A world where mystery and technology exist side by side

Ajax Penumbra 1969
Robin Sloan
Atlantic Books 11.95, ebook 2.66
Review: Alannah Hopkin

If the word “bookshop” — or bookstore, as they say in the USA — raises your spirits, then you will enjoy this slim volume. It is a “prequel” to a much longer novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, a gripping adventure story featuring both the skills of a traditional society of code breakers, and the world of digital hi-tech.

The result is closer to an updated version of the adventures of Stieg Larsson’s inspired hacker, Lisbeth Salander, than Dan Brown’s unconvincing “symbologist”, Robert Langdon — but has elements of both. It’s a classy and compelling kind of hokum.

In the longer novel, Mr Penumbra is an old man, but back in 1969 he was a recent graduate of Galvanic College, known as ‘the Harvard of Northwestern Illinois’. He has been recruited by Galvanic’s librarian as a junior acquisitions officer, and is visiting San Francisco on official library business.

At Galvanic he had been assigned his roommate by ‘a computerised process’, his first personal experience of the computer in any shape or form. Back then, only a few insiders had any inkling of the potential power of the personal computer, and one of these was Claud Novak, Ajax’s room mate.

At first the computer seems to have made a bad mistake, but as they unpack, Ajax and Claud discover that they share a passionate love of books: science fiction in Claud’s case, Shakespeare, Dante and Homer for Ajax.

The two brilliant young scholars also share what the bookstore’s mysterious owner, Mohammed Al-Asmari, or Mo, calls ‘the willingness to entertain absurd ideas’, and this is at the heart of the story’s appeal.

Novak’s computer studies lead him to participate in the first experiments with an ambitious cross-country computer link known as an inter-network, while the trainee librarian follows an unlikely series of leads in search of the only copy of an esoteric book called The Techne Tycheon, last heard of in Macau in 1657.

After many hours of research, Ajax unearths a reference to the Tycheon in San Franscisco in 1861, and he takes off for California.

Foggy San Francisco in 1969 is lovingly evoked — from the impecunious long-haired hippies who spend the night in Mo’s bookstore, to the disruption caused to the city by the excavations for the Bay Area Rapid Transport— BART.

The adventure story unfolds in parallel, with serious questions both mystic — the mysterious power of coincidence, and technological — the creative potential of computers.

A key concept is the idea that randomness can be productive, in digital technology as much as in “real life”.

An Appendix at the end of the prequel, containing the first chapter of the longer sequel, clever; the temptation to go online and download the 304-page ebook is irresistible.


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