geek whose dream job as the media arm of the “perfect bagel” company NewBagel, evaporated in the wake of the 2008 recession. Clay is becoming desperate about finding work. One day as he is out walking in San Francisco, he goes into a shop with a Help Wanted sign in the window.

“Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up – three stories of books, maybe more.

“… it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

Mr. Penumbra, the store’s eccentric owner, hires Clay for the night shift. There are some specific requirements for the job; certain documentation. Some of the people who come into the store do not buy books; they exchange books for others. Clay must log those exchanges in a specific log book, along with his observations of the customer’s clothing, behavior, and general demeanor. He is also told not to look into the books in a certain section. He doesn’t, at least, not until his friend does first. The books are not filled with regular text, but with groupings of letters that look like code.

There is a secret here, a secret that goes back to the first days of moveable type. Clay assembles his own Fellowship of the Geeks, including the gorgeous hacker-girl who appears in the book at just the perfect moment. Kat, the girl, works at Google. Google is shown at a time before its “Don’t be Evil” reputation had begun to fray, and it is a high-tech Rivendell, the Empire of Magic in Clay’s reality.

Even with the vast computing power of Google, though, some secrets can’t be unraveled, and this fact leads Jannon on a quest that pays homage to the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Along the way, he asks a question and gets the perfect Information Age answer:

“A first-grader with bright red hair runs up to the front desk, giggling and choking herself with a tangle of green yarn… She grins and jumps up and down.

“‘Hi there,’ I say. ‘Let me ask you a question.’ She giggles and nods. ‘How you would find a needle in a haystack?’

“The first-grader pauses, pensive, tugging on the green yarn around her neck. She’s really thinking this over. Tiny gears are turning; she’s twisting her fingers together, pondering. It’s cute. Finally, she looks up and says gravely, ‘I’ would ask the hays to find it.’… ”

Penumbra’s adversary (“villain” is too strong a word) is caricatured rather than developed, but he is a good caricature. Sloan’s writing is nothing like William Gibson’s, but, strangely, this book reminded me of Gibson. The Hogwarts Special, for instance, could have come right out of one of his books. Sloan’s characters are endlessly curious, fascinated with detail and with objects (his room-mate, Mat, is a miniature modeler for ILM, who brings his passion home with him and there is a growing Matropolis in the apartment’s living room); this passion and need to have answers is part of what makes them geeks, but it’s what makes us all human, and Sloan understands that. He writes about friendship and loyalty, curiosity and politics; he understands fantasy, secret codes and the human desire to give things (events, objects) meaning.

Lots of reviews have discussed whether Sloan thinks paper books are going away. I can’t tell from the book what his opinions are. A clue might be in the title. The word “penumbra” is associated with an eclipse; it is the edge of a shadow or the secondary shadow that gets cast by an object that is fully shadowed. Are books going into an eclipse, overshadowed by e-readers? Or will the light shift, and paper books and e-readers continue to peacefully coexist? I know what one of the Googler characters thinks, but Clay and Mr. Penumbra seem to hold a second opinion. And after all, who really knows what will happen? There are secret histories everywhere, and the world can change tomorrow. That’s one of the joys of this book.

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