As a regular reader of many very different sorts of books, I often find myself inspired to make connections between the books I read. As I read Jeff Goodell’s powerful work of journalism, The Water Will Come, all I could think about outside of his intense and compelling narrative was a rather different book; New York 2140, a hilarious and somehow hopeful vision of the future by master science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. As I read one book, the other began to speak to me, in a sort of cross-talk that gave both books more depth and scope. Even before I finished The Water Will Come, I wanted to re-read New York 2140.
But it struck me that perhaps a more fruitful path would be to take the steps to get the authors of these two books speaking to one another. From a distance, the two books could not seem more different, science fiction set in the medium future versus journalism about the here and now. But between the two books, there was a lot of similar thought-experimentation in play.
I’ll let the authors speak for themselves in this 45-minute conversation that explores not just the subjects in the books, but those outside the books, in particular means of ameliorating the damage we have done and that to come. Here’s a link to download the conversation so you can listen as the seas rise; or, perhaps you’re more of a mind to settle back here, in this moment, where you are, and hear ideas as they are wrested from their aeries and given form by two of our brightest and most entertaining minds.
We’re in a serenity prayer moment. Our world is changing, regardless of what we do. By the end of this century, the sea levels will have risen at least three feet, though the odds are it will be twice as much, or more. Unfortunately for us, we’re also in a boiling frog moment. It is already too late. The physics are measurable and immutable. The damage has already arrived. We need to understand what is happening and decide what we will do.
In The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World Jeff Goodell bears witness to the world we have now. It’s not a pretty picture. Sure, the big changes have yet to happen. They’re a generation or two out. But, as William Gibson once wrote, “The future has arrived; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Which is to say that if you’re a canny writer with an eye for science, you can tell a terrifyingly true story about climate change and rising seas right now. Goodell’s book is subtly researched (he does not shove the science in your face) and reported with on-the-spot interviews from the parts of this world that serve as previews for coming (un)attractions. But The Water Will Come is not a eulogy. It’s a snapshot. How we react to the picture, what humans do, is still up to us.
Goodell’s book is a compelling, page-turning journey from our inundated past (floods, Biblical and otherwise) to the edge of the present. Now begins in Florida, where residents and homeowners are playing real-estate roulette, calculating property values with a bizarre combination of disbelief and canny gambling. Our own mortality allows us to build skyscrapers a couple of feet above sea level. Mortgages (and buildings) that are literally underwater won’t matter to the dead. But our own frog-boiling talents allow profit in the present to pre-empt efforts towards future self-preservation.
Goodell really gets around, from glaciers to sea walls, from Venice to New York, and from drowning islands to endangered high-rises (see above). He interviews scientists, businessmen, and citizens to give readers a ground-level view of just what will happen when the sea-level rises. And while it is not good news, Goodell is not here to offer a preview of the apocalypse. For, as much as we are surrounded by climate-change denial and the potentially awful consequences of ignoring reality, we’re also able to shape our own destinies and, more importantly, our own reactions.
And this is where Goodell’s book takes a welcome and unexpected turn. In Lagos, he tours floating slums, temporary cities where our relationship to the coast has been shaped not by a stubborn insistence on permanent housing, but instead by an adaptive perception of home. We are all, by and large, quite used to having one permanent home in one place, but that need not be the case. Returning to Florida, things look dire, but only because we’re on the wrong side of serenity. By showing us how the world actually looks now, how the future has already arrived in coastal regions around the world, Goodell suggests that (because it is too late, alas) we need to accept what we cannot change (rising seas), find the courage to change what we can (our relationship to life near the coast), and discover the wisdom to know which is which. The joy of reading The Water Will Come is the discovery that if reality is immutable, we are not.
Jeff Goodell should, in theory, be a poet or prophet of the coming apocalypse. In person, he’s a down-to-earth reporter who knows how to find the most interesting people on earth and engage them in conversations about what Stanislaw Lem called the pericalypse, that is, the apocalypse that has already happened but went unnoticed in the general haste. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the general haste, download our lightning round interview by following this link, or drop in and listen below.
