Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Oh, to have such potential.

Take the idea of a used bookstore in San Francisco. Give it an awesome name. Skinny, but three stories tall (and I imagine, open all the way up rather than having 3 actual floors). Add a mysterious ‘back’ section, where strange people come to ‘borrow’ strange books. Some sort of secret society? A merging of new* technologies–e-readers! search engines! OCR! book scanning!–and archaic–books! printing presses! actually; that’s about it…

It’s got the seeds of what should have been a great story!

I really do love the early setting of the book. It’s got a perfect magical feel to it. I really want to visit Mr. Penumbra’s!

But unfortunately, from there (and in my opinion), it goes somewhat off the rails. Everything feels too each. The characters are all a bit ’too much’. The technology (a big part of the book) all feels slightly off. The big reveal is … meh?

In any case, it’s an interesting premise stretched thin. Onward!

More details (mostly annoyances). Spoilers.

Annoyance #1: everything is just too easy.

Our main character got fired and has been working on a bookstore, so understandably, he’s a bit broke. No worries, his best friend from grade school turned Dungeon Master made millions from boob physics simulators (really; they go into it in detail…). He’ll pay for things!

Oh, there’s this big code to break! Bring in the GOOGLERS! To be fair, this was published in 2013; well before “don’t be evil” was removed/demoted as Google’s motto in 2018. But even then… it’s a big tech corporation (roughly 50,000 employees at the time). The amount of time this books devotes to Google worship is uncomfortable at best.

Annoyance #2: the characters. See above for two of them. Otherwise, I liked Penumbra well enough. Other than that, Clay (protagonist) is a bit annoying and entirely to quippy and hip. And wow is he weird when it comes to women, Kat in particular.

“And it’s not weird, it’s not science fiction at all, it’s…” She slows down a little and her eyes dim. I think she thinks she’s getting too intense. (How do I know that? Does my brain have an app for that?) Her cheeks are flushed and she looks great with all her blood right there at the surface of her skin.

Is… that how people actually think? That’s really weird Clay.

And then our big antagonist (towards the end)–and really most of the ‘secret society’. Kind of pointless and doesn’t really go anywhere; although one could theoretically argue that the codes themselves are the big bad?

Annoyance #3 (the big one): Everything about the technology just feels ever so slightly wrong. It’s forgivable, authors don’t know everything about everything. But for me, this is my world. So… I’m going to rant for a moment.

Grumble manages a bustling pirate library. He writes complicated code to break the DRM on e-books; he builds complicated machines to copy the words out of real books. If he worked for Amazon, he’d probably be rich. But instead he cracked the supposedly uncrackable Harry Potter series and posted all seven e-books on his site, free to download—with a few changes. Now, if you want to read Potter without paying, you suffer fleeting references to a young wizard named Grumblegrits who studies at Hogwarts alongside Harry. It’s not so bad; Grumblegrits gets a few good lines.

‘Uncrackable’ ebooks aren’t really a thing. It’s DRM, they have to be decrypted to be read. And fonts, while amusingly expensive, are also generally trivial to pirate. Again, they have to be on your system to be used.

“We don’t really have a business model.” Jad shrugs. “We don’t need one. The ads make so much money, it kinda takes care of everything.” He turns to Kat: “Don’t you think that’s right? Even if we made, like, five … million … dollars?” (He’s not sure if that sounds like a lot of money or not. For the record: it does.) “Yeah, nobody would even notice. Over there”—he waves a long arm vaguely back toward the center of campus—“they make that much, like, every twenty minutes.”

Google (and tech companies in general)… oh, there’s a lot about Google. That’s not how Product Managers work. You don’t just build computing in storage containers in Mountain View (land is expensive, plus it’s the Internet, they don’t have to be there). The ads supporting everything is true enough; but there’s more than enough evidence that if something isn’t making Google money (directly or indirectly), it’s going to get axed.

Add in Hadoop–treated as magical ‘run it on a bunch of machines’, where it’s still machines you own and have access to–and you have to program to do what you want. And Mechanical Turk–crowdsourcing to people rather than machines. Accurate enough and used how you would in the book, but still not free…

And codes… the idea that no one in the last five hundred years has managed to break what ends up being a only slightly complicated substitution cipher ? I actually did like that the MIGHT OF GOOGLE couldn’t break the code in a day–even if no one in their right mind should have expected that to work. After all,

“Even though Google’s mighty computers didn’t find anything?” Deckle says. “Sure. I mean, come on. I have a computer.” He flicks a finger against the lid of his laptop and it makes the camera wobble. “They’re not magic. They’re only as capable as their programmers, right?”

And at the end, we have the Bloomberg Terminal. A real thing. Described accurately enough… but it’s for financial data. Nothing to do with inter-museum loan? Perhaps I misheard. Audiobooks and all that.

And finally, programming languages:

Programming is not all the same. Normal written languages have different rhythms and idioms, right? Well, so do programming languages. The language called C is all harsh imperatives, almost raw computer-speak. The language called Lisp is like one long, looping sentence, full of subclauses, so long in fact that you usually forget what it was even about in the first place. The language called Erlang is just like it sounds: eccentric and Scandinavian. I cannot program in any of these languages, because they’re all too hard.

But Ruby, my language of choice since NewBagel, was invented by a cheerful Japanese programmer, and it reads like friendly, accessible poetry. Billy Collins by way of Bill Gates.

You know? I kind of like that. Plus one for this one. 😄

Annoyance #4: San Francisco. I do love the Bay Area, although I didn’t spend as much time up in San Francisco itself. It’s kind of weird how the story is obstenciably set there, but for the most part (other than having direct access to tech), it doesn’t really feel like it.

There are many more New Yorkers who don’t pass through the dark doorway, of course. The sidewalks on both sides of Fifth Avenue are full of them, a flux of humanity, tall and short, young and old, cool and uncool. Clots of pedestrians drift past us and block my view. Kat is agog.

“It’s so small but there are so many people,” she says, watching the human flow. “They’re … it’s like fish. Or birds or ants, I don’t know. Some superorganism.”

Neel cuts in: “Where did you grow up?”

“Palo Alto,” she says. From there to Stanford to Google: for a girl obsessed with the outer limits of human potential, Kat has stayed pretty close to home.

Neel nods knowingly. “The suburban mind cannot comprehend the emergent complexity of a New York sidewalk.”

Palo Alto as suburban. That’s… certainly an interesting one.

Random side note:

“Each big idea like that is an operating system upgrade,” she says, smiling. Comfortable territory. “Writers are responsible for some of it. They say Shakespeare invented the internal monologue.”

As far as I can tell, Shakespeare may have invented the soliloquy–internal monologue out loud, for the benefit of the audience. Not internal monologue in general. Another pet peeve of mine; ever since discovering that the ‘internal monologue’ is a real thing that most people have! I don’t. Turns out that’s a thing and it’s truly bizarre to talk to someone from the other group.