Reenvisioning the Traditional

Robin Sloan and Kevin Nguyen

In Conversation

Robin Sloan took the literary world by storm with his debut novel,  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Now, with his second novel, Sourdough, he brings us back to the Bay Area—this time to look at the intersection of the tech and food worlds. Lois Clary is a software engineer, coding each day from dawn to dusk. When a mytserious sourdough starter comes into her possession, Lois discovers an underground world and must take a leap of faith. Boing Boing calls the book “a page-turner and a laugh-out-louder, with sweetness and romance and tartness and irony in perfect balance.” Robin Sloan joined digital deputy editor of GQ magazine Kevin Nguyen in conversation at Barnes & Noble to discuss how the book was inspired by the wine world, Sloan’s days of eating exclusively beige food, whether sci-fi is ever optimistic, and the weight of book reviews in today’s day and age.

Kevin Nguyen: Even before you became a novelist, it seemed you were always exploring this intersection between technology and the humanities. We see that clearly in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Do you feel that same extension is happening in Sourdough?

Robin Sloan: I do think it is. One thing I’ve realized, though, about that tension, or that lineup of the old and the new, or one world and the other, is that I’ve tended to focus on the new stuff and tried to convince people that it wasn’t so strange. Digital books are just part of a continuing story. Or maybe new ways of making food are part of this continuing story.

But particularly with this book, I think it got flipped around, and I found myself more interested in trying to convince people almost of the opposite, that the things we think of as old or familiar, traditional or boring, are in fact super weird—and of course, they are all forms of technology. So I’m trying to convince people to look at this traditional stuff with new eyes.

One thing I’ve realized, though, about that tension, or that lineup of the old and the new, or one world and the other, is that I’ve tended to focus on the new stuff and tried to convince people that it wasn’t so strange.

Kevin Nguyen: Why baking? It seems it wants to be a food book, and baking is very specific.

RS: The actual seed of the book came from the world of wine. I had heard some stories about wine grapes being snipped from their vines in old vineyards in France and smuggled to California, and that whole vibe seemed delicious to me, full of story and totally with potential for a novel. As I started learning more about that world and building these possibilities. I realized that, one, I wasn’t that into wine, or at least not enough to write a whole novel about it; and two, that the tempo, like the clock of wine and wine grapes, was too slow. Almost by definition, you’re going to learn more about the grapes and the wine and the secrets that they hold, presumably, year by year, vintage by vintage. It was like: OK, you could write that story, but it would have to be this, like, generational tale. It would happen very slowly, and characters would age, and the seasons would change, and all that. It wasn’t the kind of book that I wanted to write, and it wasn’t the kind of book that I thought I would be good at writing. So I set myself the challenge of finding something else that, one, had some of those same characteristics, some of the same qualities; two, that I knew about; and three, that worked on a faster clock. It came to me almost like a vision. It was, like, “Oh yeah. Sourdough starter.”

KN: Do you bake bread?

RS: I do bake bread. I have to confess that I am not a great baker. In fact, I have remained a pretty poor baker. But I had a sourdough starter, and I was baking sourdough bread before I ever thought that I would write this novel. The problem is, I never actually formed that accord with the starter that the great bakers have. It was and still remains mysterious and temperamental to me.

KN: I think actually not a lot of people know what a starter is. Or they don’t even realize the weird chemistry involved with baking bread specifically. Because I think a lot of our impression of baking is it’s like cookie mix—you just put it in. Bread is not like that.

RS: I didn’t know this before I got this well-known baking book called Tartine Bread. There’s a sequence where my protagonist is learning how to bake, and she buys my fictionalized, somewhat satirized version of that book, and as she is sort of pecking in the name of the scale in a search in a general e-commerce site, it says, “Customers who bought this also bought . . . ”—all these other things it recommended, and then finally, the bread book itself. She’s like, “Oh, OK. I see what’s happening here.”

So I did that. I bought all that stuff. And my bread never looked like the bread in the pictures. It was always a little flatter, a little denser . . .

KN: Though you’re obviously crossing a lot of genres, there are science fiction elements here. Now, I’ve read a decent amount of science fiction, and food rarely comes up. It’s such a base thing, the survival of humans. Why did you want to make something that was kind of sci-fi about it?

RS: Actually, I had a plan. I am hoping to collect evidence, one way or the other, about whether my plan came to fruition. The intention is to lure people into reading this book who think it’s one of those books about how wonderful and warm baking is. Oh, so nice, like South of France stories. Then, as you know, having read it, about halfway through, you’re like, “This is not what I thought it was going to be.”

KN: It gets kind of dark.

RS: It gets weird. I don’t want to give anything away, but it gets kind of blobby and alien. So my hope is that I basically tricked those people into reading this book, and at the end they’re not mad about it—they actually think it was pretty cool.

KN: I work at what is historically considered a men’s magazine, so we still have a little bit of that audience. So whenever we do something smart, we always call it “Hiding the vegetables.” This is kind of what you’re doing here.

RS: Yeah, I’m hiding the sci-fi.

