Sourdough by Robin Sloan

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Lois Clary, the protagonist in Robin Sloan’s second book after the bestselling debut Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is a female nerd working as a programmer in San Francisco. She writes code to control robotic arms at tech startup General Dexterity and, like her male colleagues, puts in long hours.

Also like her co-workers, she has replaced many of her meals with a nutritional gel called Slurry that’s easy to consume while working but leaves her with a gnawing pain in her stomach. It turns out that programming robots to replace humans requires a lot of work and that’s all she does, leaving no time for herself or friends.

One day she comes home from work to find a take-out flier for a new soup restaurant stuck to her apartment door. The spicy soup and crusty sourdough bread soon clear up her stomach problems. “That bread was the secret of the whole operation,” she says. “That bread was life.” She starts ordering from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough every night and learns the names of restaurant owners Beoreg and Chaiman. In reality there is no restaurant, just a to-go service run from the brothers’ small kitchen. Then, just as suddenly as they came into her life, the immigrant brothers are forced to close up shop and leave the country when their visas expire. Before they go, they leave Lois, their “number one eater,” with a crock of bread dough–the starter for their delicious sourdough–and a CD of melodies from Mazg, their fictional homeland. They ask her to keep the starter alive by feeding it, playing music to it and making bread from it.

Lois really loves the bread so she steps up to the challenge. With the help of the Internet and a vintage cookbook, The Soul of Sourdough, she teaches herself the art of baking sourdough bread. Her starter never behaves like the starter in the book, but after several disasters she learns to work with it and she soon develops a passion for the work. The starter seems to be a bit magical, at times emitting flashing disco lights and sounds that resemble Mazg music from the CD. Loaves created from the starter come out of the oven with what seem like human faces displayed on their crusty surfaces. The bread Lois bakes is very good, so good that she stops her Slurry subscription and starts supplying the General Dexterity cafeteria with fresh loaves daily. Her sourdough helps her meet neighbors, make new friends and attract the attention of Charlotte Clingstone, owner of the famed Café Candide, a thinly disguised version of real-life Alice Waters and her Café Panisse.
Although Lois loves the adventure she’s having with her baking, she’s not ready to walk away from her life in tech. She comes up with a way to marry her two skills, coding and baking, by programming one of General Dexterity’s robotic arms to knead her sourdough bread. This unique use of technology and the influence of Clingstone gets her an invitation to be part of Marrow Fair, an underground gastronomical enterprise that’s attempting to disrupt local food culture. Located on an abandoned naval base across the bay in Alameda, the Marrow Fair is part utopian farmer’s market and part weird science experiment.

The story picks up momentum after Lois sets up her baking booth at Marrow Fair. She finds herself among food scientists who are discovering new types of food. There are cookies made from cricket flour, cheese made from microbes and a microbiologist working on a new super food. Lois gets into the act and begins to spend more time studying her mysterious starter. Then it starts to exhibit strange behavior, forming faces with frightening expressions on the loaves. She gets in touch with Beoreg through email and learns about the island his people once called home and how they came to be scattered across Europe. In the end, the truth about the starter is inextricably tied to the fate of Mazg culture.

Sourdough is a modern fairy tale and an easy read, although you may find yourself craving some crusty bread at various points in the story. Author Sloan describes just enough of the technical aspects of coding and baking to help us understand what’s going on without getting bogged down in detail. There are touches of magic and science fiction, but the story is grounded by its attitude towards technology and automation. Sloan uses parody and gentle satire to comment on the different ways that technology separates us from the real world. There’s lots of fun along the way but underneath is a serious commentary about the simple joy that comes from working with your hands and the way delicious food sustains human culture as much as it sustains life. ■