Sourdough by Robin Sloan
MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017; 259 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J Schlosser
Having been a former resident of San Francisco, I found myself ready-drawn to Sourdough, by Robin Sloan. My mother also raised me with sourdough starter (not actually in the refrigerator with it, but you get the gist), and I read and enjoyed Sloan’s previous novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, so one might say that I had set this book to an incredibly high standard. The only part of the premise that made me extremely wary was the millennial-travels-from-the-Midwest-to-Silicon-Valley-to-make-it-big aspect; enough stories of disillusioned girl or boy goes analog because tech feels cold. However, Sloan knows that approach has grown tired, too; he creates a story that keeps tech, adds analog/life hack, and goes full foodie without going snobby.
Lois Clary is the coder in question, moving from a tech company in Michigan to an offer from a tech company in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco, “not far from the ballpark.” The company designs, tests, and sells custom-made “arms” that are coded to perform tasks to replace human functions (assembly lines and beyond). The only thing that the “arms” cannot do is the nuance-touch items, such as many tasks in cooking and baking—namely, cracking eggs. As a coder, Lois ventures in to solve this problem, a problem made more pronounced by the fact that the “arm” has only one hand. Lois finds that she can relate to the “arm”; she can’t crack eggs with one hand either:
I was going to be the one to solve the egg problem...
My own egg-cracking experience was extremely limited...and in that time I had certainly never attempted to do it one-handed, which was what was required....I opened the expedient video-sharing website on my laptop, searched for “how to crack an egg,” and was rewarded with thousands of results...I tried to copy what I saw on the screen, and was rewarded with a smear of yolk across my palm.
It’s this messy trial and error of Lois’s own motor skills that leads to success in figuring out the coding of the task, however, and the success of other endeavors that Lois takes on. When Lois is presented with sourdough starter by two brothers who own a “restaurant” (not legally up to code since the restaurant is operated out of their apartment) and hurriedly have to return to Europe when their visas expire, she trashes her kitchen with her efforts to learn how to bake bread instead of eating the nutritious “Slurry” that the rest of the coders eat to be as healthy as they can in the long hours in front of their computer screens. On a carb-conscious coast, Lois breaks the rules by baking and sharing and eventually selling bread, but the starter she uses also seems to possess an old-world series of emotions that Lois has to understand to help it, and her, thrive as well. While this novel could have very easily slipped into foodie trolling, or techie trolling, or analog worship, it says the course of pure magic instead, a wonder of the ultra-rational world, a place where mistakes, if valued, lead to open doors.