For our in-depth conversation, we talked some of the highlights of his travels, but also and more importantly, about how our ability to change our understanding of home and life on the coast can allow us adapt to our future. You can begin your course of adaptation by following this link to the MP3 file of our conversation, or take your time, seat yourself in a shallow pot of water, turn the burner on low and get ready to boil while listening below.
We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.
All of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.
In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.
Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.
The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.
In their tales of terror, imagination and innovation, how do bacteria describe humans? Do the microbial authors of the world’s smallest bestsellers see us as benevolent super-beings, waiting to bestow upon them their fondest wishes after some 17 hours of existence? Or are we mindless, bactericidal maniacs, bent only on destruction? Perspective and narration are, of course, human attributes, on admirable display in Rob Reid’s After On. Alas, in Reid’s novel, we’re the bacteria.
Reid’s narrator is introduced on page one, daring us to finish, which is quite a dare given that the book is more than 500 pages. Soon enough, the bordering-on-overbearing stream-of-consciousness teleports into what feels a bit like the omniscient third person, for, at least, some portions of the novel. That omniscience is not without import, but make no mistake, even a well-muscled Deity is going to have to queue up in After On. Reid stuffs his novel with all the hilarious, wildly-imaginative, weirdness that unfolds in the Silicon Valley business landscape and then extrapolates the eternal tomorrow. The result is a novel so full of propulsive fun that you’ll be well into the future it describes before you’re able to put down the book.
Reid’s story unfolds in the white-hot world of Silicon Valley start-ups, a sort of savanna-survival stand-in for today’s brilliant (and almost brilliant) minds. Mitchell Prentice is hoping to keep his start-up, Giftish.ly afloat long enough for it to be subsumed by Phlutter, a social-networking/hookup app. His story is punctuated, no interrupted, by what appears to be a very badly-written (but thought provoking) science fiction novel. That story is interrupted by the story of Jepson, the founder of Phlutter. Intertwined are rants from bloggers (NETGRRRL!), insane and amazing and Amazon review posts, technical papers, and even government documents. Reid wrangles much of our modern world into a dizzying thriller with serious philosophic implications.
The thorny question here is how do we ascertain the arrival of artificial super-intelligence, and what do we say to it… or rather, what does it do to us? Reid explores his answers in a novel that is at once page-turning and mind-boggling. Happily, the AI thought-experimentation is matched by a witty and a very irreverent dismantling of Silicon Valley morals and mores. All this works because Reid gives us a batch of characters we come to love, even as they blithely contemplate and bring about irrevocable change.
Reid’s thoughts and plots regarding artificial intelligence are best discovered by the reader, but he manages to astonish us even as he keeps his and our feet on terra firma. And for all the futures he imagines, Reid is equally great at nailing the present. More than a few scenes reveal what is happening at this moment in a manner that’s quite funny, but equally insightful. After On is fun to read taken simply as a Silicon Valley satire, even though it is much, much more.
With more parts than you might be able to count, moving at a clip that feels as fast as life, After On bears a remarkable resemblance to the great, capacious novels of their day, say, Dickens, or Melville. It’s a blast to read even as you realize that said blast may be subtly rearranging your mind. You’ll listen to yourself think and wonder just whose voice you are hearing. And by the time you do, that may be a very good question indeed.
Reid himself is chock-a-block with good questions; one need only give a listen to his amazing podcasts. Unsurprisingly, he’s equally awash in good answers, obvious as you listen to our conversation about his book, which is currently possible using today’s cutting-edge technology moldy technology from nearly two decades ago by following this link and downloading the file. It is possible that downloading this file will tip the scales, so to speak, after (on) which your podcast playback application might have a mind of its own. Blame Reid for that, he brings all the intelligence, none of it artificial, all of it even shockingly mature. I hope you’ve been kind to that podcast app!
