Author Robin Sloan sees secret societies everywhere

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First aired on Spark (02/11/12)


Robin Sloan's debut novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an adventure filled with fantastical high-concept technology -- except it's not science fiction. The book tells the story of Clay, an unemployed designer type who gets a job in a mysterious old bookstore. Sloan spoke with Nora Young on Spark recently about why he decided to try and merge the aesthetics of old-school books and high-tech computers in his novel.

"I was someone who was always interested in both...they've never been in vastly different worlds from me, but increasingly in the past few years I felt like I was seeing all these great debates about books versus technology, paper versus the screen," he said. "I wanted to make the argument that it's not a battle at all, that these things are one and the same."

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a very of-the-moment book -- characters exploit new technology and have new rituals. The book's feeling of immediacy is very important to Sloan. "As a reader, I like books that feel like they were written 15 minutes ago, or maybe 15 minutes into the future," he said. But there's a risk in writing something that is so rooted in the current moment. "The book might be dated and sound really strange in a year," admitted Sloan. "But to me, at least, the benefit outweighed the cost, and the benefit is that when people read it today, this week, this month, this year, it will feel dizzyingly present."

In speaking of his work, Sloan likes to consider the phrase the Future Present, which refers to our current concept of a science fiction-y future. "For a long time that was the year 2000, and then we passed the year 2000 and it had to be something else," he said. "It seems that the horizon for that future has shrunk and gotten closer and closer until it is tomorrow or next week, or maybe it was last week and you just missed it. I love that, the idea that the future is just braided in with the present."

But how does one write about new technologies without being either condescending or overly esoteric? Sloan manages it by having his protagonist be as clueless as the reader. "Any time you have a story with a teacher it does double duty because as well as instructing the protagonist, they are of course instructing the reader," he said. "In this book, Clay is inducted into two very strange worlds -- the world of this weird bibliophile cult, and the world of a company like Google. He's new to both of them, but he has good guides in both cases."

But what's the connection between a weird bibliophile cult and Google? "I think they have a lot in common," said Sloan. "At one point in the story, Clay finds himself wondering 'is the world just a set of secret societies?' He asks it rhetorically, but I think the answer is yes...Google is a cult just as much as the Masons are."

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