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FONK and Robin Sloan's Sourdough

Hey @airjoshb, going to @robinsloan’s talk at Santa Cruz Bookshop on Tuesday?

"YES! see you there?", I tweeted back, leaving 121 empty characters that could have been used to admit that I had only just heard of Robin Sloan days before and the only thing I knew about him was that there were now two people, whom I have a geeky level of admiration for, that were alerting me to his book.

The 19 characters I did use (and my internal response of "of course, now I have to go") led me to the discovery of FONK (fear of not knowing), a close, but previously unknown, cousin of the dangerously addictive FOMO (fear of missing out). With a bit more research I discovered Sourdough sounded quintessentially San Francisco and right up my alley.

At the book store my friend made me realize I had already missed out by not reading Sloan's first book, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a cult-level piece of geek fiction. Sloan charmed the audience immediately with tales of how Sourdough came to be — stories of foodie intrigue he had dug up and how he trained a neural network to generate the music of the Mazg, a fictional ethnic minority from the book (also the name of a mysterious protein that is conserved by bacteria). When Sloan pulled out the custom stamp he had made to personalize the books with the latitude and longitude of the book talks, I was all in.

Despite my enthusiasm it would be several months before I heard Sourdough calling to me from the shelf — I picked the book up and dove into Sloan's San Francisco. Sourdough is the story of a young robotic arm programmer, transplanted to San Francisco from Michigan, who begins to spiral out from the pace of startup life. Through strange circumstances surrounding a pair of Mazg brothers, whom she had been ordering a mysterious #2 spicy soup and sandwiches from, she was gifted a crock of sourdough starter and a short lesson on how to care and bake with it.

Lois's journey with a living, microbial community sends her on a journey from engineer to the world of baking and San Francisco foodies. Having grown up in Alaska where the prized ferment had been brought from the Bay Area with the gold miners, I could identify with the obsessive nature of sourdough. The source, age and pedigree of starters in Alaska can cause fierce debate with only a few acceptable lineages. I confess, I have had some of these prized starters and am ashamed to say I have lost or killed more than one in my travels.

Sloan's writing reads like your favorite friend who tells the best stories, with depictions that are sort-of-like what could have really happened, but embellished with just enough magic to make even the most mundane situation (like feeding sourdough starter) feel fantastical. Sloan surrounds you with the languages of food and engineering to make you feel like you are in the know, sucking you in farther into his fiction. I suspect that a measurable percentage of Sourdough's readers immediately started googling "sourdough starter", "robot arm kits" or both.

The day after I finished the book I noticed on Twitter that my friend had just interviewed Sloan on her podcast. My FOMO and FONK went directly to envy. The interview is more of what I have already described about Robin Sloan, charismatic with thoughtful answers to interesting questions, like this final bit of advice for writers (which is really great advice for us all),

"There's a real power ... fuel that comes with the ruthlessness of giving yourself a really tiny project, starting it and finishing it and announcing it is done."

Elecia and Chris's conversation with Robin feels like being with old friends and that is the crux of my recommendation for Sourdough — definitely read the book, but be prepared to fall into the author's orbit and don't blame me if you start hanging on every tweet about his recent foray into small batch olive oil production and jump on the wizard.limo bandwagon.

Whether in person, on Twitter or on the page, Sloan has a unique ability to make you feel special, sprinkling details and clues like crumbs for you to follow. I don't think "San-Fi" is a real genre but it should be. The mystique, technology and endless sub-cultures of San Francisco blend into great fiction in the mind and words of a writer like Robin Sloan.


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