KN: I want to talk to you about the tone of the book. Some people have asked me if it’s like Penumbra, and I tell them it’s like Penumbra but a lot darker.” It sounds like that was deliberate. What changed? Is it just a different story? Or is it a different time?

RS: All those things. To write about the San Francisco Bay Area today and not have it be a little darker—or at least more fraught—than Penumbra, would be naive, or you didn’t bother to pay attention to what was happening around you. The place has changed, and the way that people talk about it and the way that people live there has changed. The other thing that gave it that shade, particularly in the beginning, is an autobiographical experience. When Penumbra opens, you’re perched on the shoulder of a mind that stands toward the world as, like, “What’s next? All right, cool, let’s see what’s around this corner.” In this case, the protagonist is pretty stressed out in the beginning, and her stress has a lot to do with this basic question of feeding herself. Not that she doesn’t like food, but she has this job and she’s young and she’s from Michigan, and so she just doesn’t know what people eat. She doesn’t have that literacy. That was me for many years.

KN: What was your diet like?

RS: It was super beige. It was a struggle. It was never “Oh . . . what should I eat for lunch?” It was more like, “If I don’t put something in my body, then things will start to shut down, so I guess I have to figure this out.” The answer was usually hummus or cheese pizza…

KN: That’s the entire pyramid.

RS: It was dark. That’s not unheard of, particularly for young Americans, I think, because we don’t have that backstop of some cuisine. Our cuisine is freezers and cars. You can really find yourself at sea when you’re becoming an adult and suddenly have to feed yourself for the first time.

Our cuisine is freezers and cars. You can really find yourself at sea when you’re becoming an adult and suddenly have to feed yourself for the first time.

KN: In subtle ways, the book is thematically a lot about work and labor. People in Silicon Valley suffer from this, and so do I, especially when I work from home. Lunchtime rolls around, and it seems like so much effort to figure out what the hell I’m going to eat. That anxiety is captured in this book.

RS: Yes. The connection to work is right on. I’m glad that was clear to you. I’m happy to have it marketed as a book about food and have a loaf of bread, a little bâtard, on the cover. But I think it actually is a book about work.

KN: It is easier to sell a book about food than a book about labor.

RS: Yeah. The politics of automation and . . .

KN: Hide those vegetables.

RS: Exactly. Baking bread—it’s so delicious, so warm.

KN: I want to talk about slurry.

RS: People know it as soylent. It’s like a liquid meal replacement. Which, of course, has existed for a long time; what’s different now is that it’s being marketed to young males who are working in tech, particularly through this prism of psychology: “I know this stresses you out, so here, take this.” They claim that they’ve done some work engineering it to be more nutritious. I don’t know if that’s credible or not.

KN: Have you had soylent?

RS: I tried it. It definitely was not repulsive. It just was not anything else.

KN: If you ever want a good time, there’s a Soylent Reddit with pages upon pages of people being, like, “I can’t stop farting.”

RS: But then, at the end, the answers are so blasé. They’re like, “Oh, dude, upgrade to version 2.7, Beta 9.”

KN: Patch your body.

RS: Yeah. In retrospect, there would have been space for precisely that in this book—thinking about your food, your cuisine as software that you’re systematically and deliberately upgrading over time.

KN: There’s a cool parallel with the sourdough and the starter, like it’s an evolving piece of technology or software. Do you think that’s the strongest connection between coding and baking?

RS: I think the strongest connection is actually not a resonance but a tension. Lois feels it, and it actually becomes an important choice, a moment of choosing a path. That’s something that I stress about a lot. Baking and coding involve using the same parts of your brain and a lot of the same skills, like being able to follow directions or create directions in a very systematic way. Fundamentally, you do all this work, you bake a loaf of bread, and you give it to someone and they eat it, and it’s awesome—and it’s gone. So if you want someone else to be able to enjoy it or appreciate it, you have to bake more—every morning, day-by-day-by-day. Whereas of course, the beauty of code and “Let software eat the world” is that you only have to do it once, and it works everywhere for everyone. That is unresolved in my mind. In some ways, books are much closer to that regime of software than they are to baking bread. Like, you write this once, and it’s not consumed . . . I assume. On the other hand, bread is awesome, and the things we eat are awesome.

KN: Was this book always called “Sourdough”?

RS: No. That’s actually an important difference from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, where a lot of things changed, but it had its title from the start. “The Starter” was the first name of the document, which I thought had a cool, a very kind of punchy American energy to it, but was just not clear. The starter? Of what? Starting what? A football game or something? I won’t tell you what all the titles were. But it was actually a somewhat fraught process, until, in fact, my editor did that trick of slicing the Gordian Knot and said, “What if you just called it ‘Sourdough’?” And that was immediately, obviously, the title of this book.

KN: Do you feel science fiction is inherently cynical?

RS: I definitely don’t. I think that some of the archetypes and works of science fiction that have pierced pop culture and stayed there are the darker ones and the dystopias. But there is a whole tradition of science fiction that I wouldn’t want to call “utopian” because that sounds naive and sort of Pollyannaish. Some of these books are complicated, and they present futures—far futures—that are fraught. But they are optimistic, I would say, and I think ultimately suggest good things about human nature. Iain Banks wrote a series called The Culture Novels. These are not boring stories of people just eating snacks in, like, star-domes: “Oh, life sure is good in the twenty-ninth century, isn’t it?” “It sure is.” End of book. They are complicated. There’s adventures and murders and mysteries. But they are definitely not cynical views of the future. That happens to be the science fiction that I find most inspiring. That’s my lodestone.

