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How a love of technology and books inspired Robin Sloan

September 29, 2014 


What is the future for books? And what is the future for humanity? Can we imagine our future, or is it so different from where we are now that it exceeds our mental capabilities?

Robin Sloan, whose job titles have included both novelist and futurist, is in a unique position to ask such questions.

He mirthfully explores them in his best-selling 2012 novel, "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore."

"Penumbra" tells the story of Clay Jannon, the newest employee of this San Francisco bookstore.

The store is peculiar. Besides a few dusty best-sellers stacked haphazardly at the front, the narrow building is stocked with mysterious leather-bound volumes Mr. Penumbra forbids Jannon to read. Hardly anyone visits the bookstore except for strange customers who drop in at odd hours to borrow the large books.

When Jannon’s curiosity wins over and he peeks at the forbidden pages, he discovers only incomprehensible code. Determined to figure out what’s going on, Jannon and his friends set out on a quest that leads them into the dark bowels of New York City, then a data visualization center at Google headquarters. If they can solve the mystery behind Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, they may very well unlock the secret to eternal life.

The imaginative book has two origins, Sloan says in a call from Berkeley, California, near his home in San Francisco. The first, his interest in the people who work in San Francisco’s technology industry.

"You couldn’t work and live in San Francisco and not be exposed to Googlers and people at Facebook," says Sloan, who thought their mix of creativity and weirdness worth writing about.

The book’s second catalyst was a tweet by one of Sloan’s friends: "Just misread a sign for a 24-hour book drop for 24-hour bookshop. My disappointment is beyond words."

Sloan remembers thinking he’d be disappointed, too. Then he began to wonder: What would be in that bookstore? And who would work there? And what would the night shift be like?

The idea took root in his head, and several weeks later it grew into a short story. Sloan posted it on his website for free. Then he put it on sale at Kindle. Soon after, Sloan captured a literary agent who urged him to turn the short story into a novel.

"It was a challenge," says Sloan, who was used to writing punchy blog posts and tweets that captured people’s limited attention. Now, he wanted to draw people into an imaginary world of lovely scenes and drawn-out paragraphs. It took him several drafts to unlearn his Internet writing habits.

"In the first draft of the novel you would have wondered, ‘What’s the rush, buddy?’" says Sloan.

The book unites mystery, adventure and a little romance, but it also looks at how technology is transforming the book industry.

This is a familiar topic for Sloan. Before becoming a novelist, he worked at the media institute Poynter, the user-generated content channel Current TV and Twitter. His job title at Current TV was futurist.

"Some people are into the past, but I’ve always been interested in the future and telling stories about it," says Sloan.

He predicts that both print books and e-books will coexist comfortably for at least the next 50 years.

People often believe that a new kind of media will destroy what came before it. Not so, says Sloan. Take vinyl records, radio and good old cable TV.

"It tends to pile up instead of replacing itself," says Sloan. "I think that means that our media landscape gets more textured."

If you were to climb into a San Francisco streetcar in the year 2064, you’d see some people reading paperbacks while others read digital devices, he says.

Sloan himself is at the forefront of the developing media landscape. He published a tap essay called Fish, which readers can download onto their device, then tap the screen to read through pithy sentences combined with the occasional image of (yes) a dead fish.

In the essay, Sloan explores the difference between liking and loving something on the Internet. He suggests that to love something means to return to it, just like we reread books and rewatch movies that captivate us. Sloan points out that while we frequently like and favorite and share things on the Internet, we rarely return to them. If to love is to return, we do a poor job of loving anything on the Internet.

"Maybe I want a website that just shows me the same thing over and over again," writes Sloan in the essay. "This is a path from like to love and I’m trying to follow it myself because liking and faveing are not enough."

Though Sloan’s reading mediums are eclectic, "I prefer print books," he says. "They kind of hang out and have this kind of wonderful quiet persistence that says, ‘Hey! Don’t forget about me!’"

But what about Penumbra? Is it a book to return to again and again?

Perhaps. But Sloan says, "You better read it now before it becomes dated. It says a lot about the world we live in now, and that will be less true in five years when another book comes out to top it. This one does a good job approaching this funny time we find ourselves in."

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services