Monday, January 19, 2015

Immortality Reinterpreted

Blurb stated "a gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life - mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore". OKAY. Done. My kind of book. It's one of those books that I want to read, but don't want to buy a hard copy and I didn't bother asking to borrow it. When @gimmeamuffin tweeted about it, I was reminded to grab an easily available e-copy- Robin Sloan's first novel, a loosely-defined fantasy titled 'Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore'. (Reviews here, here and here.)

'Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore' is set in present-day start-up tech world of Bay Area where everyone codes, protagonist Clay Jannon is...a web designer fallen on hard times, of course, and found a gig at Mr Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore . He began suspecting that it was a front for something sinister, something to do with a strange book club, later revealed to be called 'Unbroken Spine', of a group of people who have been trying to decipher messages in books for generations via pen and paper. Of this greatest question in life- "How do you live forever?" The idea of a Codex Vitae. Clearly, this is a charming but ridiculous process when these books could be scanned and let the computers take a crack at it for patterns and whatever-else. So here we go, digital age versus physical representations, etc. Grinned. The irony is not lost. I read this in digital format.

Lately, even the Waybacklist borrowers seem to be missing. Have they been seduced by some other book club on the other side of town? Have they all bought Kindles? 
I have one, and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, Traitor! - but come on, I have a lot of free first chapters to get through. My Kindle is a hand-me-down from my dad, one of the original models, a slanted, asymmetrical plate with a tiny gray screen and a bed of angled keys. It looks like a prop from 2001 : A Space Odyssey. There are newer Kindles with bigger screens and subtler industrial design, but this one is like Penumbra's postcards: so uncool it's cool again.

Clearly stepping into the genre of contemporary fantasy, I was jolted out of the couch and set to googling "Gerritszoon typeface" because it was not a font I've seen in the dropdown bars of laptops or at the printers or the letterpress machines, or the few typography classes taken. LOL. However, the reference to 15th century typographer and editor Aldus Manutius is valid. He worked with assistant and punchcutter Francesco Griffo. Griffo was noted for his italic type. So the book's Griffo Gerritszoon doesn't exist. Eh, this is fiction after all. At the beginning, I almost thought the fantasy series 'The Dragon-Song Chronicles' which Clay Jannon and his childhood bff Neel Shah obsessed over was real.  Chehhh. But what a good story this is. Very enjoyable.

Immediately after, I thumbed through the author's later Kindle single, but a prequel, if you will, 'Ajax Penumbra 1969', which kinda explains how a young Mr Penumbra came be a member of this 24-hour bookstore in the same city of San Francisco in 1969, and eventually a bound member of Unbroken Spine. Interesting enough, but not as cool as the book where they cracked the code.

"They did this because the tomb was empty. When Aldus Manutius died, no body remained." 
So Penumbra's cult has a messiah. 
"He left behind a book he called CODEX VITAE - book of life. The book was encrypted, and Manutius have the key to only one person: his great friend and partner, Griffo Gerritszoon." 
Amendment: his cult has a messiah and a first disciple. But at least the disciple is a designer. That's cool. And codex vitae ... I've heard that before. But Rosemary Lapin said the books on the Waybacklist were codex vitae. I'm confused - ..... 
"We believe that when this secret is finally unlocked, every member of the Unbroken Spine who ever lived ... will live again." 
A messiah, a first disciple, and a rapture. Check, check and double-check. Penumbra is right now, teetering right on the boundary between charmingly weird old guy and disturbingly weird old guy. 

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