“Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her – feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it.
Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up. When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?” (Synopsis from the publisher)
I cannot tell you why Sourdough was compelling, apart from my natural propensity towards bread. (Seriously, give me any bread product, I will wolf it down and yes that did cause cravings when I was reading this book late at night with no sour dough in sight.) There is something undeniably charming and infectious about Robin Sloan’s writing style – it was also present in his previous novel Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and it’s present in bucket-loads in Sourdough – and his narrative voices are always so approachable and easy to slip into, reading many chapters before you’ve even realised it. Likewise, Sloan’s San Franciscan setting was reminiscent of his previous offering, and you could definitely get the sense that Lois and Clay’s stories could exist, side by side, in this weird but wonderful version of the Bay Area.
“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”
Ostensibly, we follow the first-person narrative of Lois Clary, a young software engineer who lives and works in San Francisco for a robotics and tech company. Among other programming tasks, the company tries, and fails, to get robots to crack eggs – a task I, as a human, find difficult to pull off, so I can’t exactly blame a robot for being incapable! Lois spends hours coding at work and then returns home, drained and shuts herself away from human interaction. She lives a mundane, regulated, and solitary life – she gets up, she goes to work, on her lunch break she chats to her coworkers (all of whom consume in lieu of actual food a nutritive gel called Slurry), she goes back to work, she goes home, she eats another dose of Slurry, she goes to sleep, lather, rinse, repeat.
“My great weakness: if a task was even mildly challenging, any sense of injustice drained away and I simply worked quietly until I was done.”
We don’t particularly see Lois socialise or even get a fully rounded sense of her as a character, until the turning point of the book – the sourdough. One fateful night she orders from a scribbled handwritten menu from Clement Street Soup and Sourdough and is delivered spicy soup and scrumptious sourdough to dip into it, and her life is changed. The takeaway is ran by brothers Beoreg and Chaiman and they bring her, what they call, “the food of the Mazg” for their “number one eater!”. When the brothers run into visa issues and have to leave America, they entrust her with their precious sourdough starter, or, you might say, their culture – yes, the comparison is drawn pretty blatantly. The innocuous starter culture becomes the (quite literal) catalyst for Lois life to change, from drone at a tech company, to renowned baker of sourdough, despite the fact she’d never baked anything before the Mazg brothers gift her their starter.
“The internet: always proving that you’re not quite as special as you suspected.”
There’s nothing explicitly profound or dramatic within Robin Sloan’s novel, and yet it felt it. Seemingly innocuous, Sourdough creeps in slowly and makes you feel for its characters, without even realising it – I found myself caring very deeply about the plight of the Mazg brothers as Beoreg emails their “number one eater” Lois from their new home in Berlin, and I was willing our protagonist Lois to take good care of the sourdough as soon as it was handed over to her and she became in charge of its periodic feeding-times using a flour and water mix to help it ferment. Side characters from the food market such as book-loving Horace and Jaina Mitra, a scientist who studies the molecular level of food, might not be as fleshed out as our protagonist Lois but this is all part of the charm of Sourdough – they truly do seem like characters in her life, complete with big personalities and easy identifiers (just as the Lois Club boasts Compaq Lois and Old Lois), and they aren’t necessarily developed or complex, but they don’t need to be because, in a weird way, this intangibility adds to the slightly off-kilter, mystical ‘not quite realism, not quite magical realism’ feel to the entire novel. Truly, is this the real life or is this just fantasy?
“Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed. I mean, really: chewed and digested. Thus, the problem was ongoing. Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.”
The book is allegedly about sourdough… but, obviously, obviously, is about so much more than that. It raises issues about culture, about how we continue to “feed it” and keep it alive and disseminate it to ensure it doesn’t die out. It raises questions about our attitudes to food – illustrated through the use of nutritive gel and a chemically-created foodstuff called Lembas (yes, lembas, like it’s straight out of Lord of the Rings) whose primary function is to provide all the nutrients our body needs in a solid, easy-to-eat block, so we don’t have to “waste” time cooking or consuming food to fuel our bodies. It outlines debates about what it means to be “interesting” or lead an “interesting life”, about what it means to have value or worth in your everyday existence. It questions whether (and how) technologies and start-ups have integrated into all aspects of society, including more traditional areas such as baking. It interrogates how connections are made in life, through workplaces and/or shared interests or, simply, a shared name in the case of the Lois Club. And all this starts through a seemingly innocent crock pot full of symbiotic lactobacilli and yeast- you really do have to read Sourdough to believe it, and to understand why it is just so damn charming.
“There had to be a scale somewhere—the scale of stars, the scale of far-off cosmic super-beings—upon which we ourselves, we humans with our cities and bridges and subterranean markets, would look like the lactobacilli and the yeast.”