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Light, quirky and suitably tasty – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Robin Sloan’s Sourdough

Published in the Witness

SourdoughRobin Sloan’s previous novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which I haven’t read, did very well, receiving positive reviews and being hailed as cool and hip, adjectives that are likely to be heaped on Sourdough as well.

The central character, Lois, is an ultimately nerdy software engineer, coding whatever is needed to make robotic arms do all kinds of repetitive things and thus free up newly obsolete human workers for something else, unspecified. The arms do have their limitations – they can’t be programmed to crack and separate an egg.

Lois lives in a desolate apartment, and does pretty well nothing except go to work where the canteen feeds the staff on Slurry, a nutritionally perfect food that comes in the form of a greyish gloop.

Then one day, she finds a flyer for a takeaway outlet and begins to order their soup and bread.

It is run by two strange brothers, reclusive and somehow foreign, belonging to a culture known as Mazg. When they relocate from Silicon Valley to Edinburgh, they leave their sourdough starter with Lois, with instructions to feed it and bake bread. And things start to happen, with Lois eventually running a bread stall in an alternative marked located in a decommissioned nuclear weapons storage facility, helped along by one of the robotic arms which she has finally taught to crack an egg.

The other stallholders are an eccentric lot, doing all kinds of weird things, and the brains behind it, Mr Marrow, is invisible, only to be seen on a screen in the guise of a talking fish.

It’s all quite lively and fun, though the stuff about robotics and coding left me far behind. Sloan is making a point here about technology and creativity, and whether they can ever mesh. And also looking at the issue of how an ever-expanding global population can, and should, be fed. Slurry or bread made from living cultures?

While these are interesting and important debates, some of Sloan’s treatment of them is a trifle heavy-handed. And the vague love story that is tacked on seems rather perfunctory. Still, as a light and quirky read, Sourdough is suitably tasty. – Margaret von Klemperer

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