Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the debut 2012 novel by former Twitter executive Robin Sloan, drew praise for its deft navigations between dual spheres of dust-covered bibliophiles and Kindle-wielding tech natives. So, for its new novella of a prequel, Sloan opted to drift away from the digital-drenched Silicon Valley that so obsesses him.
His destination: the past.
1969, to be precise—the year a UCLA student programmer sent the first ever message on what was then known as the ARPANET.
Like any satisfying prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969 serves readers of the preceding work well by illuminating a key character's past: in this instance, just how the wizened Mr. Penumbra came to operate the suspicious bookstore that bears his name. The answer forms the crux of Ajax Penumbra's nimble plot; it involves a Goonies-style treasure hunt (in search of—yes—a book), a rotting shipwreck, and an all-too-brief encounter with a gaggle of Summer of Love hippies.
Fittingly, it also contains Cold War-era historical traces of the source novel's richly digital captivations.
"I will admit there are earlier drafts of the story that had a lot more of that stuff in it," admitted Sloan, who describes himself as a writer and "media inventor," in a recent interview with The Atlantic Wire. "I think that was me saying, 'Oh, come on, I love this stuff, I wanna jam it in there.' Some of it was just me nerding out—the premonition of all the great tech stuff to come."
Though he's already at work on another full-length novel, Sloan wrote the prequel in a flood of productivity this past summer: "There wasn't the stereotypical writer-retreats-into-his-dark-
"It's a much shorter story, but I did much more research for the story than I did on the novel," Sloan said. "This is what I think is fun about fiction—you get to use as much history as you want as scaffolding and then go beyond it and change it and mutate it. In this case, all the stuff about the ships and the way they were used—that's all from old maps."
The question of form poses yet another irony: unless you attend one of Sloan's book tour events, where physical chapbook copies are handed off for free, Ajax Penumbra 1969 is only available in the digital realm, to be downloaded on a Kindle or iPad or any manner of device that spells terror for Mr. Penumbra's graying cast of luddites. On Amazon, it is a Kindle Single, the short-form e-book platform that some commentators herald as a brave new opportunity for writers. Sloan, naturally, concurs.
"I think one of the most exciting things about the whole digital side of publishing is that it eventually allows you to operate at any length," he said. "That also means shorter stuff, too." In an abandoned age, for instance, the prequel would have been padded to fill out the length of a novel—an 87-page book is simply not profitable—or axed altogether. "It's wonderful that you can basically play at any length, and there's not this sense of having to gravitate towards three kinds of conventional sizes," the author added.
But Sloan bristles at the suggestion that his work's obsession with the digital present poses a death knell for the paper-and-ink book.
"It's not like 'Print versus Digital, only one will survive,'" he insisted. "We live in a hybrid world now, and I think the near-term future is also hybrid."
"If there are two sides out there," he added, "it's not the print faction and the digital faction—it's the reader faction and the non-reader faction. [And] people who read a lot read a lot in every format. They're voracious."
Top photo by Helena Price for Picador.