Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

Cover of Sourdough by Robin Sloan Apparently the sourdough bread in San Francisco is unique in the world; it not only has a reputation for being unusually good, with a strangely tangy flavour, the starter in San Francisco sourdough has its own strain of bacteria not found anywhere else. This sounds so much like bullshit that it’s a perfect metaphor for how San Francisco sees itself; the fact that it’s true almost ruins it.

I liked Sourdough almost as much as I liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore1, which makes sense, because the two books have a lot in common. Sloan’s writing in both is clean and direct; personable, even. He’s not in any danger of developing a reputation as a stylist, but he gets balance and rhythm, knows when and how to be funny, knows when to stop. That’s harder to get right than many imagine; I can direct to you to some books if you want to see what it looks like when somebody fucks it up. Getting it almost right is almost worse than getting it completely wrong, but Sloan’s work is solid.

Thematically, both Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra are about reconciliation. Specifically, they’re both about reconciling tradition and progress. I say progress and not technology or the future, because these novels strongly imply that Sloan isn’t just a technological optimist, he’s a true believer in the promise of Silicon Valley. I don’t mean to imply that he’s one of those assholes who thinks the solution to homelessness is a bunch of free laptops and a few coding workshops; far from it. But his critiques of Google in Mr. Penumbra, to the extent that he offered any at all, were frustratingly gentle, and he is, if anything, even gentler in Sourdough.

A quick rundown of the plot:2 Lois Clary programs robot arms for a living, but after she is unexpectedly gifted a very special sourdough starter by a pair of ethnically ambiguous brothers, Lois becomes a semi-professional baker. She is recruited to a kind of underground farmer’s market where all the food on offer is in some way connected to the cutting edge of culinary technology. Lois starts baking her bread with the help of a robot arm. As Lois tries to expand her output she has to reconcile her modern techniques with the knowledge and respect embedded in traditional methods. A couple of people with less respect for tradition than Lois fuck things up for everybody, and a staunch traditionalist is revealed to be moving behind the scenes, indulging in her desire to break things and see what happens. In the end Lois throws away the special starter in favour of making her own, packs up her robot arm and runs off with it to Europe chasing after one of the ethnically ambiguous brothers, and the two will find a way to keep in touch with with the past while making things new again.

When Lois is first looking to expand her bread-making operation, she asks her neighbour Cornelia to drive her to the store so she can buy the materials necessary to build her own wood-fired oven. Sloan’s gentle handling of Google in Mr. Penumbra made me twitch a little, and this was the moment in Sourdough that made me realize that I was going to be twitching again. Here’s how Sloan describes Cornelia:

Cornelia was a highly strategic pawn in the on-demand delivery marketplace. Most hours of most days, she lounged at home in her sweatpants. But she was at all times monitoring the apps, and at the moments when demand burned blue-hot—Friday nights, often, but also random Tuesdays when the fog was at its thickest, suggesting to people that they ought to stay home and ponder their lives over delivered Burmese food—Cornelia would spring into action and earn a thousand dollars in a tire-screeching rally worthy of Bullitt. When it rained, she paid her rent in a day.

So, there are a bunch of things to unpack here. The obvious place to start is with Cornelia’s income; saying that she can pay her rent in a day in a place like San Francisco working for apps like Uber Eats or Foodora is the sort of promise you get from Uber’s marketing materials but that has been shown to be largely bullshit by folks like Tom Slee, Adam Greenfield, and Alison Griswold. If nothing else, the communities where these services have become most popular are also the communities where the companies squeeze workers the hardest, in the literal words of one Uber executive, simply because they can. On top of that are the obvious class implications; I’m known to be a bit of an asshole3 on social media when it comes to people talking about the weather, because I believe that the way in which we experience and get to talk about weather is closely linked to class. The people who get to complain about the weather being fit for neither man nor beast in a place with a relatively mild climate are usually the same people that fly into a fucking rage if the minimum wage worker who sells them cigarettes at the corner bodega or delivers their Burmese takeout doesn’t trek in from the next town over4 in the middle of a blizzard and make with the “yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir” with a righteous quickness. I see this in Toronto, and if you don’t think it happens in a place like San Francisco, you’re out of your goddamn mind. In this world, Cornelia is a “strategic pawn,” but her customers get to be people. This is how we get things like Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, a book explicitly about ending class discrimination that somehow manages to forget that poor people exist. I first encountered Sloan’s writing on Snarkmarket, and have long been a fan, and it pains me that his fiction feels so… uncritical. No, not even uncritical. Oblivious.

It also bothered me quite a bit that Lois never thought to ask Beoreg if she could actually use his Mazg culture.5 It didn’t seem to have occurred to Sloan either, which isn’t exactly inconsistent with Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian ethos. There’s a reason Tom Slee called his book What’s Yours is Mine; from the outside it looks very much like a culture that doesn’t feel like it needs to ask permission to take anything from anyone as long as they present themselves as having good intentions, and virtually none of the characters in Sourdough behave in a way that feels contrary to that. It baffles me that a book so full of optimism and wonder can still make San Francisco look like the worst place on earth. I was two-thirds of the way through the book before I realized Beoreg knew how Lois was using the starter; I’d been on the edge of my seat for a hundred pages waiting for him to find out and lose his shit.

No book about food in San Francisco’s startup culture would be complete without a reference to Soylent. In the world of Sourdough it’s called Slurry, and this is the place where most of Sloan’s gentle brand of criticism shows up. The devotees of Slurry are busy people who believe deeply that they are solving the world’s problems by developing products that slowly bleed away many of the things that add meaning to people’s lives. They, like Slurry’s creator, see cooking as “scroung[ing] around in the kitchen,” an unnecessary burden they could be putting behind them, something they have no choice but to do when they could be productive instead.6 Dr. Klamath, the creator of Slurry, struck me as much more benign than his real-world counterpart, whose product I once described as a display of “complete and utter contempt for the human experience, a rejection as unnecessary and wasteful a set of cultural touchstones and rituals in which many, even most people find deep meaning and community.”

I’m probably giving readers the impression that I didn’t like Sourdough, but that isn’t true. I found Lois to be great fun to read about, and Sloan’s deep-dive into food culture, and into sourdough bread in particular, to be utterly fascinating. I couldn’t put the book down, and considered myself lucky when I got caught in an extended wait at the doctor’s office because it gave me an extra hour of reading time. It’s a hell of a fun story, the cast is likeable, and Sloan truly is an engaging writer. The reason these other issues bother me so much isn’t because I think there’s no grounds for optimism,7 it’s because for most of my life I’ve been the person these optimists leave behind, the one who gets euphemistically included in the “unfortunate growing pains” that come from Silicon Valley trying to find problems to pair with their solutions. Today I’m doing pretty well, but for most of my life I’ve been one of the people startup culture very explicitly isn’t for. I don’t get to participate in the optimism because I’m the guy who winds up in Cornelia’s position, and we know that in real life she’s not paying her rent in a day, she’s working sixteen hours a day, six or even seven days a week, just to keep from having her car repossessed. It’s not escapism for me, it’s the thing I’ve been working my whole life to escape from.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

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