Sourdough

By Robin Sloan, A cheerful and fun book for tech and food lovers

I approached Sourdough by Robin Sloan with great trepidation.

I read his debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a long time ago and have been recommending it to people fairly liberally ever since. But part of what I loved about it was the charm and uniqueness of the book, and I was worried it would be hard to duplicate. I was afraid of reading another book by him, being disappointed and then having my disappointment mar my memory of the other novel.

So, very tentatively, I cracked open Sourdough. Thankfully, after only a few pages, I was already having fun. Crisis averted!

While there are a number of talented and quite competent writers out there, sometimes it seems like writing styles have gotten a bit homogeneous — perhaps the product of too many writing workshops and overly-aggressive editors? who knows — but what I like about Sloan is that his writing seem to have a clear personality and voice. It’s cheerful and humorous and very techy and generally just a fun ride. Sloan’s novels are intelligent but also very enjoyable.

“The internet: always proving that you’re not quite as special as you suspected.”

Plot Summary

Sourdough is about Lois Clary, a robotics startup employee, recent San Francisco transplant and lover of “double spicy” soup from a small shop nearby. When the two proprietors of the double spicy soup move away, they leave her with a sourdough bread starter (e.g. the culture needed to bake bread) which she uses to bake her first loaf.

With that lump of carbs in hand, she journeys into the world of food and farmers markets and microbes, and she ends up joining a slightly enigmatic new market that is opening to the public soon. The defining features of her market stall are her unique sourdough starter and the robot arm she uses to help stir the dough. As she looks into the origins of her starter and preps for the market’s grand opening, she ends up discovering a new passion and figuring out where she belongs.

“I have come to believe that food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice-and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other medium.”

Review

Sloan’s writing is snappy and upbeat with a nice dose of humor, and his characters have just a hint of quirkiness to them. I found myself smiling at Lois’s small victories and hopeful attitude. Plus, the novel leaves a trail of interesting tidbits of information about bread-making as it goes along its merry way.

Like his first novel, a significant factor in whether or not you’ll like this is probably your interest in the subject matter. I’m a Bay Area transplant, have worked at multiple startups, and like cooking etc. so obviously I’m a good candidate for this book. However, I think as long as you have some level of interest in technology or food, it’s worth considering giving this a read. And I think there’s a lot about Lois’s story that anyone who is young and starting off in a new city could probably identify with.

Sloan’s fictional San Francisco is idealized — his female protagonist is free to solve actual technical problems instead of wasting her time battling sexual discrimination and harassment from her predominantly male co-workers, and people are helpful and friendly with deep areas of expertise. It’s a San Francisco I would love to live in, but honestly don’t entirely recognize.

Still, realistic or not, I liked being in that world, if even only in fiction. Sloan’s nerd-centric jokes are clever as opposed to just a barrage of name dropping a la Ernest Cline. “Market research indicates people associate liquid superfood with pessimistic science fiction” — says one of the characters when explaining her decision to manufacture her superfood in edible solid form — a clear reference to Soylent Green, of course.

Like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore before it, Sourdough contains subtle references and clever nods for an attentive reader to enjoy. For example, whereas Agrippa in Roman history was a great general known for his military feats to help form the Roman Empire, Sloan’s Agrippa commands little armies of microbes that march upon one another across vast wheels of cheese.

If I had to offer a point of criticism, it would be that the stakes in this book feel somewhat low for most of the book. There’s little concern that anything’s not going to work out or that Lois is going to be anything other than just fine. Sloan seems to love having a protagonist that’s looking to uncover a mystery, so he tosses a bit of that in there, but since it’s not really central to the plot, it seems more like an entertaining aside for Lois to look into as opposed to a pressing plot point.

Read it or Skip it?

Sourdough is a thoroughly enjoyable book with an upbeat tone, like-able characters, a bit of techy romanticim and just the slightest hint of magical realism. The excitement of discovery and a sense of fun emanates from each page as Lois lovingly bakes her loaves of bread and writes code for her robotic arm. It is not the type of book that will change your life or challenge your values and beliefs, but it does have something to say if you pay attention.

The book ambles along for a long stretch without a clear driving force to the plot and leans pretty heavily on Sloan’s humor and ability to throw in entertaining details to keep things interesting. Thankfully, he does it well, and it keeps the book from dragging. It’s lighthearted, humorous, sweet and well worth a read for anyone who finds the subject matter potentially of interest to them.