Books old and new collide in Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore
by Clayton Wehner - October 12th, 2012
Clay Jannon, twenty-six and unemployed, reads books about vampire policemen and teenage wizards. Familiar, predictable books. Books that fit neatly into a section at the bookstore.
But he is about to encounter a new species of book entirely: secret, strange, and frantically sought-after.
These books will introduce him to the strangest, smartest girl he’s ever met. They will lead him across the country, through the shadowed spaces where old words hide. They will set him on a quest to unlock a secret held tight since the time of Gutenberg—a secret that touches us all.
But before that, these books will get him a job.
Welcome to Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
MD of Boomerang Books Clayton Wehner caught up with the author, Robin Sloan:
Robin, congrats on a ripping yarn, my boy. I’m not normally a reader of fiction – particularly fiction containing vampire policemen, dungeon masters and teenage wizards – but this book tickled my fancy, particularly as I am a keen observer of the clash between old and new in the book world.
You’ve obviously got a thing for both books and technology and it’s plain to see that these two things have had an uneasy marriage to date. In Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Google doesn’t have the answer, but neither is it possible to find ‘immortality’ in old books…so where do you think books and bookstores are headed?
I’m not sure I agree with the part about the “uneasy marriage.” People think of this, right now, as a time of disruption and upheaval for books and bookstores, but in fact, the disruption started in the 15th century with the printing press and… it never stopped. The whole history of books and bookstores is a history of crazy competition and reinvention. There is no golden glowing Platonic bookstore—even though I might suggest the opposite in the form of Mr. Penumbra’s. Books themselves are a kind of technology, just as much as the computers and phones they’re meeting today, and as technology, they’ve always been changing.
So, I don’t know where it’s all headed, but I’m deeply bullish. This is a community and a technology that have met every challenge thrown at them for five hundred years. That’s more than the buggy-whips can say.
I love Google (I am an avid user of Google Apps, a Chromebook and an Android smartphone), but I also hate Google for its God-like power and category-killing potential – and many of my book industry colleagues share the latter sentiment, rather than the former. What are your views on Google’s library digitisation efforts, its frequent algorithm changes, its foray into eBooks, and its redoubling of efforts to extract pay-per-click payments for all retail listings in its search engine results pages?
Nowadays, Facebook has a billion users and Apple is making a billion dollars every week, but I still think of Google as the great web company. That’s because they combine over-the-top hubris (which you need, to work at the scale of the web) with a kind of anarchy (which you need, to work with the chaos of the web).
And even though it’s an enormous company, I’ve never gotten the same sense of uniformity from Google that I get from, say, Apple. Instead, it seems more like a grand federation of nerds, all pushing, pulling, arguing, inventing… and ultimately accomplishing things you’d never imagined were remotely within the realm of possibility.
Case in point: Even more than the original search engine, and even more than the great book-scanning effort, I’m astounded by Google Street View. (That’s why Street View plays a role in Penumbra.) I mean, at some point, somebody at Google said “hey, let’s take a picture of every house on every street in the world,” and… they did it. They built the machines, they wrote the code, and house by house, street by street,they’re doing it. It’s an astonishing achievement, and regardless of how you feel about any of Google’s products or policies in particular, I think it’s got to make you feel at least a little bit proud to be human.
Kat seems to be the perfect girl – attractive, smart, a Googler – but she spurns poor Clay when Google’s algorithms aren’t able to crack the Manutius code. Are all Google people this shallow and obsessed with their work?
Well, I don’t want to give anything away, but I don’t think that’s quite the end of Kat and Clay’s story.
And I don’t think “shallow” is the right word for Kat at all. She’s focused on her work at Google, yes, but only because she thinks it’s important and meaningful. You could definitely argue with her take on life and mortality, sure, but in terms of thinking not just big but long—thinking about how our actions today project out into the far future—I think the world could use a few more Kats.
What was it like working at Twitter? Do you think they’ll be around in ten years’ time?
Twitter was an amazing place to work, mostly because it’s full of people who are deeply interested in not just technology but the humanities, too. I mean, I had a really shocking number of colleagues who would avidly read both Hacker News and the Paris Review. There’s a lot of potential at that intersection; I try to get at it in Penumbra, but I think you see it in Twitter’s products, too.
As for ten years: if I had to bet on any internet service today, I’d bet on Twitter. But if it does stick around until 2022, I think it will be totally transformed—barely recognizable. We’ll have to explain to the kids just learning to read: “Well, you see, tweets weren’t always interactive—they didn’t used to be little worlds you could explore. Used to be, each one was just a line of text, only a sentence or two…”
Clay seems like a great name for an autobiographical character – I may even use that one myself one day. Have you always wanted to be called Clay? And where does the name Penumbra come from?
Ha! Clay’s got a lot of me in him, but so do the rest of the characters. And it’s his last name, Jannon, that’s really meaningful… but readers will have to do a bit of research to figure out why.
Penumbra just came to me, and not as a standalone name, but in the context of the store—the name on the glass. It was instantly and obviously the right choice. The shadow’s edge, the fuzzy boundary… there’s so much there. And besides, it looks great on the page.
Neel Shah’s Anatomix sounds like an awesome place to work with its boob simulation software. Do you have a thing for breasts?
I like exquisitely modeled 3D boobs as much as the next person. I also like the idea of combining something that seems boring, like niche professional software, with something that is definitely not boring, like boobs.
Corvina says to his disciples: ‘It is the text that matters..Everything we need is already here in the text. As long as we have that, and as long as we have our minds…we don’t need anything else’. Is that true?
Well, there really is something powerful about plain text. Think about the digital world. If you go back twenty-five years and pick a computer program at random, it won’t run the computer you’re using right now. You might be able to get it going with special hardware—can you find an old floppy disc drive?—and special software—can you somehow emulate an old TRS-80?—but it would take a lot of effort. Another twenty-five years, and it might be impossible.
Plain text, though—even plain text from twenty-five years ago—still works just fine. The format is fixed and it’s easy to access, no matter what kind of hardware and software you’re using. That’s pretty amazing.
So, is Corvina right? Is plain text all we need? No way. But is it a powerful tool—an ark for the stories and ideas that we want to preserve? Absolutely.
Thanks for speaking with us Robin and good luck with your sales.
Tags: robin sloan