Riskgaming

Speculative fiction is a prism to understand people

Description

Speculative fiction is a long-running but increasingly popular genre of science fiction that uses a variety of imaginative techniques to envision alternatives to our present and coming society. One of its craftsmen is Eliot Peper, a novelist whose tenth book, Reap3r, was just released. Reap3r follows a diverse cast including a quantum computer scientist, a virologist, a podcaster, a VC, and an assassin as they unlock a mystery key to the whole plot. Peper along with host Danny Crichton talk about how Reap3r sheds light on our current world, how Peper thinks about launching a new book as an independent novelist, and how travel and wanderlust can come together to generate innovative ideas, plots, and characters.

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Danny Crichton:
All right, sounds good. All right, Chris, are you ready?

Chris Gates:
I'm ready. Okay, I'm going to count you in.

Danny Crichton:
All right.

Chris Gates:
Danny, deep breath in, three, two, one.

Danny Crichton:
Hello, and welcome to Securities by Luxe Capital, a podcast and newsletter devoted to science, technology, finance, and the human condition. I'm your host, Danny Crichton, and today we have a special guest, Eliot Peper, a longtime novelist. I think you've written almost a dozen books or about a dozen books so far.

Eliot Peper:
This new one is my 10th novel.

Danny Crichton:
10th novel, so a longtime writer of speculative fiction, all the way from Neon Fever Dream, and Cumulus, through the Analog series, into Veil, and most recently, Reap3r. Elliot, welcome to the program.

Eliot Peper:
Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Danny Crichton:
So Reap3r, I, believe you started the book a year or two ago, and I'm curious, where did the idea for the plot come from?

Eliot Peper:
We're actually recording a few minutes from my house in Oakland, California. One of the lovely things, one of the things I just adore about living in Oakland, is that it's this place of weird intersections. I actually grew up here. I grew up a few blocks away from where we're sitting. Over the past couple of decades you've just seen extraordinary changes in the city that sort of feel a little bit like a microcosm of the US at large.

We have neighbors from all over the world, neighbors who were born and raised in the area, neighbors who work in technology and help build some of the core pieces of the Internet, people who are artists, and musicians, and activists. It just feels like this really interesting microcosm of the country. One of the fun things about living in a place like that where's a lot of different kinds of people doing a lot of different things, I just started noticing commonalities between friends who were making software, and friends who were making moves, friends who were making olive oil. Just completely realms of the world where people were really trying to push the bar on creativity.

They were really trying to see how far would you go to realize your ambition, whether that was artist ambition, entrepreneurial ambition, financial ambition, political ambition, whatever. I got really curious about that, curious about both the personal journey of trying to realize a dream, trying to see a hole in the world and try to fill it, but also about how those different kinds of ambitions collide. Many of my previous books have had one point of view protagonist where you're following a single hero on their journey and seeing where the adventure takes them. With this book, I really wanted to mix it up.
Reap3r follows a podcaster, a quantum computer scientist, a venture capital investor, an assassin, and a virologist as they're all trying to unravel this enigma that's going to change the course of future history.

Danny Crichton:
When you describe a quantum scientist, a podcaster, a venture capitalist, and assassin, you're basically describing this podcast. The enigma of securities is to figure who is who, and it's not who you think it is. You better be careful, because Chris Gates is in your room. I think most of the interesting things, dynamic parts of your novels, speculative fiction, is both the prism to understand people but also a prism to understand society and technology.

In your previous works, particularly Veil focused on geoengineering, Cumulus focused on software in a particularly eradiate look at social dynamics in Oakland that the inequality that you were seeing emerge from then, and then in Analog you were very focused on the Internet and this global national nation state-focused world. I'm curious, what kind of themes were you looking to elucidate with Reap3r?

Eliot Peper:
With the books you just described, and some of my previous books, there really was a central thought experiment. Just to take Veil as an example, it really asked the question, what if a single person, a single human being, was able to hijack the global climate, in this case, using solar geoengineering? It was really fun to play out a really focused scenario to try to ask what does that mean for the world economy? What does that mean for even the concept of a nation state that's in some ways a big constraint when dealing with a problem that big and global?

Reap3r is actually very, very different. Part of what I wanted to do with Reap3r was rather than having a single high concept, the secret sauce that made the story tick, I wanted to take all of these different components and mix them together in the same pot. Let's take an example, there's a whole element of quantum computing and how that interacts with cryptography that's a part of the story. There's a whole part about virology. As a matter of fact, one of the strangest things about the creative process of writing Reap3r, which I actually haven't talked about publicly yet, is that I started working on the book in the fall of 2019.

