December 1, 2012
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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan

This charming romp begins when an unemployed, RISD-trained graphic designer lands a night-shift job at an all-night North Beach bookstore. The tiny store is perched next to a strip club, and turns out to double as a private circulating library. The day clerk assumes the books are hollow and filled with cocaine. Our designer expects pornography. It turns out they’re filled with encrypted, secret, ancient wisdom.

Who doesn’t like a puzzle? Our hero likes them fine. So does the brilliant Google employee Kat Potente, who also likes our hero. Along with a high-school D&D friend who made a fortune modeling female breasts for video game companies, they set out to break the code and to penetrate the secret cult that surrounds it. The cultists are not always thrilled at the idea. There’s lots of great typophilia here, and a ubiquitous historic typeface, Gerritszoon, of which you’ve never heard. There’s a reason for that.

The book gets its tech right, and its tech characters nearly right. There’s still a sense that too much skill or knowledge must be bought off with a crippling physical or emotional disfigurement, but we’ve come a long way from Ellen Ullman’s The Bug, where a brilliant programmer had to be, by turns, autistic and dead. We should be past the time when scientists had to pay for wrecking the world with nuclear missiles and beyond this sentimental reflection of the Victorian convention that sexually competent female characters had to die. (“But when I saw her laid out like a queen/She was the prettiest corpse I’d ever seen.”) Look at Allegra Goldman’s Intuition. You don’t need to dirty up your characters; just let them get into their own troubles and the dirt will come. You don’t need to do the Lord’s work yourself, and sufficient unto the day is the day’s evil.

The book has been advertised at The Deck, the trendy design blog network. Someone at Farrar, Strass & Giroux is a very bright bunny. The ancient wisdom has been that advertising individual titles is usually ineffective, unless the goal is to convince bookstores to stock and display the title. Perhaps that Old Knowledge is changing, too.