Property is problematic. What can be owned and who can own it? Ownership can be onerous, which is to say a responsibility, or it can be empowering, an exemption from the obligation to care. With Autonomous, science journalist Annalee Newitz uses the science fiction novel in an exciting, emotionally engaging exploration of the edges of our economy. Pulse-pounding adventure proves to be the perfect instrument for examining the wreckage left after technology steamrollers over philosophy.
Newitz sets her story some 125 years into the future, in a world that is recognizably ours. Jack is a gene-splicing pharma pirate, a young woman who replicates patented life-saving and -extending therapies, bootlegging them so the poor can get a leg up. Paladin is a “human level” AI, indentured to the African Federation and working with Eliasz, a human, to bring Jack in. She’s pirated a prescription drug that unfortunately has terminal side effects. Ownership, moral and economic, are at war. Survival is optional.
Newitz expertly immerses readers in this world, wisely doling out bits of what we expect, what we hope and what we desperately want to find out with a plot that manages to be tense without ever getting into “artificial thriller” mode. We turn these pages because Newitz crafts characters who feel real. Everyone is shaded, with motivations that are both selfish and selfless. As Paladin and Eliasz make their way through the world seeking Jack, she seeks to undo what she has done. The thrill here is that we like both halves of this equation, and want everyone to succeed, which by definition should be impossible.
Newitz pulls off a lot of amazing feats in this novel. It’s a quick fun read that will make you think about a lot of current affairs by taking them out of today and resetting them in her future. Her characters, from the walk-ons to the leads are all superb and feel particularly real, especially Paladin, a masterpiece of neuroscientific pansexual speculation. The character arc of this robot, and others, including Med, a medical robot that appears human, are exciting and emotionally engaging incarnations of cutting-edge speculation about neuroscience and intelligence, artificial and “natural.”
Autonomous is bursting with ideas, and informed by a vision that’s not dystopian or utopian. It feels particularly real and agenda-free, almost slice-of-life some 125 years hence. In the here-and-now, Autonomous is a perfect example of all the great things that fiction can do. It’s as close to action-packed, emotionally charged science (fiction) journalism as you might hope to find. Explore Newitz’s world and you’ll return knowing a lot more about your own.
This is also the effect of talking with Annalee Newitz in person. Autonomous was the result of her work as a journalist, and as we sat down to talk about it, our conversation flowed from one mind-blowing bullet point to the next. We talked around the plot without talking too much about the plot, and she knows her science just as well as she knows her fiction.
Worldbuilding is no longer a dweeby technical term for science fiction readers. The popularity of genre fiction has taken worldbuilding from the specialty shelves to general parlance. Moreover, the concept is catching on in the real world as well, and not a second too soon. With A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions Muhammad Yunus (“the father of micro-lending”) proposes that we take concrete action to rebuild our own world, and offers specific plans and means to do so. A World of Three Zeros is a book brimming with joy, good news and smart ideas about remaking this world by re-thinking both how we define ourselves and our economy.
Yunus begins by describing the problem with our concept of the “economic human.” Our default description assumes that the economic human is motivated solely by selfishness; we want more stuff. But in actual life, Yunus writes, humans act selflessly as or more often than they do selfishly. Selflessness accounts for a large portion of what we do, for our family, our city, our peers, our country, even this world. Yunus has created a model for what he calls a “social business,” which is economic (and human) activity aimed at solving social problems (poverty, hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, etc.) that offers investors the return on their original investment without a “profit.” Social business scales extremely well, from the microcosm of a rural village to the macrocosm of a cosmopolitan city, and by solving seemingly intractable problems, everyone benefits.
With these arrows in his quiver, Yunus takes aim at three problems that they can solve; poverty, unemployment, and carbon gas buildup. Each problem gets its own chapter, with detailed examples of working solutions and social business success stories. It’s inspiring stuff, pragmatic and suggesting that what we need most overall is a change in perception. For example, Yunus suggests that humans are not naturally divided into a majority of “worker bees” best managed by a minority of “boss bees.” Who knew? Instead, he believes that we are by default all entrepreneurs, ready (as we graduate from college or a village) to create jobs, not simply seek them. He describes global surges in small business creation where you [might] not expect them (Uganda, Bangladesh). We read engaging specific examples of social problems solved by small investors looking only to recoup their investment. These are gripping stories of real-life problems and solutions.
