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'Sourdough' Rises Like A Good Loaf

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Think of it like Candide without the pirates. And set in San Francisco.

Wait, that's not quite right.

It's like Fight Club meets The Great British Bake Off. It's like Fight Club if no one got punched. It's like Fight Club if Fight Club was written by someone concerned with a different, quieter kind of revolution, and if Fight Club was all about bread.


Okay, then this. Robin Sloan's new novel, Sourdough, is exactly like his first book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, except that it's not about books (exactly), but is absolutely about San Francisco, geeks, nerds, coders, secret societies, bizarrely low-impact conspiracies that solely concern single-noun obsessives (food, in this case, rather than books), and also robots. And books, too, actually, now that I think about it.

It is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as Mr. Penumbra did about the dark latitudes of the book community. It concerns one Lois Clary, a young proprioception engineer for a gleaming robotics company in San Francisco called General Dexterity. She ended up there kind of by accident: She was good with computers, good with machines, had a perfectly reasonable job in Michigan, close to her family, when she was suddenly recruited out of the blue by the robot people. And she took the job because, in Lois's words (via Sloan), "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."

That right there? That was the line that sold me on this book. An entire generational motto summed up in one compound sentence.

Anyway, Lois doesn't really like her job. The work is grinding, the hours are long, the commitment demanded by the never-ending start-up culture is making her sick and lonely. But one day, she discovers Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, an illegal house restaurant which delivers her dinner every night — spicy soup and bread which (as unlikely as it sounds, because much of what happens in Sourdough is unlikely-bordering-on-magical-but-who-cares-because-everything-here-is-almost-a-Silicon-Valley-style-fairy-tale-anyway) heals her, body and soul.

Two immigrant brothers run the restaurant, and when they're deported, Lois is bereft, But before they go (because she was their best customer and they, her only friends), they leave with her a batch of their sourdough starter.

It, too, is magic. It is fully 95% more alive than any other starter culture ever (and starters are already pretty damn alive, which you already know if you've ever made your own bread). But this one sings. It makes little disco lights. And once Lois teaches herself how to bake, it makes the greatest bread that anyone has ever tasted.

Making the bread widens Lois's social circle. She brings some to her neighbors. She brings some to the robot factory where her co-workers eat only a nutritive gel called Slurry despite the Silicon Valley affectation of having a full-time chef on staff. Then Lois starts selling some of her bread to the robot company chef, who in turn tells her she should try out for a space at the farmers market. And when Lois does that, she instead ends up getting an invitation to a very different kind of market. An underground market, borderline legal, where all sorts of wild experiments with food are being done. It is called the Marrow Fair and is operated by a mysterious benefactor called Mr. Marrow who offers what he offers (Chernobyl honey, cricket cookies, lembas cakes self-assembled in a bioreactor) in an attempt at disrupting the food-scape.

It is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as 'Mr. Penumbra' did about the dark latitudes of the book community.

And that is where Sourdough's story actually starts. The driven portion of it anyway — the part that isn't just about Lois and her adventures in baking and robot-controlling. It's also where my second-favorite line comes from. Lois again, describing her thoughts on first visiting the space that would become the Marrow Fair: "It felt, also, like an empty spaceship, and, as a rule, you do not enter an empty spaceship without first knowing the fate of the crew."

I love that because Sloan has a pop-culture brain, and he gave it to Lois. Because his voice in her head and her mouth fits so beautifully into the time and place and moment he is writing about. Because he imbues everything about Lois's journey with mythic overtones, with rules and lessons gleaned not from school or church or elders, but from our entertainment. From stories. Just a page later, she is offered some of the market's Chernobyl honey to taste, and before she does it, she thinks, "In every legend of the underworld, there is the same warning: Don't eat the food. Not before you know what's happening and/or what bargain you're accepting."

But Lois eats the honey. Of course Lois eats the honey. And after that, for Lois and the rest of us joyously following her down the rabbit hole, the underworld awaits.

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Jason Sheehan