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Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Published by MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Sept. 5, 2017

Sourdough is partly about connections that join the past, present and future. The novel explores food as a connecting force, in the form of cultural migration of foods and recipes that are handed down through generations. The novel suggests “food is history of the deepest kind,” a record of both tradition and evolution as tastes and mechanisms of production have changed from decade to decade, stretching back to "the dawn of hunger." Food also connects people and cultures in the present, at least for those who are gastronomically adventurous and open to the world.

The way we eat has also evolved (changes in packaging and the development of interstate highways created fast food in the 1950s) and that evolution continues as consumers embrace (for example) organic alternatives to processed foods. But evolution can bring about drastic change. Robin Sloan imagines a food product called Slurry that provides all of the body’s nutritional needs. It’s all anyone needs to eat and it’s so much healthier than potato chips. It can feed the world if people don’t mind eating goo, and it is inexpensive to produce. Feeding the world is undeniably a worthy goal, but nutrition without pleasure is a tough choice to make.

Sourdough’s central character, Lois Clary, is a programmer in a robotic industry who is on a mission to replace manual workers, but the demanding work ties her stomach in knots. Only a specific soup and sandwich combo from a delivery service can relax her, but the place operates illegally and is soon out of business. Luckily for Lois, however, the owners have dubbed her their “number one eater” and make a gift to her of their special starter for sourdough bread. It is, they say, a part of their culture (they are Mazg from some mysterious part of the world that Lois cannot identify). Unlike any other starter, this one carves a recognizable face into the crust of each loaf. The face depends on the music that is playing as the bread rises.

Lois lives in ultramodern San Francisco, doing an ultramodern high tech job, but her newfound ability to make sourdough, her “serendipity bread,” provides her with a connection to a task that countless people have performed for generations. She also finds a connection to the bread itself when she ponders the living organism that changes flour into bread. The story’s point might be that Lois, who as a programmer is working to make repetitive labor obsolete, finds greater satisfaction in the repetitive labor of baking bread.

Yet Sourdough does not reject the inevitability of change. The novel is also an appreciation of imaginative, science-based food. Lois joins a cross between a farmer’s market and a food fair that hosts people who take an experimental, edgy approach to food production. The chapter that describes “Lembas cakes manufactured whole by living organisms” and “algorithmically optimized bagels” and cookies made from bugs made me want to visit the place.

But the novel might also send the message that technology is no match for nature. I thoroughly enjoyed Sloan’s descriptions of the wars that bacteria fight, the extent to which they work together to defeat enemies and achieve common goals, and the ability of humans to benefit from those wars when they bake bread. The descriptions of bacteria engaged in a clash of civilizations might seem fanciful at first blush, but the novel opens up a microscopic world to the reader’s imagination in a way that rings true.

There are people who embrace the past and fear the future. There are people who embrace the future and reject the past. The ultimate point of Sourdough might be that the past and future coexist, that it is possible to embrace them both in the present. All by thinking about bread.

The novel’s plot is engaging, its characters are fittingly quirky, and its ending is endearingly whimsical. As a work of philosophy, food history, or just entertainment, I cannot find any fault in Sourdough.


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