Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: The perfect nerdish fantasy

Robin Sloan's Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is one of those instant geek classics that gets right into the romance and magic of high-tech, a book akin to Cryptonomicon or Microserfs.

By Cory Doctorow

Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is one of those instant geek classics that gets right into the romance and magic of high-tech, a book akin to Cryptonomicon or Microserfs. It's the story of Clay Jannon, a broke ex-high-tech worker who gets a night-shift job in poky, weird bookstore whose highest shelves are stocked with curious ancient volumes, These books are only ever requested by furtive, weird customers who come in the middle of the night and request them by name, and it's Clay's job ot scale the rolling ladders that run the length of the shelves to retrieve them.

Thus begins the setup of a book that explores cryptic codes (the books are filled with odd, incomprehensible type), the awesome might of parallel computation (Clay's girlfriend, a Googler, helps him recruit untold computing power to put to work on deciphering the mystery of the books and the customers), secret societies (the furtive customers who come in the night), and the quest for immortality through the ages (a subject I can't write much about without getting into major spoiler territory).

This is what a book like The DaVinci Code could be if its author loved the world, rather than resenting it. This is a geek's love poem to the twenty-first century, to design, to networks, and to the delightful world of problems with chewy, crunchy solutions. Every page is filled with sweet humor and delightful, dorktastic people who are nerding out in the very best way about the stuff that matters to them.

Mr Penumbra is, at the end, a book about passion -- for books, for history, for the future. It's full of (often made-up) technological details that nevertheless ring true, the kind of stuff that nerds fantasize about doing a lot, and get to do a lucky once in a while. It's the perfect nerdish fantasy, full of secrets behind bookstore shelves, unimaginable computational power, and deep geekery about RPGs, dataviz, narrow-targetted mobile ads, and typography. There is nothing in this book that I didn't love.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel

Homepage thumbnail photo: Shutterstock

Published 6:16 am Fri, Nov 16, 2012

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

17 Responses to “Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: The perfect nerdish fantasy”

  1. beemoh says:

    “These books are only ever requested by furtive, weird customers who come in the middle of the night and request them by name”

    Yet when I do that, I’m called a pervert.

  2. E T says:

    Why not link to the author’s website rather than to amazon?

    • Xploder says:

       Beats me but linking directly to Amazon caused me to buy it just now.

    • ?? Do you pay attention? It’s partly how the BBers pay for the site – through Amazon payment plans. I can’t remember where I saw it, but Cory “sells more books than a small bookstore each year”. Seems fair enough. It’s a decent way to make a living, and is certainly the obvious next step in terms of reviewers/reviewing/how does media pay for itself?

      Look at all books and music reviewed on the site and you’ll see that they have amazon links that pay a little back to the author.

  3. knoxblox says:

    Interesting. I happen to have that book right here, and will be reading it when I’m done with my BB fix.

    Edit: 1/3 of the way through, and this is pretty good. Definitely sparked a memory link with Spaceman Blues: A Love Song by Brian Francis Slattery, and Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

  4. Over the River says:

     a book akin to Cryptonomicon

    There is no book, written, or that will be written that is akin to Cryptonomicon. But I think I would like it.

  5. Erik Schark says:

    This started as a short story that was given an audiorecording by the excellent SF podcast Escape Pod back in 2009.  If you’re interested, give a listen, although it may kind of ruin the ending of the book (I’m assuming, having not read the book).

    • Doctor Device says:

      I remember listening to the short story on Escape Pod. I still like to imagine that the google campus is the way it is described in the story…

  6. arionpress says:

    Robin Sloan will be discussing his new novel on Tuesday, November 27th at 6 pm at the historic Arion Press in San Francisco’s Presidio. (More info on this national treasure and typography heaven at Reception before hand at 5 pm, booksigning to follow author talk.)

  7. barbarathistle says:

    I LOVED the book. One of the added features is that it the book jacket glows in the dark.  

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      I bought a book about a year ago not knowing that it was glow in the dark. Freaked the fuck out of me when I got up to pee in the middle of the night.

    • knoxblox says:

      Cool! It does!

      Now it’s starting to look like some sort of visual code to me. I need to study this…

  8. SoItBegins says:

    How’s it stack up vs. Ready Player One?

  9. John Maple says:

    The author uses way too many Google references though.  That alone will make this an already dated bit of SF.

  10. B E Pratt says:

    Cory! Ya really got to lay off the fucking Dan Brown references (and one is just too many). Dan Brown’s crap by itself elevates whoever wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night” instantly into the realm of high (or at least readable) art. Five pages of Dan Brown should be enough to realize that he can’t write his way out of a paper bag, and that is only if you are a masochist.
    EDIT: Sorry, but I loath Dan Brown and really want those few minutes back. Then again, there’s some guy called L. Ron that you might like to take a stab at. Battlefield Earth and Atlas Shrugged (for another) would make great books for Hell’s library.

  11. * Clay’s job TO scale the rolling ladders that run the length not OT.