Monday, February 12, 2018

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Reviewed by Kristin

Lois is not one to take risks.  She followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a software programmer specializing in motor control—a skill which stood out on her LinkedIn profile.  The biggest adventure in her life (thus far) has been moving from Michigan to San Francisco to take a job at General Dexterity, a firm specializing in the programming of robotic arms.  Lois works long hours, goes home, sleeps, and then back to work, work, always work.
Many of Lois’ co-workers subsist on Slurry, a nutritive gel that leaves much to be desired.  Slurry saves time: no shopping, no cooking, no cleaning, and all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.  Boring, sure.  But, efficient!  Lois joins the Slurry crowd in the General Dexterity cafeteria, but one evening she discovers something tantalizing on a paper menu stuck to her front door.

Clement Street Soup and Sourdough is delivery only, probably operating illegally from an apartment, but their Spicy Soup, Spicy Sandwich, and the Double Spicy combo all sound delicious.   Lois calls the number.  Twelve minutes later the food is delivered and Lois is hooked.  The food is not just delicious; it fulfills Lois, relaxing her stomach and delighting her mind.  The Spicy scours her body and mind clean, and the Soughdough calms her, giving her life.

Brothers Beoreg and Chaiman feed Lois for weeks.  But one night, Chaiman delivers bad news along with her Spicy and Sourdough: the brothers’ visas have expired and they are leaving the United States to return to Edinburgh.  They are not Scottish, exactly; they claim the culture of the Mazg, which has communities sprinkled all over Europe.  The brothers are soon on their way, but first they leave Lois with their most precious possession: the sourdough starter.

Lois has no idea how to bake bread, or even how to feed herself most days.  But Beoreg and Chaiman trust her, so she sets out to learn to bake the magic of the Mazg sourdough.  And it is indeed magic.  Lois experiments—feeding the living batch of micro-organisms more flour, mixing and kneading, and finally creating her own first loaf.  The sourdough seems to have its own personality, burbling and moving, almost singing, and has a very distinctive look as the finished bread comes out of the oven.

Soon Lois is obsessed, devoting more and more waking hours to the sourdough while still maintaining her job at General Dexterity.  Can she continue to balance both?  Can they be combined?  Could Lois’ sourdough actually be something larger than herself, something that could change the world?

Robin Sloan created a fantastic world with Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, his debut novel, reviewed here.   Returning with Sourdough, Sloan once again stretches the limits of imagination with characters that delightfully achieve what seems impossible.

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