Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

If you're fascinated by books or technology or typography or crytography or technology or intrepid quests or the Singularity or data visualization or puzzles or secret societies, you will like Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  If you like all of them, you will love this book.  I loved this book.  I think I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading it.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a strange place, located next door to a strip club (funny thing, my first office when I arrived in Calgary was next door to a strip club!) The bookstore is more vertical than horizontal, with high shelves reached by precarious ladders. There are a few normal books in the front half and a very occasional customer.  The back is filled with mysterious tomes containing coded information, borrowed by an odd assortment of eccentric characters who are members of the Unbroken Spine society.

Clay Jannon gets a part-time job, the night shift, in this strange bookshop and begins a great adventure.  You can almost feel the covers of these lovely old books and smell the bookstore smell. But it's not all about antiquarian books.

Atttracted by Jannon's highly targeted online marketing strategy, Google employee Kat Potente walks into the store.   Jannon woos Kat with a prototype program he's written.  "I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype."  Soon she and Clay are dating and the power of Hadoop's massive parallel computing, Mechanical Turk's crowdsourced human intelligence  and Google's complicated book-scanning device  (the device doesn't sound much like the NPR description of Google's patent by the way, but what the heck) are unleashed on a 500-year-old puzzle.  Medieval meets modern meets science fiction.  Did you notice that 3-second gap in all of Google's worldwide services when the Google Big Box reached out and all of Google's computers were brought to bear on this ancient puzzle?  Did you think that Google would stop at driverless cars and Google glass? No way.  In this book we learn about the Google Forever project working on multiple aspects of life extension, such as organ regeneration, DNA repair.

I loved Sloan's tongue-in-cheek style, his determination to include as many allusions to modern technology as possible, his corny puns and playfulness, like the reference to a drink called The Blue Screen of Death.  As a reader, one is tempted to look for coded messages in the book itself.  All of the numbers mentioned seemed to be prime numbers, until one item cost $16.50.  So much for that theory.

Sloan leaves a hook for a possible continuation at the end of the book and I can't wait to see if he writes a sequel.  This one was just so much fun to read.

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