The immortal qualities of a Kindle page-turner
Robin Sloan loves old and new media, and his new novel brings together the best qualities of each
Robin Sloan: The secret of his success is easy to decode. It is down to good old-fashioned storytelling virtues
Robin Sloan is an unlikely person to be writing books. He once worked for Twitter, where he described his job as “something to do with figuring out the future of media”, and he orchestrated the first-ever TV broadcast using live Twitter data, during the 2008 US presidential campaign. He is the creator of a successful app for iPhone called Fish: A Tap Essay. Before Google Maps invaded the Earth, he coded an interactive map of UN journalists who were embedded in Iraq.
But now here he is, working the old-world publicity trail with his debut novel. It’s a proper novel. By which I mean, not that it has pages you actually turn – that is optional with novels nowadays – but pages that you actually want to turn, which is getting rarer and rarer.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of a digital designer named Clay whose job has fallen victim to the recession. He finds work in the most unexpected of places: a dusty old bookshop run by the eponymous Mr Penumbra.
Before long, Clay – and, of course, the reader – has figured out that something very odd is going on. He brings his laptop into the bookshop, and it’s game on.
Since the mammoth publishing success of The Shadow of the Wind and The Da Vinci Code, many, many novels have featured secret societies, mysterious bookshops, ancient texts and code-breaking cults. Most of these have been pretentious, doom-laden, and very, very dull. Sloan’s, by contrast, is charming, gently comedic, sweetly nerdy and enthusiastic about media both old and new – another rarity in a world where, we are generally led to believe, the two are locked in a vicious endgame that will lead to the death of the printed word.
This “war”, it turns out, is something that has interested the 32-year-old Sloan for some time.
“It’s the great agony and ecstasy of the internet today,” he told National Public Radio in the States. “I think we have more great stuff to read than we ever have before, but of course the downside of that is: we have more great stuff to read than we’ve ever had before.”
The secret of Sloan’s success
Thus the battle for our ever-decreasing attention span. Sloan is as big a fan of futuristic technology as anybody – the slightly shamefaced cult of Dungeons and Dragons is a running joke throughout the novel, and there are delicious sideswipes, such as his reference to the invention of “a form of renewable energy that works on hubris”.
But the secret of Sloan’s success with Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – which was inspired by a friend’s mistyped tweet, and began life as a 6,000-word Kindle download – is easy to decode. It is down to good old-fashioned storytelling virtues such as pace, wit and a collection of characters we actually care about.
It is clearly the work of someone who has loved books since childhood. Sure enough, the author’s own youthful reading included The Chronicles of Narnia, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov “and basically everything with ‘dragon’ in the title”.
Here, the dragon slayer comes in the shape of a cute programmer called Kat. Sunny and outgoing, she’s the antithesis of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She works for Google, which gives her the power to summon up the combined force of the world’s most powerful super-computers in the bid to save Mr Penumbra and solve the ancient secret of immortality. Or not. You want to know? We’re not telling. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.