Sunday, November 17, 2013

Not a mystery--MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan

To read Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, I used the Kindle app on my iPad. Somehow, as I read, that seemed fitting.

The book's theme is the relationship between computers and the printed word.

When Clay Jannon loses his job, he finds work as a clerk in Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

It is s strange store. Few people come in, and among those who do, most borrow, but don't buy, books.

One of the rules of clerking in the store is that you don't read the books on the upper shelves. Of course, Clay does. He finds they are in code.

Clay's pursuit of what is actually happening at Penumbra's Bookstore leads him and two special friends to a hidden cult. That cult exists to decode a secret book which supposedly holds the key to eternal life.

Clay and his friends scan the book and attempt to use all the power of Goggle's computers to decode it. (I mean the real power of Google, from the inside.)

My summary of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore doesn't do the book justice. This book loses something in the retelling.

While it finally disappointed me, the story made me think of all kinds of things.

For one thing, reading fiction is a game. No matter what you read (Dashiell Hammett or Nathaniel Hawthorne), you agree to play the game. You accept the writer's premise. Then you live within that premise.

That's what happens for me with a book like this. For it to work, I had to accept a wild premise to start. But what Penumbra and his friends were doing wasn't all that different from what people have been doing forever. Remember medieval alchemy? (Many people do the same things when they proof-text (read their own or their religion's thoughts into the Bible.)

As I visualized Penumbra's tall narrow bookstore with the real books up on the higher shelves, I wondered if the store itself reflected the human brain.

Clay and his friends discovered that to find the “secret,” they had to harness all of human knowledge. They had to use Penumbra's books and today's computers. The old and the new can be made to work together.

I was reminded of a time in the early 80's when I bought what was, for that time, a powerful desktop computer. It was CPM operating system, before MSDOS.

As I struggled to learn it, my schoolteacher wife laughed and said, “You wouldn't be able to do that if you couldn't read.”

That may not be as true now. I'm not sure. But you can't throw away the books OR ignore the computer.

Finally, the secret to eternal life as embodied in the wisdom of the maven of Penumbra's cult is a secret available to all of us. Many of us find it without all the manipulations of the cult.

But the story fascinated me. The book was well worth reading.



If you are in the business of simulating a boob, Neel's software is the only serious option.”

--Clay's comment about his friend Neel's software. The software simulates human bodies for gaming. Finally it makes Neel a billionaire because it simulates women's breasts better than any other software (perhaps reflecting something about the sexism of many computer games?). 

I have a rougue (that's me) and a wizard (that's Kat). Now I need a warrior. (Why does the typical adventuring group always consist of a wizard, a warrior, and a rogue, anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior, and a rich guy.)

I always thought the key to immortality would be, like tiny robots fixing things in our brain,: she says. “Not books.”

.the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in.

When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.

--Clay's comments about the difference between reading a book and listening to an audio version of the same book.

I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

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