The magical world Robin Sloan used to such affect in Mr. Penumbra’ 24-Hour Bookstore shows up in his newest, SOURDOUGH. The magic here, though, is less Harry Potter and more of the Garden Spells variety: whimsical rather than mystical.
Like Mr. Penumbra, this book pits new technology against the old-fashioned way of doing things — instead of computers versus books, it’s robots versus humans. The human in this case is Lois Clary, and the “old-fashioned way” is the use of her own flesh-and-blood appendages to knead loaves of sourdough bread.
Lois got into baking by accident. Her days are spent programming robotic arms, a deadening job whose only relief is her nightly take-out order of sourdough bread and soup. When owners of the kitchen end up having to leave the U.S., they entrust her with their precious sourdough starter, a concoction of microbes and fungus.
The themes here are laid out early on: the starter is a living, breathing thing, endowed, apparently, with magical properties: it likes music, it hums, and its loaves come out of the oven with faces. Juxtapose this with Dexterity General’s five-fingered robotic blue arm encased in shiny blue plastic.
The “starter” is the perfect metaphor for Lois, who will be inspired to begin her life anew; this is the story of how she treads down that path. Scenery along the way includes all sorts of oldie but goodie touchstones — Voltaire’s Candide, the myth of Penelope’s descent to the underworld, The Wizard of Oz, The Little Shop of Horrors, even Life of Pi, and most especially a knock-off of culinary guru Alice Waters and her famed Chez Panisse.
Lest you think the book is a jeremiad against a future of soulless robots, that doesn’t seem to be Sloan’s purpose. Sourdough offers a cheerier vision, one that blends humans and technology working “hand-in-hand,” so to speak. After all, Sloan comes from the tech world (a former Twitter manager), so he may not be prone to disavow its future.
The writing is, in parts, smart and insightful, particularly when describing the tech world. The how-tos of baking, the invisible “empire” of microbes, and the politics of agribusiness are also quite good. Overall, though, while pleasant and occasionally clever, Sourdough feels somewhat lackluster.
Contributing to that flatness may be the characters’ lack of real development. While they are likeable, Sloan strains visibly to endow them with an appealing quirkiness. Actually, the sourdough starter may possess the most quirky personality of all: it is unpredictable, moody, and eventually reverts to a primitive warrior state.
Sourdough is a pleasant read, raising some interesting questions about our current foodie culture and its indulgent, inward-looking approach to feeding a growing world population. But given its vaguely likable characters and vaguely silly plot, for this reader, it doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. I was looking for more bite.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.