Robin Sloan’s 2012 bestseller, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” is a witty paean to both vintage and digital media in Silicon Valley. “Sourdough,” his new novel, stays close to that setting, and once again, the tale features a clash between old and new technologies — in this case within the food industry. The result is delicious fun.
The narrator, Lois Clary, writes code for General Dexterity, a company that manufactures industrial-use robotic arms. At first, she feels that she’s found her place in the corporate world. “Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: We are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.” But Lois soon admits she’s miserable. Her apartment is tiny. Her hair is falling out. She has few friends, only colleagues who, like herself, mostly subsist on a disgusting, “fully dystopian” nutritive gel called Slurry.
Salvation arrives in the form of a takeout menu. Clement Street Soup and Sourdough sells three items: Spicy Soup, a Spicy Sandwich and a double spicy Combo. It’s run by two siblings from a mysterious culture known as the Mazg: Beoreg takes the phone orders, and his brother, Chaiman, delivers them. Their soup is always accompanied by miraculously restorative sourdough bread. “That bread was the secret of the whole operation,” Sloan writes. “Beoreg baked it himself every day. That bread was life.”
Heartbroken when the brothers abruptly leave the Bay Area, Lois comforts herself with their parting gift: a crock of sourdough starter. She teaches herself to bake, with delicious if perplexing results. Pinprick lights glow in the starter. It begins to sing Mazg melodies that she recognizes from Chaiman’s CDs. The finished loaves have faces on them. . . .
Lois’s bread becomes hugely popular, of course, first in the Dexterity cafeteria, then at a utopian farmers market called Marrow Fair, located in the munitions depot of a decommissioned naval base. Marrow Fair’s earnest young adherents deal in products like Chernobyl honey and cheese made by Agrippa, who hasn’t showered in a year and lectures Lois on the symbiotic relationship between humans and microbes. Video conferences are overseen by a talking fish who denounces both industrialization and the farm-to-table movement.
Add a legendary food activist (think Alice Waters), runaway microbes and a robotic arm, and you get a novel as oddly delectable as its namesake. My only mild disappointment was that I couldn’t eat my copy.
Elizabeth Hand’s most recent book is “Fire: Selected Essays & Stories.”
By Robin Sloan
MCD/FSG. 259 pp. $26