Witty tribute to San Francisco - a city caught between past and future

Bread: first baked at least 30,000 years ago and refined by the ancient Egyptians in 300BC by the discovery of the leavening process - to produce the hearty, crusty bread we now know and love.

Computers: first invented by Charles Babbage in 1822 and, within the past four decades, made their way into the homes and pockets of users.

Sourdough: a popular type of bread and also the second novel by American writer Robin Sloan, which brings bread and technology together through the tale of a programmer-turned-baker who uses a strange, almost-magical sourdough starter and a robot arm to carve her own niche in an underground San Francisco farmers' market.

Sloan brings his keen eye for the similarities between old and new to bear in Sourdough, as he explores the relationship between an age- old practice and advances in cutting-edge modern technology.

The narrator, Lois Clary, introduces herself as a typical computer science major, joining an ambitious start-up as yet another code monkey whose job scope consists of figuring ways to program a robot arm to behave very much like a real one in order to change the world.

Her only human contact is the spicy soup and sourdough bread she orders for dinner every night, through delivery, from a hole-in- the-wall diner run by a pair of immigrant brothers with the appropriate Eastern European background.



    By Robin Sloan

    Atlantic Books/ Paperback/ 270 pages/ $25.96/ Books Kinokuniya

    3.5/5 stars

"That bread was life," Clary says, unwittingly foreshadowing the direction her own life would take.

The brothers hastily close shop one day, citing visa issues, and leave their "number one eater" a gift of their sourdough starter to remember them by.

And so the novel truly kicks off with that seething, writhing mess of live culture - yeast, bacteria, flour and water - that forms Clary's starter.

What begins as a sardonic tale of a weary, assembly-line code monkey in a typical Google-inspired grandiose valley start-up quickly changes gear into a fresh, witty take on San Francisco's obsession with its storied culinary history.

Clary enters the underground world of restaurants and farmers' markets as word of her bread spreads, despite her lack of experience in baking.

Her sourdough starter is special.It sparkles. It sings. It forms bread that have faces and expressions on them - happy smiling faces, depressed ones, even resigned ones - never failing to impress.

This small dash of magical realism Sloan mixes together in his hodgepodge of a novel adds a lightness and levity that makes it an easygoing, light read, as Clary jumps head-first into her life as a baker.

Using this starter, she produces the best sourdough bread to grace the refined palettes of Frisco natives that pepper Sloan's novel, accustomed as they are to all-organic, range-free, exorbitantly priced produce.

Baking, it turns out, is not that different from coding.

"There were detailed instructions. I love detailed instructions. My whole career was detailed instructions. Precisely specified actions, executed in order," Clary marvels, shifting gears from figuring out how to make a robot arm judge its position in space to how to shape flour and dough into bread.

And here, Sloan hits his stride demonstrating the intersection of technological skills between the organic and inorganic through Clary's attempts to master both bread and computers.

It is not an entirely half-baked idea and Sloan has written a genuinely entertaining novel that showcases his gift for pop-culture references and a keen, deprecating analysis of the West Coast's vibrant personality.

It is a love story to San Francisco's eccentricities, caught as it is between cutting-edge technology and old-world heritage.

If you like this, read: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan's debut novel (Picador, 2013, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), where a programmer joins a second-hand bookstore only to find it hides a fantastic underground cabal of book-lovers with a long, secretive history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Witty tribute to San Francisco - a city caught between past and future'. Subscribe