The story takes place in the aftermath of a global pandemic. So, not during the pandemic. It's not a pandemic story. But that's a key part of the world building of this near future. I had already written that character in all of those sections as COVID took off in early 2020. It was incredibly eerie. All of us were so isolated with stay-at-home orders and all of this stuff, where everyone was terrified, and scared, and alone. Working on a novel is a very solitary craft. In some ways, I was used to being alone, spending a lot of time alone. It was very eerie working on a novel where it felt like reality was becoming a story's backstory.

There's a lot happening at the intersection of computing and microbiology. Rather than just taking one, I wanted to say "Oh, what if two interesting things are happening together and contingent on each other? Where does that go?" The same with Internet media. We're recording on a podcast right now, and one of the characters is a podcaster. The dynamics of how the Internet is changing what it means to tell stories, to make media online, and how those dynamics are changing, how does that interact with microbiology? How does that interact with these advances in computing?

Danny Crichton:
It sounds like an amazing book. I'm curious, so you're going through the launch process. You're talking about a podcaster whose in the book itself who plays a key role. I am curious, when you think about the power of media in your own work, is this just you sort of broadcasting out and saying, "Okay, here's what everything's going on. Here's what's happening." Or do you find energy and creativity that comes through the book tour?

Eliot Peper:
I've learned a lot over the course of 10 novels, and hopefully... This is what I've learned. If you're listening and you are working on a product, or a book, or a podcast of your own, this is what I can share. First of all, take it with a huge grain of salt because I'm one human and I make up stuff for a living. I have no idea how far these lessons travel, but I have learned a few things that I've applied with how I am seeking to bring Reap3r to readers and out into the world that I messed up early on, frankly.

One thing when I was just starting out with my first couple of books, I was really keen to say "How can I share this thing that I've poured so much of my heart into with the world? How do I get the word out?" And so what did I do? Google growth hacking, basically, or just basically trying to figure out how do people do this? There are a million books published every year in the United States. That's a million new books every single year. That's a lot of noise in which to become the signal, and that's just books.

We're recording, and I can see Danny on a video feed, and there are dozens of amazing board games behind him. Books compete with board games. They compete with Netflix. They compete with YouTube. They compete with TikTok. It's whatever we choose to spend our mind share and attention on. Initially, I really tried to think about it almost like, what if I treated this like a product? What are people launching products doing? I try to do complex, how can I set up email campaigns that would reach people in the right way? How can I try some sort of advertising experiments to try to reach people in the right way?

Frankly, none of it worked. For early books, we even did some experiments which were tremendous fun. For example, in one of the early books there is a fictional startup featured in the story. We build a real website for the fictional startup, and we published an op-ed from the fictional CEO as if it were real, like in an actual tech news publication. Those were really fun, but they did nothing in terms of introducing new people to the story. What I've learned about fiction is that because it's not a product that solves a discreet problem, you can't be like, "I cut my arm. I need a Band-Aid." That's not what fiction is.

Almost everyone reads their next favorite book because someone they trust recommends it. That's effectively it. It's not because of a billboard. It's not because of a Facebook ad campaign. It's not because you had some clever strategy for how you are publishing blog posts, or doing tweets, or I don't even know. It's just because someone read the story, it resonated with them enough, and they think that you're going to appreciate their recommendation. In that sense, fiction is almost this pure word-of-mouth thing. When you're dealing with a pure word-of-mouth thing, the thing that I've learned is basically the only thing that you can do as the creator, as the person who made the thing, is reach out to people who you genuinely think will totally dig it, will absolutely love it. Even if that's a dozen people. Even if it's a dozen people.

And then, don't ask them for stuff. Don't ask them for favors. Say, "Hey, I made this thing that you might really love. Can I send you a copy?" Or whatever the equivalent is for the thing you're making. Just give them the emotional space to appreciate it on its own terms rather than trying to sort of weight it with asking for something. Then honestly, you get out of the way. If they read it and love it enough, they're the ones who are going to be your ambassadors to the world.

The only thing I focus on is trying to get a few copies into the right people's hands, and then trying to be as friendly, and supportive, and responsive, and enthusiastic with them, and frankly, just appreciative, to express gratitude for their enthusiasm for the story. That's worked so much better. If you take an objective view, again for folks listening, if you're trying to apply this to your own life, it has created much more dramatically positive results for me in terms of reaching new readers. But there's also an intrinsic benefit that I think almost anyone making anything can appreciate and learn from, which is that if you're doing something...

