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Onyx reviews: Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/16/2017

It's hard to imagine how someone could write a fascinating novel focused on breadmaking, but Robin Sloan, author of the delightful Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, has pulled off such a feat. It's impossible to read this novel without the alluring aroma of baking sourdough permeating a reader's nostrils.

Protagonist Lois Clary writes control code for a San Francisco tech firm called General Dexterity, whose primary goal is to create robots to replace people in repetitive jobs. The holy grail of her division is to create an algorithm that will allow a robot to successfully crack an egg and deposit its contents into a mixing bowl. The overall concept is called "proprioception," which relates to an entity's awareness of the position of its components and its relationship to its surroundings.

Her life revolves around work, even though she doesn't really like it, and she has virtually no home life or friends. Her closest connection outside of work is with the brothers who run the restaurant where she orders the same delivered meal: a spicy soup and the associated slab of bread that she finds nurturing. It's definitely better for her well-being than the nutritive slurry her co-workers consume.

When the brothers—members of a Rom-like tribe called the Mazg—are deported, Lois falls heir to an aliquot of their mystical sourdough starter, along with instructions on how to care for it. When treated properly (including exposure to a CD of Mazg music), the starter flourishes and more: it has an intriguing aroma, exhibits mild bioluminescence and seems to sing. The resulting golden loaves seem to have smiling faces.

Lois's focus shifts and she becomes an expert in baking sourdough, going so far as to construct an illegal bread oven in the back yard at her apartment complex. She introduces the bread to her coworkers and they clamor for it so loudly that she finds herself with a side gig producing bread for the commissary. 

Breadmaking takes over her life: baking enough to satisfy daily demand is a major commitment. And the starter, too, is demanding and capricious. Her amateur gig leads her to an audition at a local farmer's market where only the crème de la crème of San Francisco's active counter-culture cooking community get to display their wares. The venue where she finally gains a stall features some decidedly experimental fare (Chernobyl honey, microbiotic lembas), and her smiling loaves of bread definitely fit in. She finds a way to wed her previous robotics experience with her new vocation, and it is the technological aspect of her work that intrigues her financial supporters rather than the magical starter.

The novel is interwoven with emails from the Mazg brothers, who answer Lois's questions about the starter and their mystical history. The starter is a culture and so are the Mazg, and the novel gently explores the notion of cultural appropriation, albeit in a fairy-tale style that includes an origin story that almost defies summation. Technology and culinary arts collide in a hilarious explosion in one of the most imaginative novels in recent memory.

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