Two years ago, I read Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, loved it, and spent 5 months trying to figure out how to talk about it. Last year, I listened to the audiobook, loved it, and spent 6 months trying to figure out how to write about it. I failed both times -- and I'm not sure that I figured out how to talk about this book, but at least I got something posted. Short version: if you see a book by Robin Sloan somewhere, read it.
There's a version of this where all I do is talk about how this is similar to/different from Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore -- but I don't want to do that. Let me just say up front that if you liked Mr. Penumbra's, you'll dig this. If you didn't like it, you will dig this -- and you probably were having a bad day or weren't paying attention when you read Mr. Penumbra's (or you were created by the Tyrell Corporation). So let me sum up: you will dig this book.
This is the story of Lois Clary, a computer programmer working on ways to help robots redefine the concept of work for the future. It sounds like a dreadful place to work -- intellectually rewarding, maybe; challenging, yes; but between the hours, the pay and the culture? No thanks. The work is demanding enough that they don't have time to eat/prepare food, many using Slurry, "a liquid meal replacement," for several meals each week.
Slurry was a nutritive gel manufactured by an eponymous company even newer than [the company Lois works for]. Dispensed in waxy green Tetra Packs, it had the consistency of a thick milkshake. It was nutritionally complete and rich with probiotics. It was fully dystopian.
Into her overworked and nutritive gel-sustained existence comes a menu for a small cafe that delivers. Their specialty is a spicy soup and a spicy sandwich. The sandwich is made on sourdough bread, and you get an extra slab with the spicy soup. This sourdough is a special thing (you may have guessed that based on the title). This becomes her new favorite food, and what she eats when she's not consuming the gel.
She develops a semi-relationship with the brothers behind the soup/sandwich, and when they have to leave the country, they give her a part of their sourdoughs starter and a lesson on bread preparation (Lois doesn't cook, and doesn't come from a family that did). The starter has specific instructions that reminded me of what's given when someone buys a mogwai -- and just as important. Before she knows it, Lois is baking for herself, to give to others, and even to sell. She's building a brick oven and really branching out socially (and keeping up with her work, too) -- in this, Lois starts to enjoy life and work. I'm pretty sure this is the first time since school (if not ever) that this is true for her.
As she gets more involved with bread making, Lois makes friends, she travels a bit, meets new people -- discovering three strange little subcultures along the. She also carries out an email correspondence with one of the brothers as he pursues his dream. That's all I'm going to say about the plot -- there is more to it than I said, but not much.
There's something like magical realism at work throughout this, but I wouldn't call it that. Mostly because, it's weird science, not magic. But it's probably not real science, just science the way we'd like it to work. Not so much so that this is Fantasy or Science Fiction, just... I don't know what to call it. Whimsical science?
It's the way that Sloan tells the story that makes it worth it -- there's a spark to his writing that makes you want to read it. Lois' world is our world, only better (and maybe a little worse), filled with interesting people doing interesting things. There's a humanity in the narration, in the action that I can't get enough of (ditto for his other work). There's a humor throughout, but it's not a funny book. But man, it'll make you happy just to read it. I loved being in this world -- it almost didn't matter what happened to Lois and her starter (not that I didn't enjoy it), just reading Robin Sloan's prose is good enough for me. I've got a list of 10 quotations I wanted to use here that I couldn't come up with a way to force into this post, and I think I could've easily let the size of that list double.
A book that will make you think, that may inspire, that will make you smile -- that will make you want carbs (no joke -- it required Herculean effort on my part each time I read a chapter or two not to call my son to tell him to bring home a fresh loaf from the bakery he works at), Sourdough is a gem.