Robin Sloan mixes baking and technology in new novel Sourdough

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (above) is about a secret cult of readers dedicated to solving a literary mystery hundreds of years old.
Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (above) is about a secret cult of readers dedicated to solving a literary mystery hundreds of years old.PHOTO: JUSTIN KANEPS

Author Robin Sloan brings across that idea in his debut Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore as well as his latest novel, Sourdough

Old books versus big data. Home cooking versus genetically modified food.

These battles seem to fall neatly into the trenches of tradition threatened by technology - and ne'er the twain shall meet - but American author Robin Sloan does not see it that way. Rather, he says, it is "all technology".

"The old stuff, whether it's musty books or sourdough baking, is actually technology too," says the 37-year-old over Skype from his home in California.

"All the things that furnish our world were invented by people and each new creation is another ring in the grand scheme of human history."

Sloan has lived in both the new world and the old, and brought them together in his novels, from his best-selling debut Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore to his new book Sourdough, which is about a magical starter for baking bread.

Formerly on the media partnership team at Twitter, he broke into the book industry in 2012 with his debut about a secret cult of readers dedicated to solving a literary mystery hundreds of years old.


Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (above) by Robin Sloan is about a secret cult of readers dedicated to solving a literary mystery hundreds of years old. PHOTO: ATLANTIC

The cult is thrown into disarray when one of its members, bookstore owner Mr Penumbra, is persuaded by his young Web designer assistant to hand over the cult's core text to Google, in the hope that data analysis can finally crack the code.

The seed for the book was planted after Sloan's friend tweeted about misreading "24-hour bookdrop" as "24-hour bookshop".

Sloan, who has a habit of scribbling new words that catch his eye in a notebook, named the bookstore owner Penumbra after the word for the shadow cast by a partial eclipse, which he thought sounded "lovely".

He has followed that up with Sourdough, in which traditional baking and new-fangled food technologies are mixed together, with unexpected results.

In the novel, a software engineer comes into possession of an ancient sourdough starter.

She soon finds herself thrust into San Francisco's underworld of artisanal market mafia, engineered superfoods and starters with names such as Clint Yeastwood, while her own starter takes on an uncanny and increasingly uncontrollable life of its own.

Sloan bakes his own bread, although he admits he is no sourdough whisperer.

"I would bake a loaf and my starter would inflate it, but the next time it would come out of the oven as a wet, dense disc. I'd be like, 'What happened, sourdough? You let me down.'"

Bread mesmerises him. "When you slice it open and see the bubbles, gaps and chambers, that's architecture that was created by little microbes."

Most of what he knows about food, he learnt from his partner Kathryn Tomajan, an olive oil maker. But five years ago when he was still at Twitter, he was, like the protagonist of Sourdough, an unhappy acolyte of technology stressed out by the idea of having to feed himself every day.

This, he says, is the working culture that has galvanised the rise of food delivery services and products such as Soylent, a nutritional meal substitute that sounds straight out of science fiction (in fact, its name echoes Soylent Green, the 1973 film famous for its twist that the titular product, on which the population subsists, "is people".)

"You'd think it was a joke, but it's a real company worth millions," says Sloan, who used to eat Soylent - "it tastes like breakfast cereal blended up" - and wrote a similar fictional product called Slurry into his novel.

"To cook dinner for yourself at home," he adds, "is an act of resistance in this economy."

Still, he is fascinated by all the possibilities of "bleeding-edge" technology. Right now, he is interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning and what they bode for the future of storytelling.

"We're training computers to read and make models of big bundles of text and you can ask them to do things for you, to analyse your writing or generate new texts on their own," he gushes.

"This is the thing of the moment. Smartphones are so last decade."

This sounds rather like the recipe for the Singularity, the hypothesis that artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, with an unfathomable impact on human civilisation - "the rapture of the nerds", as Sloan calls it.

He is a "Singularity denier", however. "It's not going to happen like that. People talk about it as a way to avoid talking about real problems of technology we have today.

"Take smartphones, for example. They have changed the fabric of city life, what it means to walk on the sidewalk or ride the subway.

"But it's not like the world has been turned upside down by them. We struggle with them, but we adapt and work out new opportunities. It's not robotic. It's still a very human process."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Old or new, it's all technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe