From Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the story of Mr. Penumbra’s first trip to San Francisco - and of how he got entangled with the city’s most unusual always-open enterprise….
It is August 1969. The Summer of Love is a fading memory. The streets of San Francisco pulse to the sounds of Led Zeppelin and Marvin Gaye. And of jackhammers: A futuristic pyramid of a skyscraper is rising a few blocks from City Lights bookstore and an unprecedented subway tunnel is being built under the bay. Meanwhile, south of the city, orchards are quickly giving way to a brand-new industry built on silicon.
But young Ajax Penumbra has not arrived in San Francisco looking for free love or a glimpse of the technological future. He is seeking a book: the single surviving copy of the Techne Tycheon, a mysterious volume that has brought and lost great fortune for anyone who has owned it. The last record of the book locates it in the San Francisco of more than a century earlier, and on that scant bit of evidence, Penumbra's university has dispatched him west to acquire it for their library. After a few weeks of rigorous hunting, Penumbra feels no closer to his goal than when he started. But late one night, after another day of dispiriting dead ends, he stumbles across a 24-hour bookstore, and the possibilities before him expand exponentially....
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Penumbra Prequel Is Too Slight
Nowhere near the lofty status of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the full length novel to which this short story/novella serves as a prequel. This story of how young Ajax Penumbra came to San Francisco 35 years earlier and ended up in his bookstore proved interesting enough to me as a fan of 24-Hour Bookstore, but it could not have stood on its own and doesn't rank with its predecessor, which at or near the top my all-time list of audiobooks.
The big difference between the original Sloan novel and this prequel is the point of view. 24-Hour Bookstore is narrated in the first person by young Clay Jannon in the present day. His charisma and exuberance and ingenuity really carries the novel. 1969 is in the third person, relating the story of Penumbra's early years, filling in an important part of the story, but without that same sense of wonder and discovery.
Then there is the collision of the old world and new technology, which is the central theme of both stories. For Clay, the limitless capabilities of modern computing open up doors to relearning "old knowledge" contained in legacy technology like print and literature, marrying the widsom of the ages with the promise of the future.
In 1969, microcomputing is in its infancy and it does provide a backdrop to Penumbra's journey. But he makes different choices in his youth than Clay makes three decades later. In fact, as likeable of a character as Penumbra is, his one big flaw is his timidity, and 1969 proves that it was indeed his starting point. If Penumbra's world was the real world, it would be amazing to imagine how it might have turned out if he had been as bold and resourceful in 1969 as Clay was in 24-Hour Bookstore.
Having read 24-Hour Bookstore in print as well as listening to it as an audiobook, I knew already that Ari Fliakos augmented the experience by adding a lively voice to the narrative and good characterizations. He does no less in 1969.
Deflated me was more like it. Avoiding spoilers, I was disappointed when Penumbra made his ultimate choice, which sets the stage for what we see later in 24-Hour Bookstore. I guess if young Penumbra was more like Clay, there would never have been a pretext for 24-Hour Bookstore, so in that meta-post-modern manner, I should be happy.
Any fan of 24-Hour Bookstore MUST read/listen to this prequel. Chances are I'm being too picky in my critique and most fans will love it as much as the novel. For those who haven't read 24-Hour Bookstore, I would of course recommend reading/listening to that first and then doubling back to 1969. However, I have seen reviews where people read this first and liked it well enough to continue on to 24-Hour Bookstore, so either way, I guess.