I think this is probably different if you're a live musician, or if you're a standup comedian where you're testing jokes in front of an audience every night. But if you're writing software or you're writing fiction, you don't have the opportunity to have that direct feedback loop with the people who are using whatever you're making, or enjoying whatever you're making. There isn't an obvious way that you're going to hear from them. Having a lot of one-to-one communication with people who love what you make is actually tremendously beneficial because it reminds you why you're doing it in the first place, and it sort of acts as a lodestone for where you might want to go next.

Danny Crichton:
You say that books don't have any actual purpose. We recently had Tony Fidel, who just wrote his book Build, on the podcast. I think we titled that, Chris can correct me, but I think we titled it from a quote from him that was like, "If you're not selling a real pain point, then what the hell are you even doing?" I would argue, in addition actually something a real pain point, emotional pain points are filling in cognitive speculation or whatever the case may be for yourself. My graduate Econometrics textbook remains the best bug killer in the world.

Eliot Peper:
Nice.

Danny Crichton:
All 1,400 pages of book steel has saved my apartment multiple times. Now that said, I agree with you 100%. I do believe this is sort of the Kevin Kelly, 100 or 1,000 true fans, you build up an audience of the core readership you want to double down on and they will popularize it on themselves. It's believing in the community, believing in decentralization.

Eliot Peper:
Maybe can I interrupt just with one thing? When I was giving the example of a book is different than a Band-Aid, it's not that I don't think that books in general or that fiction has no purpose. In fact, I think it has a profound purpose. Fiction allows you to enter and explore a totally new world from the safety of your bedroom. It invites you into other people's minds and hearts. It can really open your eyes to a new way of seeing your own world, even after having gone on the journey that hopefully is compelling, and exciting, and satisfying, and thought-provoking. Those are all amazing things. It's a way that humans connect with each other, just like any other art form. I think that it actually has a profound purpose. It's just not the kind of purpose that you would know how to Google a priori.

Danny Crichton:
Fantastic. Let me pivot the conversation a little bit. Let's go back to Reap3r. I've been a long-time reader of your newsletter. You've recommended dozens, and dozens, and dozens of books, great books, many of which I had never heard of before. So, thank you for that. Similar to what you just said, the recommendations are the way that we find these sorts of things. I've discovered a number of authors from your newsletter. I'm curious, when you think about the creative writing process, and specifically the influences that sort of get inputted into that maelstrom of all those random thoughts, or characters, or themes, or events, what drives some of the influences for you? Are they from other books, authors, locations, places? What enters into the pot?

Eliot Peper:
I remember when I was in high school and college, and you got assigned an essay. You have to come up with a thesis. You have to do a literature review. And then, you do a lot of directed research where you can say, "Okay, well if my thesis is X, then I need to learn about Y and Z. Then I need to sort of figure out where they sit and what their relationship is with each other. Then I'm going to map that out," in the essay sort of on my way to reaching whatever conclusion I'm shooting for. Or, that I discover in the process. That is very different from how I experience writing fiction.

For me, rather than saying, "Hey, I'm going to write a book about X. Let me do the research to find Y and Z," living my life is the research, and the book is actually the outcome. It's actually like a side effect of just reading the things that I find interesting or that spark my curiosity, or doing the things that spark my curiosities so that everything that I am doing winds up informing basically the next novel that I'm working on. I'll give you an example. With Reap3r, we talking about book recommendations. One of my favorite books that I've read in the past 10 years is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. That's actually his most famous book. It was made into a movie by the Wachowskis.

Danny Crichton:
A very, very long movie. I haven't actually watched it so you'll have to tell me if it's good.

Eliot Peper:
But it wasn't actually the first book of his I'd read. I had read other books first that were not as well known, and then read that one. Cloud Atlas is wild because it basically has six different characters. It's actually six novellas. He wrote it as six novellas that then he wove together. The structure of Cloud Atlas is actually very intentional and pretty intricate. These characters live across multiple centuries. You're sort of dipping in during the 16th or 17th century in the South Pacific. Then LA in the 50s. Then in a far future Hawaii, and a sort nearer future Korea. It really spans this extraordinary scope of time. The language the book, each section is written in, is unique to that character. It's almost like just these totally different works that are put together like shattered pieces of glass might make a mosaic.