In the final section, Yunus looks at the three forces he believes will be primary to the coming change; youth, technology and “Good Governance And Human Rights.” In all things, Yunus unites optimism and pragmatism. It’s a delicate balance and hard to pull off, but strong ideas and real-world experience in the hardest conditions ensure that Yunus does not simply score points; he inspires action.
Not surprisingly, Yunus is inspiring as all get-out in person as well. I had the excellent fortune to sit down and chat with him, thanks to the good folks at KQED and his people at PublicAffairs Books. He started by telling me the parts of the micro-lending story I had not heard, and from there, we went on to discuss the virtues of science fiction, which he loves because the genre offers writers the potential to remake the world. It’s a skill he deems essential. You can hear the entire in-depth interview by following this link to the MP3 audio file, or engage your peers, gather round the console and listen below.
In The Imperial Radch Trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy), Ann Leckie created a space opera-style universe with the hard-headed hermetic depth of Frank Herbert’s Dune, a kick-ass through-line hard-SF military narrative and an insightful emotional core that re-thought gender. That left her a lot of room to play, and in Provenance she does just that, offering readers a coming-of-age heist-in-space novel that feels a lot like what you might hope for were we to resurrect Jane Austen and tasked her with the creation of an SF heroine. Provenance is understated and brilliantly imagined, thought-provoking and often hilarious fun.
Readers who missed Leckie’s trilogy need not worry, as Provenance stands quite well on its own; those who enjoyed the trilogy will find something rather different here, but equally inventive and adept. When we meet Ingray Aughskold, she’s in trouble and not handling it well. She’s one of six adopted children in the Aughskold household, and certain that Danach, her rather nasty older brother (also adopted, but from better circumstances) will be the one to take their mother’s title of Netano. Ingray has tried to pull off a rescue, we realize, and it’s not gone well. Her primary response to this and the other obstacles she fails to overcome is to cry.
Even as Ingray resigns herself to deal with the problems she’s created, readers will slowly begin to adopt and adore her. Hwae, her home, is part of a very complicated interstellar society (The Radch Empire), which is a delight to unpack. On Hwae, one’s wealth and position are partially determined by the possession (or not) of “vestiges,” relics and keepsakes that reference events, people and places of personal or societal import. The provenance of these items is critical and unquestioned. Flailing and failing, Ingray is forced to be particularly skeptical of not just herself, but the rest of her world as well. For readers, the true joy is determining which cracks are the result of our ignorance of the world as readers and foreigners, so to speak, and which are part and parcel of the fabric of Leckie’s carefully crafted universe.
Leckie is a master of powerful prose that gives us emotional depth even as we are trying to suss just how the world works. Her spectrum of sexuality is superbly crafted, and her sense of character rings utterly true. And while there are big questions to be answered, there are also small moments of honesty, cowardice and valor to play through as well. There’s a wonderfully sly romance afoot, and a series of set-pieces that are outstandingly visual and tense. We meet a drily comedic alien, the Geck ambassador, and Captain Tic Uisine, a resourceful rogue with a talent for running mechs remotely. Our antagonist’s ambitions are eminently understandable, while our protagonist’s weaknesses equally empathetic. The upshot is that every scene is chock-a-block with characters we enjoy doing something that is fun, mysterious, exciting and emotionally engaging.
Leckie has a lot of fun with the Imperial Radch in Provenance, and as a reader, I’d be thrilled to see her follow up these characters, or any others in this universe. The triumphs of Provenance are many. It’s a fantastic stand-alone novel, a wonderful introduction to a space-opera universe that’s fresh, different, weird and foreign, yet ultimately grokkable and relevant to the here and now. Provenance is a novel that shows a mature talent making merry by letting her readers knock about in a well-worn universe. It’s fresh, wild science fiction wedded to the virtues of timeless storytelling, important and yet light-hearted. Leckie’s future is intelligent, imaginative, but most importantly fun. That this universe was created in our universe can only be a good sign for both.
