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Ajax Penumbra 1969
By Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Robin Sloan
All rights reserved.
A 24-Hour Bookstore
A visitor walks the city, searching. He has a list: libraries and bookstores, museums and archives. He descends into the bowels of the San Francisco Chronicle, follows a sullen clerk to the morgue's oldest files. There, the newsprint is brittle to the touch. He handles it carefully but confidently, his fingers trained for the task, but the Chronicle is too young. He does not find the name he is looking for.
The visitor canvasses Chinatown, learns to say Bookstore? in Cantonese: Shu diàn? He braves the haze of Haight Street, speaks to a long-haired man selling books on a blanket in Golden Gate Park. He crosses the bay to Cody's and Cal, ventures south to Kepler's and Stanford. He inquires at City Lights, but the man behind the register, whose name is Shig, shakes his head. "Never heard of him, man. Never heard of him." He sells the visitor a copy of Howl instead.
It is 1969, and San Francisco is under construction. The great central artery of Market Street is a trench. South of there, whole blocks have been knocked down and scraped clean; a fence is festooned with signs that proclaim it the YERBA BUENA GARDENS, though there is not a single plant or tree in evidence. To the north, the visitor passes a construction site where a wide ziggurat reaches for the sky and a placard promises THE FUTURE SITE OF THE TRANSAMERICA PYRAMIDabove a fine-lined rendering of a shining spear.
The visitor walks the city, disappointed. There is no place left to go; his list is folded and finished. He hikes to the Golden Gate Bridge, because he knows his parents will ask him about it. A quarter of the way across, he turns back. He expected a view of the city, but the bay is filled with fog, and his short-sleeved shirt is flapping in the frigid wind.
The visitor walks back to his hotel, going slowly, wallowing in his failure. In the morning, he will buy a train ticket home. He walks along the water for a while, then cuts into the city. He follows the border between North Beach and Chinatown, and there, wedged between an Italian restaurant and a Chinese pharmacy, he finds a bookstore.
Inside the restaurant, the chairs are all turned up on red-checked tablecloths. The pharmacy stands shadowed, doors drawn tight with dark loops of chain. The whole street is sleeping; it is nearly midnight. The bookstore, though, is wide awake.
He hears it before he sees it: the murmur of conversation, the tinny swirl of a song. The sound swells as the bookstore's door swings open and bodies tumble out into the street. The bodies are young, trailing long hair and loose fabric. The visitor hears the flick of a lighter, sees a leaping spark. The bodies pass something around, sighing and exhaling long plumes that merge with the fog. The visitor hangs back, watching. They pass the something around again, then fling it out into the street and go back inside.
He draws closer. The front of the store is all windows, top to bottom, square panes set into a grid of iron, entirely fogged over. Inside, it looks like a party in progress. He sees faces and hands, dark mops of hair, all made Impressionistic by the foggy glass. The song is one he has heard elsewhere in the city; something popular.
He pushes the door and a wave of yeasty warmth washes over him. Somewhere above, a bell tinkles brightly, announcing him, but no one notices. He cannot get the door entirely open; it bumps up against someone's back, someone's loose jacket covered with a constellation of patches. The visitor squeezes in sideways, muttering a quiet apology, but the jacket-wearer doesn't notice; he is engrossed in conversation with a woman clutching a portable radio, the source of the swirling song.
The bookstore is tiny: tall and narrow. From his position near the corner, the visitor surveys the space and decides that there are fewer customers here than at City Lights, probably less than two dozen—it's just that they are all squashed into a fraction of the floor space.
The small-but-concentrated crowd wraps itself around several low tables, each sprouting a small handwritten sign, like POETRY and SCIENCE FICTION and AS SEEN IN THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG. Some in the crowd are browsing the books; two bushy-bearded men pick at the CINEMA table, arguing and gesticulating. Others are reading outright; a woman in a green dress stands in place, mesmerized by a Fantastic Four comic book. Mostly, though, the crowd is paying attention to itself: talking, nodding, laughing, flirting, lifting hair from eyes, tucking it back behind ears. Everyone has long hair, and the visitor feels suddenly self-conscious about his number 3 buzz.
He snakes his way through the crowd, heading for the cash register, trying not to touch anyone. Hygiene levels range widely. Voices echo on the bare floorboards, and he picks up scraps of conversation:
"... a trip, you know ..."
"... up in Marin ..."
"... at the Led Zep ..."
"... like, dog food ..."
There is more to the bookstore. Beyond the low tables, dominating the back half of the store, there are shelves that stretch taller and disappear into the darkness above. Ladders extend perilously up into the gloom. The heavy denizens of those shelves look altogether more serious than the books up front, and the crowd seems to leave them alone—although it is possible, the visitor supposes, that some furtive activity is taking place in the deepest shadows.
He feels profoundly uncomfortable. He wants to turn around and leave. But ... this is a bookstore. It might hold some clue.
