It’s not easy, being a 19-year-old bookseller. I can’t remember a time when the book industry wasn’t on the brink of a potentially catastrophic restructuring, nor can I recall an era before the rise of the internet and ubiquitous cell-phone usage. I am constantly fighting to reconcile my generational ties to the digital age with my deep affection for the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar world of bookselling. While I am very much aware of my contradictory position, I rarely consider the effects that the last twenty years or so have had on the content of the very books I care about so much.
Until now, I’ve taken for granted the fact that cutting-edge digital technology and stories about storytelling rarely co-exist. I’d always found that there was an unspoken rule against combining high-tech plots with stories about the power of books. Even the most forward-looking sci-fi novels exist in the same media as our oldest written narratives, something which their authors seem loath to acknowledge.
In the past few weeks, though, I read two stories that made me pause. Times, it seems, are changing, and maybe there’s hope for those of us who are young enough to spend much of our lives online yet broad-minded or nostalgic enough to wonder about what is lost in the digital age. That is, members of the Harry Potter generation, riddled with a hipster longing for the analog and accustomed to displaying our ironically low-fi lives on Instagram and Facebook.
The book that first prompted this train of thought was Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. In this debut novel by a relatively young author, a centuries-old cult of readers devoted to the search for immortality meets the brand-new cult of Google employees. Sloan deftly melds a hyper-current information-age sensibility with a bibliophile nostalgia for real-world adventure, mystery, and the smell of aging books. Delightful and unusual as Penumbra was, it wasn’t until I finished G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen that I decided this combination of myth and modernity was more a trend than a pleasant fluke. Wilson seamlessly intertwines cutting-edge digital technology, ancient Islamic storytelling, and contemporary political struggles into a tightly-paced, high-action tale. A story about information, power, and language, Alif is full of dazzling moments of intersection between a past long forgotten and a future about to emerge.
Both books are relatively unassuming: light, smart pieces of entertainment for people who just want a good story. It’s not spoiling much to say that both include an endearingly predictable romantic adventure, a wealthy-but-hopeless sidekick, and a wise, elderly mentor who helps the hero go through a little bit of obligatory maturation. In both cases the writing is good, but not revolutionary. Alif takes itself seriously where Penumbra is satirical, the former being a relatively conventional sci-fi/fantasy hybrid while the latter relies heavily on a surprising plot designed to tug at the heartstrings of young, techie readers.
What’s striking about Penumbra and Alif is the way in which they embrace books, storytelling, and the information-age reality of the internet as part of an unbroken continuum. In both, ancient tomes and futuristic coding are portrayed as two equally important and complementary ways of approaching the problems facing their respective protagonists. By effortlessly blending seemingly contradictory traditions, the authors create stories well-poised to quell the fears of those who believe modernity is inherently at odds with narrative. Alongside texting and high-speed internet connections, myth and magic still exist.