I had a blast chatting with Ann Leckie about Provenance and the universe of The Imperial Radch, even as the book itself gave me chills of space opera perfection. The dense language evoked memories of my first encounter with Dune, and we talked about the inspirations and inclination that went into building the work. And yes, I admit that I did ask the spell-check question, because part of the joy of reading this book is Leckie’s ability to craft a semantic version of the future.
The word “cemetery” might first conjure up your own local variant, a big lawn studded somewhat regularly with cement tombstones. It’s a place you might not think about much, until you read 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die by Loren Rhoads. Rhoads innocent-seeming travel guide is actually a thought-provoking look at life, death and everything in-between. Gorgeously photographed and stunningly well-traveled and researched 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die the perfect logical endpoint of all bucket lists.
After an admirably eloquent and brief introduction, Rhoads offers up exactly what is advertised. Divvied up by location, she finds the most destinations in the US. She then goes ’round the world. Every destination gets at last one photo, sometimes more, and they are all top notch. The whole book is in color; it’s a gorgeous thing just to look at. Moreover, Rhoads is a great writer, whose summaries are much more than mere travelogue. They’re miniature essays that touch on all the things suggested by cemeteries, which is to say, life’s rich pageant.
The utility of this book is manifold. If you want to ponder just about any aspect of life, these elaborate visions of where we house our dead will take you places you might never expect. If you’re looking for a reason to travel just about anywhere, you will find it here. And if you are planning on travelling just about anywhere, this book is likely to serve up a perfect little side trip.
Whether or not you are planning on rising from the chair in which you read it anytime soon, this book has something to say to you. It says it well, it says it with both eloquent prose and beautiful photographs, it is a pragmatic assessment and an inducement to whimsy, and it does all of this 199 times. Loren Rhoads 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die is arguably the best, indeed the only travel guide for the living and the dead. The grass is always greener on your grave.
As far as I was concerned, 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die had another benefit as well, which is the opportunity to speak with the author, about my favorite places in the book and all the odd thought-paths those places took me. I thought Loren Rhoads every bit as riveting as her book, and lots of fun to talk to. Here’s a link to our lightning round, which served up something different from the main interview.
“There are love stories galore,” Cole, the teenaged boy tells us, “This isn’t that. The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” Welcome to the mind of an average American adolescent boy, and to the new novel by Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler. The funny thing is that while there’s a lot of sex, none of it feels it dirty. Handler’s headlong plunge into the consciousness of Cole is not a book-length letter to Penthouse. It’s a powerful reminder our endless and intimate connections to one another – and story.
From the get-go, Handler has a lot of fun here. He’s a smart writer and commits fearlessly to his premise, with a stream-of-consciousness style that is the reading equivalent of a fast moving, ice-cold river. It’s a powerful, immersive, wake-you-the-hell-up experience. Handler’s prose is the key. He really nails the propulsive/impulsive nature of the in-between mind. Cole cannot control his own thoughts, let alone his actions. While we all might know this in theory, and even a bit in memory, Handler’s evocation bypasses knowledge with immediacy of art.
Cole’s life is in no way exemplary or odd, but our experience of it in prose elevates the ordinary to the sublime. Cole has a close friend, Alec, and eventually hooks up with the new girl, Giselle. Alec is close fit with the rest of the school, while Giselle, an exchange student, is a bit outside the range of normal. Handler’s focus is close enough to be uncomfortable, but clear enough to be uncompromising. He experiments with Alec, dishes dirt, and finds his match in Giselle. But even as we are fascinated, appalled or terrified by the details, we, like Cole begin to discover that there is more than mere event in our lives.
What we discover, to our pleasure, as contrasted in our minds at least, the sorts of pleasures that Cole is pursuing, are events transformed into story by Handler’s relentlessly internalized stare. In spite of himself, Cole is not simply a hedonist. Like it or not, sex turns out to be a connection, a story element from which we may not so easily extricate ourselves. Cole’s vision is not an episodic series of sexual encounters. Word by word, it becomes a life.
