Publisher – Atlantic Books
Published – Out Now
Price - £3.79 kindle ebook
Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouth-watering sourdough bread. Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.
Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show. When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people exactly?
I was reminded this weekend that we all believe in food. Food is important to us as both as a ritual and a fuel. A lot of our day revolves about it and everyone has a view on it. In this story Robin Sloan looks our the 21st century view on food and uses it to look at our ever-increasing love of technology, battle for capitalism and obsession. It is an incredibly tasty mixture.
The story focuses on Lois a young hard-working programmer who has moved out to San Francisco to work for one of the world’s up and coming tech firms. She works, and she sleeps, and she works. Life is ordered, her teammates are persuading her to move into a liquid nutrient diet perfectly designed for a well-balanced working life. Her kitchen is empty and she has become a creature of routine. But as with all things a takeaway service can always make a difference (mmm pizza) . In this case however, spicy soup and a piece of sourdough delivered every day from her Mediterranean delivery man gives her a moment away from it all. Sadly, the American government cracks down on the staff’s lack of green card and a restaurant closure beckons but noting her daily routine the restaurant gives their best customer the recipe for the sourdough bread handed down the generations and most importantly the ‘starter’; a micro-organism culture that the dough is mixed with to make it rise. Suddenly Lois finds a new talent and potentially a new calling as a baker.
I thought I knew the type of book I was getting when I started this book as the standard Generation/Y/Z tale of people discovering there is more to life than a computer and a desk through the power of a non-technical life aka dough. But while it does skewer the culture of people only living to work its also has a satirical glance at those who have gone to the other extreme. The multi-million-dollar world of artisan cooking where Lois finds herself fighting to get into precious baking markets – while the goods may be more natural the business can be as mercenary and hard-going as the tech world (just with more flour). Lois must learn about pitches and is sucked into a world where you must spend hours before and after work just baking and baking.
The fantasy element of the novel (I bet you wondered why this has grabbed me!) is in how the starter culture Lois turns out to be a bit demanding. It needs the music of the Mazg homeland played through headphones and if you don’t pay it attention the bread will suffer. As Lois gets sucked into the secret world of hi-tech food where meat is grown, vegetables are genetically modified and insect food protein is heralded as the next best thing then Lois must merge her robotic skills and her new baking into a new thrilling concept. Lois finds that she is being increasingly targeted by the rich and powerful to support their own plans. The starter though sees this as an opportunity to spread its own influence…
It’s a very inventive story and Sloane has a way of creating a very extreme situation that is both funny and making some pointed comments on obsession and the desire to win in business at all costs. Lois is the classic character looking to find where they fit in and trying to work out why she thinks something in her life is missing. Is food a power source, a hobby or a new income stream that can change your life? I can’t really say much more about the plot as the surprises as to why this starter acts the way it does is part of the fun, but the story’s logic is internally sound and really comes together in a very memorable conclusion. his was a pleasant surprise of a read giving me a setting and a story I found made me look at the world of food and business with a slightly more raised eyebrow and a reminder that everyone wants to fit in somewhere. Well worth a look but you may find yourself with a bread craving afterwards.