Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This book is a quest narrative about the culture clash between a secret society focused on cracking a code left behind by one of the first printing press inventers, and the millennial generation Google-powered underemployed hackers who infiltrate it and solve the centuries-old puzzle.
Clay, the narrator, lost his tech-related job in the recession and gets a job at a strange bookstore. He starts dating a very enthusiastic Google employee who helps him decode one of the unusual books, triggering a quest to ‘save’ Mr. Penumbra, the bookstore owner, from the cult whose books he manages. My favorite detail of all was Clay’s old friend’s tech company that specializes in animating realistic breasts. Google is described as cultlike and vaguely Orwellian, but also radically democratic. It’s really fun to read and has a lot of great jokes and funny moments.
The quest narrative was satisfying, meta in a fun way, but to go a step further for me, the book would have had to argue a thesis about the transcendent nature of the printed word or something. As it is, the novel doesn’t seem to have an opinion about whether or not it’s good for Google to put all the world’s knowledge online, for example. Without that some kind of point, the most interesting parts of the novel, the connection between early printing and the internet, the religious aspects of the quest for knowledge on the part of both the old-fashioned bibliophiles and the Googlers and coders, become mere background. Also, I found the emotional investment in the character of Penumbra a little weak for the amount of work it was supposed to motivate.