Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Today I'm looking at a book I stumbled across at the library but is actually fairly mundane when you get to the end of the story. Overall I think I was rather disappointed with this book and I'm going to try to explain why in my review. This isn't to say that the book wasn't interesting and it had some good themes, but I think that Sloan didn't capitalize on them as much as he could have.

The book follows Clay, a twenty-something graphic web designer who was working for a bagel company in San Francisco before getting laid off by the Great Recession. Desperately seeking some sort of job just so he can pay rent, Clay takes a job as the night clerk at Mr. Penumbra's bookstore, working from ten pm to six am. However, Penumbra's store is rather odd, even for an independent bookstore. There is only a small selection towards the front of the store and it's eclectic at best. A smattering of science-fiction, fantasy, history, romance, and other subjects are available but Penumbra doesn't seem terribly concerned with making his bookstore profitable. The majority of the bookstore is taken up by shelves upon shelves of mysterious books Clay has never seen before. Furthermore none of these books are ever sold. Instead strange individuals come in, a book in hand, and exchange it for another from the mysterious shelves. When Clay finally investigates these books they all appear to be written in gibberish, suggesting something more serious is going on at Penumbra's store.

I was disappointed with this book for a couple of reasons. First, the book has a definite old tech vs new tech theme and I'm not sure Sloan really knows what side of the argument he was trying to come in on. As Clay gets more involved he discovers that there is conflict in the secret society of cryptographers. On the one hand there are the traditionalists who eschew any ''modern'' technology and advocate using only books, pen, and paper. On the other hand are members more willing to incorporate new technology in their quest and believe that computers may be able to break codes that they've been unable to solve for centuries. Plus there's the fact that Clay, a web designer and programmer of some ability, is working in a store that sells physical books. It seems like the book is almost designed for an old tech vs new tech conflict.

The problem is I feel like Sloan introduces this, but doesn't capitalize on it as much as he could. The strongest advocates of old tech are the antagonists in this book, who want to keep information locked up and sealed away, rather than shared with the whole population. While the protagonists, who want to share information with the world, are advocates of new technology. Computers, e-readers, algorithms. Heck, one of them works for Google for crying out loud. (And in my opinion Sloan practically cheerleads for Google through the book, depicting it as a magical place where anything is possible and brilliant people get to work on the most interesting things all the time. I'm not saying that's impossible, but I'm sure the truth is far more complicated than Sloan paints it.)

And the weirdest thing is it's actually old tech that ends up winning the day. Google and their mighty army of computers are unable to break the cipher which has frustrated an army of cryptographers for centuries. But when it comes to finally solving the code, Clay doesn't have to do anything fancy. He uses a combination of a cryptic hint from someone who broke the code before, and some really low tech to finally break the code and reveal it to the world. And this is where I start to think that Sloan doesn't know a lot about cryptography. Because at the end of the book part of the big reveal is that the secret everyone's been trying to solve has been hidden with a simple substitution cipher all this time.

Let me take a moment to talk a little bit about cryptography. I actually had to go to some friends because I know basically nothing about cryptography and I actually am very bad at pattern recognition so solving puzzles is not exactly my forte. But here's what I was able to glean. First, a substitution is a code so basic it's not even really a code anymore. Every letter is substituted for another within the alphabet. So A might be replaced with N. These codes are very simple to make, but they're also incredibly easy to break as well, this is because certain letters show up with different frequencies in the English language. And the longer the message, the more data you get on which substitutions seem the most common.

If you're given a five letter word in a substitution cipher, such as ALZCU, it's basically impossible to crack. This is because there are a large number of five letter words with no repeating letters it could be. The word could be bagel, stock, plain, phone, nymph, hover, barge, rocky, boxed, or any other number of words that fit the pattern. With no more data, we have no way of verifying whether our guess is correct. But as more letters are added, it becomes much easier to crack a substitution cipher and the longer the message the easier it becomes. Once you get to a manuscript, which is what they're trying to decode in the book, I was told it'd be ridiculously easy to crack a substitution cipher.

There's a scene in the book where Clay, with the help of his girlfriend Kat, who works at Google, manages to get the entire manuscript they're trying to decode digitized and gives it to a bunch of Google programmers to crack. And yet Google, with all their mighty technology, fails at trying to crack this Renaissance era code. Granted, they'd have to be told it was a substitution cipher in the first place, but I'd assume that would be one of the first things anyone would try considering the age of the material. With a simple substitution cipher, any reasonably modern computer should have cracked it so quickly as to be instantaneous. Heck, one of my friends said he could break a substitution cipher with just a graphing calculator. Or if he had to, by hand given enough scrap paper.

All of this makes absolutely no sense considering a dedicated group of cryptographers have been trying for centuries to break this code and have presumably dozens if not hundreds of pages of text to work from. Even with cryptographers you'd think they'd have the sense to try as many variations of substitution ciphers as they could and sooner or later they'd stumble on something.To have an entire society of cryptographers and the computing power of Google stumped by a simple substitution? It beggars the imagination.

There's also some super weird stuff which doesn't make me terribly comfortable with this book as well. A lot of it sounds like a hipster programmer's wildest fantasies come true. There's a lot of people with kale products, all the young protagonists rock-climb, everyone uses Apple computers, stuff like that. (Although it could just be a West Coast thing.) There's also a character who's a millionaire and he's a millionaire because he created the very best jiggle-physics program in the world. Like, literally, the book spends far more time than it should on detailing just how great this guy's program making boobs look realistic in videogames is. And then he goes and tries to get a textile museum to do an exhibit about women in sexy sweaters. I felt like Sloan was trying to make it funny, but it just comes across as really darn creepy.

The result is I was rather disappointed in this book. There was a great opportunity with new technology versus old technology and how maybe the new technology gets you there faster, but do you really understand what you've discovered? And also a theme of people who want to keep information restricted and controlled, versus people who want it to be free and accessible to everyone. But Sloan doesn't really capitalize on those themes in the book. The result is a rather bland mystery that seems to get basic ideas of cryptography wrong. Overall I don't think I'd recommend it.

- Kalpar

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