When the visitor reaches the cash register, he finds the clerk arguing with a customer. The figures contrast sharply: two different decades facing off across a wide, heavy desk. The customer is a bendy twig of a man with stringy hair tied into a ponytail; the clerk is a sturdy plank with thick arms that stretch the wales of his sweater. He has a neat mustache under dark hair slicked back from his brow; he looks less like a bookstore clerk and more like a sailor.
"The restroom is for customers," the clerk insists.
"I bought a book last week, man," the customer protests.
"Is that so? I have no doubt that you read a book last week—oh, I saw you doing it—but as for purchasing ..." The clerk hauls out a fat leather-bound tome, flips deftly through its pages. "No, I'm afraid I don't see anything here.... What's your name again?"
The customer smiles beatifically. "Coyote."
"Coyote, of course.... No, I don't see any Coyote here. I see a Starchild ... a Frodo ... but no Coyote."
"Starchild, yeah! That's my last name. Come on, man. I gotta take a whiz." The customer—Coyote ... Starchild?—bounces on his heels.
The clerk clenches his jaw. He produces a skeleton key with a long gray tassel. "Be quick about it." The customer snatches the key and disappears between the tall shelves; as he goes, two others fall into step alongside him.
"No loitering!" the clerk calls after them. "No ..." He sighs, then snaps his head around to face the visitor. "Well? What?"
"Ah. Hello." The visitor smiles. "I am looking for a book."
The clerk pauses. Recalibrates. "Really?" His jaw seems to unclench.
"Yes. Or rather, I mean that I am looking for a particular book."
"Marcus!" a voice calls out. The clerk's gaze lifts. The woman with the portable radio is hoisting a book up above the crowd, jabbing a finger at its cover: Naked Came the Stranger. "Mar-cus! You been reading this while nobody's around, right?"
The clerk frowns, and does not favor her with a reply, but bounces a fist on the surface of the desk and mutters, to no one in particular, "I don't know why he would stock anything so tawdry...."
"A particular book," the visitor prods gently.
The clerk's gaze snaps back. He presses his mouth into a tight line; something well short of a smile. "Of course. What's the title?"
The visitor says it slowly, enunciating clearly: "The Techne Tycheon. That's T-E-C-H—"
"Yes, techne, I know. And with tycheon ... that would be 'the craft of fortune,' correct?"
"Exactly so!" the visitor exclaims.
"Mar-cus!" the woman's voice calls again. This time, the clerk ignores her entirely.
"Contrary to however it might appear," he says flatly, "this is a place of scholarly inquiry." He retrieves an oblong book, wider than it is tall. "I don't recognize that title, but let me double-check." He flips through the pages, revealing a gridded ledger—a kind of catalog. "Nothing under T ... What's the author's name?"
The visitor shakes his head. "It is a very old volume. I only have the title. But I know it was here, in San Francisco, at a bookstore managed by a certain ... Well, it is a somewhat complicated story."
The clerk's eyes narrow, not with suspicion, but with deep interest. He sets the catalog aside. "Tell me."
"It is—ah." The visitor turns, expecting to see customers queuing behind him; there is no one. He turns back to the clerk. "It will take some time."
"It's a twenty-four-hour bookstore," the clerk says. He smiles almost ruefully. "We've got nothing but time."
"I should start at the beginning."
"You should start with the basics." The clerk settles back on his stool, crosses his arms. "What's your name, friend?"
"Oh. Yes, of course. My name is Ajax Penumbra."CHAPTER 2
How do you get a name like Ajax Penumbra? Like this: You are conceived by Pablo and Maria Penumbra, who flee Spain only months before a great civil war erupts. Your father carries a trunk full of books; your mother carries you.
You are born in England. From Maria, a schoolteacher, you get your barking laugh, your jangling grin. From Pablo, a perpetually struggling poet, you get your height and your name, like the Greek hero. In disposition, it turns out that you are perhaps more like Ajax's rival Odysseus, and of course your father considered that name, too, but Maria exercised her veto power. A boy named Odysseus Penumbra, she said, would not survive the seventh grade.
You spend your early years in transit: from England to Canada to America. Specifically, to Galesburg, Illinois, where Maria takes a post at a high school, and where she rises, in time, to the rank of principal. Pablo founds a literary journal titled Migraciones. It accumulates, over the whole course of your childhood, a total of seventy-three subscribers.
Your parents are weirdos, in the best possible way. They do not celebrate birthdays; never in your life have you received a present on the tenth of December. Instead, you are given books on the days that their authors were born. It will be January 27, and a package will be waiting at the foot of the stairs, wrapped in bright paper. The note: "To my darling boy, on the occasion of Lewis Carroll's 93rd birthday." Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
AJAX PENUMBRA. At tiny Galvanic College, known as the Harvard of Northwestern Illinois, your student ID bears your name in monospaced caps and, alongside it, your mug shot, showing a creature made entirely of neck, ears, and teeth. Your big goofy grin. Looking at it, you wish you had restrained yourself. Tried to look more serious.