All the Dirty Parts certainly lives up to its title, and the sum thereof, which is to say, that in a sparse, smart slip of a novel, Daniel Handler manages to convey far more than the words on the page. This impossible-to-put-down novel is a dare. Step in, be swept away. Life, sex, story. This is human!
So, OK, yes, the AKA, matters, and Lemony Snicket has a new title out as well, The Bad Mood and the Stick, a book for very young readers illustrated by Mathew Forsythe. Between Snicket & Forsythe, plan on a delightful time. The illustration are charming and the title itself confirms that you’ll find the same droll sense of humor at work. It’s lovely, and an argument for publishing children’s books as a box set of hangable art. Make no mistake, the next time I’m in a bad mood, I’ll be sure to have a stick to hand.
In person, Daniel Handler is just as smart and I guess, vexatious (in the best possible sense of the word, and there is one in MY dictionary) as you might expect. Which is to say that even in our lightning round, which you can download by following this link, you can hear that engaging, hilarious pragmatism at work.
Follow this link to listen to the long-form version, or lean in close and listen up to the dark secrets of American adolescence.
Our world is chock-a-block with rabbit holes, into which we hurl ourselves, knowingly and otherwise. Work is the classic, and nowhere has work become more of a rabbit hole than in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Sign up and your life can disappear, generally regarded as a fine outcome. That’s Lois Clary’s story as Sourdough by Robin Sloan begins. She’s a software engineer at General Dexterity, a firm that makes robotic arms, and offers its employees Slurry, a sort of liquid version of Soylent Green, not made from people. At first, her life feels pretty simple, but like most lives, it gets complicated unexpectedly and in a hurry.
Robin Sloan’s second novel is a pure delight. When you think he’s going to turn left, he blasts down the center, and when you think you’re in for smooth ride, things get enjoyably bumpy. Lois, not such big fan of Slurry, hones in on a hole-in-the-wall take-out restaurant and has them deliver variations on the same dinner every night; soup and sourdough. When the brothers who run the joint close up shop, they give their “Number 1 customer!” a present – a flagon of sourdough starter, so she can make her own bread. It proves to be another rabbit hole, for Lois and the reader, and both happily disappear into the gently weird world as crafted by Robin Sloan.
Sourdough is fun to read in a variety of ways. Sloan is funny, but not jokey. He can go off into fascinating byways that end up circling back to the plot as we know it. He loves all his characters, and you will too. Moreover, in a compact and concise space, Sourdough does all the things big novels do. We meet real people in real lives that are slightly and believably weirder and more interesting than ours. You’re likely to read it faster than you expect, and you’ll feel fulfilled by the whole scope of the work, even if, like a great loaf of bread, you want more.
Sloan delivers more as he contemplates and conjugates start[er/up] culture at large. Colonies of microorganisms, the micro-biome, food culture, secret markets, and company cultures bloom wildly in Lois’ life. The culture that created the sourdough starter – a nebulous batch of worldly gypsies called the Mazg feels real enough to send you to the search engine. Sloan is skilled enough to suggest a lot in an easygoing manner and smart enough to let the reader make the connections.
There’s a quite bit of magic in Sourdough. The starter seems to have a mind of its own, and the novel itself is light and fun and yet filled with both wisdom and engaging entertainment. It’s both deeply weird and utterly, openly enjoyable. It is, in all senses of the word, charming. Like the most powerful magic, it is a charm that hangs around afterwards. Even after you finish the book, your mind will drift down the rabbit holes created by Robin Sloan. Just follow the scent of fresh-baked bread.
In person, Robin Sloan is every bit a fun as his writing. As it happens, I encountered Sourdough shortly after a personal bread-baking renaissance, and I have to admit that when Sloan went into his King Arthur flour stories, I was already there. Slone and I spoke about the real-world mirrors for some of his fictional creations and he let me on where to get the really good flour (not to knock King Arthur!) To hear a lightning round interview with Robin Sloan, follow this link to download, or just listen below.