KN: A lot of the science fiction I’ve read is pretty cynical, which I like. I like things that are cynical. But I love your work, because what you imagine as San Francisco doesn’t seem that far out, if we’re not close to that already, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel judgmental. How do you avoid writing something that looks into the future that doesn’t feel judgmental?

RS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure that I know the answer or that I apply it in any kind of systematic way. I think of something like The Circle, Dave Eggers’s book, which I only read in excerpt, but I know by reputation. I think it’s telling and important that Dave Eggers, by his own admission, did not spend a lot of time in or around the world of computers or the Internet, and there’s no real evidence that he has any deep personal curiosity about how that all works. I do. Why, I don’t know. I was always a computer kid, and I grew up with the Internet and always found it fascinating. That’s one of the things that drew me forward into the world. If you have that kind of native curiosity and, I guess, affection, that becomes your bulwark against, “Man, the future sucks, just the thought.”

I was always a computer kid, and I grew up with the Internet and always found it fascinating. That’s one of the things that drew me forward into the world.

KN: I’ve been calling your work “science fiction” all night, but it definitely hews more literary, and everything I’ve found at that intersection, books like The Circle, to some degree some Gary Shteyngart, you feel like those authors went to the mall, saw, like, teens on their phone, and went home and wrote a mad novel about it. But I feel like you go to the mall, and you’re just curious about the teens. “What are they going to grow up to do?”

RS: That’s right. Totally. You want to be like, “Hey! Hey, what’s that app? That’s disturbing. Show me more.”

I have a question for you. Since we’ve entered this slightly more sort of broadly critical mood here: For several years you ran Oyster Review, which is still one of the best online literary reviews. It’s carried my books for many, many years. I think you’re the best capsule reviewer in the game. I’ve been thinking about this, because in the past few years I’ve been asked to write a few book reviews myself, and of course now I’m contending with book reviews of Sourdough. My question for you is: In the year 2017, and in the sort of media milieu that we exist in, what is a book review even?

KN: I used to have strong delineations between what is a book review and what is book criticism. Some hold one higher than the other. I think they are both of value. I think that a book review explicitly should tell you whether you should read a book or not. With criticism it’s more to put something in a broader cultural context, which is I think why people revere it more. I think you just want to find the nugget of it that makes it different from anything else. Whether that thing is good or bad kind of doesn’t matter, though hopefully you’ll get to that in the review, if you’re doing a good job. A book review is a form of service journalism. It’s not this hoity-toity thing. We’re weirdly reverential about writing around books, probably because we’re reverential of books. This thing has happened in the past few years, where we’re, like, Books must be protected at all costs. Which is true. But now you don’t see negative reviews in a lot of major publications.

RS: Very notably, actually. I read this amazing review, a gem of great writing about a recent novel called Less by Andrew Sean Greer, another San Francisco novelist. I had not heard about it, I had not read any of his books, but on the strength of this person’s enthusiasm I picked it up, and it turned out to be one of the great San Francisco books of the twenty-first century. It’s awesome, and I’m so glad that I read it. And I would not have if not for this service, actually.

KN: It’s also interesting that we’re seeing fewer negative reviews. I kind of get that. There’s this thing that you don’t want to run a negative review of, say, a debut novelist, and unnecessarily destroy their career. At the same time, when everything is good, the service function of it dissipates. If a publication is recommending everything, then what value does it really have?

RS: In my own personal, casual reviewing, both on Twitter or my email list, or even to friends, I’ve come up with a mental model that I personally like a lot—to preserve that dynamic range. The problem is that if everything is just great, then everything is actually not great. Everything is sort of meh. So to sort of preserve the option to super-recommend things, I think about it like those old arcade games, where you’d be flying your own ship around and you’d be able to shoot your blaster infinitely, but you only get like three super-bombs that clear the whole screen. I think of those as my super-reviews, and I usually label them as “This one of three I will deploy this year. Please. Heed my words. Buy this book.”

KN: That actually ties back thematically to Sourdough. Again—fear of a post-scarcity world. I think the digital landscape has not just changed, like, the mediums, but now we could hypothetically publish infinite numbers of reviews, and that actually would be a bad thing.

RS: This has been a particularly weird time for publishers of all kinds, as it’s been a weird time for everyone living in this country. One realizes that in this post-scarcity world where there’s basically an infinite number of really good books to read, there’s also all these other competitive draws on your time and your energy. There needs to be some sort of reorganization of the way we talk and think about books—and movies and everything else. It’s not like it was. When a president or a hurricane that happens somewhere else can change what people feel like reading, or change whether they feel like reading or not, that’s actually really interesting.

Robin Sloan grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet.

Kevin Nguyen is the digital deputy editor at GQ.

This interview was originally published in Barnes and Noble Review.