Standing before you and all the rest of the incoming freshmen, Galvanic's president proudly declares that your dorm room assignments are, for the first time, the result of a computerizedprocess. At first, it appears that the computer has made a grievous error. Your roommate, Claude Novak, is a fast-talking Chicagoan; you are a small-town introvert. He is short and intense; you are tall and reserved. He smokes; you skulk. Claude seems out of place at this college set amidst cornfields; you fit right in with the pale stalks.
But as you unpack on that first day, the computer's logic is revealed: both of you have loaded your trunks primarily with books, relegating nice-to-haves like pants and shoes to the crevices between volumes. On that first day, you stand shoulder to shoulder, heads tilted to the side, scanning your combined collection on the rickety dorm room bookcase. Your contribution is heavy on Shakespeare, Dante, Homer—your father's influence. Claude, by contrast, has brought nothing but science fiction. The covers show sleek spacecraft, sparking humanoid robots, and green-skinned Martian babes.
You stay up all night reading.
Claude came for the computer. Galvanic possesses one of the most powerful machines in the Midwest, a recent and somewhat eccentric gift from a rich alumnus, yet the college's faculty and students combined number less than three thousand. Claude did the math—divided processor cycles by campus population—and decided that Galvanic, not the University of Illinois, would be his best shot at computer time.
He spends most days, and many nights, down in the second subbasement of McDonald Hall, where the great hulking machine is rumored to reside. Claude invites you to visit. You descend two flights of stairs and creep down the cool, shadowed hallway. The door ahead is propped open, and from inside, you feel an icy chill. The plaque beside the door reads B3, but a sign taped below, written in Claude's squiggly handwriting, proclaims it THE FOUNDATION.
Inside, you meet a computer face-to-face for the first time. It is not a great elephantine contraption, as you expected, but instead a cluster of tall boxes, all with the look of supermodern kitchen appliances, clad in smooth panels that flash silvery gray and flame red. Spools of tape, as big around as dinner plates, spin slowly behind glass windows. Everything is marked with the same blocky logo:IBM.
Something—possibly one of the appliances—is making the room very, very cold. Claude sits at a tiny table in the center of the cluster; he is bundled up, wearing a ski mask and a winter jacket.
"Hey, buddy!" he calls out, rolling his mask up around his head. The scene is strange, but really no stranger than the basic premise of your roommate sitting here, using a computer.
Using a computer is just not a thing that a person does.
Claude spins a plastic chair around, places it alongside his at the table. "You're just in time." He is sorting a thick stack of punch cards, waxy and yellowish, all with the same bold heading: DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE, OR MUTILATE. You sit, rubbing your arms against the cold.
Claude slots the cards into a small bin, then presses stubby buttons in a short, confident sequence. The cards begin to disappear; the computer gobbles them up, one by one, clacking and purring.
You ask: "W-what exactly ... is it doing?"
"Navier-Stokes equations, mostly. Oh, sorry, you mean— Right. The computer reads the cards, follows the instructions, and I get answers ... there." He points to a printer loaded with a fat cylinder of paper. It has already disgorged several yards of answers, now pooled on the cement floor.
"And what will those answers ... reveal?"
"I'm working on weather. That's the hot topic right now in computer science ... climate models, fallout diffusion, et cetera. Sooo, I feed in today's observed temperatures, wind speeds, et cetera ... I have to normalize the grid points first, of course ... and then I supply my prediction model—that's where the Navier-Stokes equations come into play"—he is talking very quickly and very excitedly—"aaand I find out if it's going to rain tomorrow." He taps his finger on the table:tap, tap tap tap. "In Moscow."
You visit room B3 many times after that, always with your winter jacket. The computer makes you nervous; when Claude invites you to press the stubby buttons yourself, you demur. But you watch, and you listen as he talks—quickly, excitedly—about all the problems that an even more powerful computer will be able to solve.
"Economic projections," he says. "Traffic simulations. Chess!"
You arrive at Galvanic as an English major, but over the course of your first semester, you learn that the college offers a more specialized program for students with more ... specialized interests. Its courses are not listed in the catalog, at least not plainly. Instead, they are camouflaged among the English department's offerings: prime-numbered, with titles so stultifying—such as English 103, Sentence Diagrams—that no sane student would ever enroll without a very good reason.
The course meets in the college's great gray gargoyle-encrusted library, up on the top floor, where arrowslit windows look out across the cornfields, reluctant to admit too much light. Your instructor is a burly, frog-throated man named Langston Armitage. He is, he explains, the head of the Occult Literature department. The other students all nod eagerly, but you are confused. You signed up because you legitimately enjoy diagramming sentences.
On the first day of your second semester, you walk to the registrar's office and switch your major.
That spring, in the first session of English 211, The History of the Index—actually Occult Lit 211, Dangerous Books—Armitage explains that Galvanic's library contains more one-of-a-kind, untranslatable, and/or inexplicable volumes than any other collection on earth. In the second session, he sends you down into the stacks. There are books made from silver and bone. There are books with blood on their pages, figuratively and literally. There are books made of feathers; books cloaked in jade; books that ring like bells when you pull them off the shelf; books that glow in the dark.
Excerpted from Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan. Copyright © 2013 Robin Sloan. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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