I just thought that was extraordinary. Part of what was so fun about reading it was that it sort of collected all these dots, and then it invited you, the reader, to connect them. I can now really empathize with how much trouble David had working on it, because damn, it is hard to write that kind of... I'm like, Reap3r, I am not trying to compare it in scope or anything to Cloud Atlas. It's much tighter. It's a very different kind of story. But that aspect of it really influenced me as I was working on this book.

Danny Crichton:
I was just in South Korea for several weeks. We walked the old city walls of the original walls around Hanyang. The city was well before Seoul. Five, 10 years ago, there were no signs. The Korean government has sort of tried to turn it more into tourist attraction or have some sort of landmarks or guideposts. One of the things that they highlighted is, on the wall you could actually see four different types of stone. These different types of stone were different shapes, different materials. It was driven by political, economic, social factors at the time at which that particular part of the wall was made.

So, the bigger stones required more labor, required more machinery in order to move it from Point A to Point B. The smaller stones were easier, so when there was lack of labor they were able to use that. It was one of those you would never notice that sort of small detail if no one had either pointed it out, or you had the time to just walk for two and three hours along a wall looking at rocks.

Eliot Peper:
This is an example of something I just found so weirdly fascinating that I had to find a way to inject it into Reap3r. There is a wall at the Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Institute for Standards... In DC.

Danny Crichton:
Yep.

Eliot Peper:
There is a stone wall standing in the middle of an open lawn at Mist outside of DC. A couple hundred years ago, like in the 19th century, American consumers who wanted homes or buildings built for them would import stone from Europe because the European builders had done such a great job of marketing their stone as superior to anything that could be mined in North America. It was super expensive. You're importing marble from Italy, all of these different stones. There are a lot of rocks in North America as well, but it was this popular belief that basically everything here was inferior. And so, if you were going to build a real building, you needed European stone to do it.

American builders, who were very frustrated by this situation, and obviously American miners who were that much more frustrated, partnered with the federal government and they built this wall together. What they did is they took samples of rock from quarries all over the world, from Italy, from Turkey, from Jersey, everywhere, all different kinds, and they built a patchwork wall where each brick is a unique rock from a different place. And then, they let the wall sit there for decades, and decades, and decades, and it is the longest-running weathering experiment in the world.

So, you can go to that wall and you can see how all of the weathering has affected every individual brick. This was actually a key public/private partnership that helped prove to Americans that in fact you can build things with stone quarried in North America.

Danny Crichton:
I will reflect real quick. We were walking in Van Cortlandt Park north of Manhattan in the Bronx. We're in the woods. We're just on this path. And all of a sudden, we see these 10 rocks, big, hunking rocks. I had no idea what it was. This park had recently, probably like in the last couple of weeks, was clearly very new, put a plaque that said that when they were building Grand Central Terminal, there was a huge question of what rock would weather properly for the right color on the station. As they were building the core structure, they had to figure out the facade.

They just took one sample from each of the different manufacturers and miners and put it out in Van Cortlandt Park to weather it for a year to see how it turned out. They're sitting there and it's obviously been 100 years plus. There's clearly differences between them. I always just think it's so fascinating because you can't, unlike whiskey or alcohol, or some of these things, you can't accelerate aging of stone. You just don't know how it's going to turn out. It was one of those delightful discoveries of how the real meets science, or something like that.

Eliot Peper:
You just said how it's really interesting how science and technology have to intersect with time, obviously, but also how we use them, how we implement them, how we build things with them. I really think that that's one of the things that speculative fiction can be so powerful for. It's one of the themes I try to explore in it, that it's this liminal space that this dream-time world where you can play with things taken from the naturalistic world we inhabit from reality, but then you can remix them just like a deejay remixes a pop song.

In doing so, you sort of create this experience for the reader where something is familiar and surprising. To take that a step further, you mentioned traveling to Korea recently, and I mentioned traveling to Spain. I think that one of the things that the Internet has done, is it sort of tricked us into thinking that the world is one place because we all have this second shadow city that is the same. We all live in Oakland and the Internet, or Brooklyn and the Internet in your case, or anywhere, like [inaudible 00:23:37] and the Internet. It sort of makes it seem like the world is once place.

The world is not one place. We live in a world that is made up of many, many different worlds. I think that there's something really powerful about challenging yourself to explore new worlds. One of my favorite feelings is stepping out of an airport or a train station, or wherever, in a country that I've never been to and I don't speak the language, where suddenly you have to look around and you have to be present in a really different way. You start to realize how first of all that exploration of just that feeling of discomfort is actually really profoundly eye-opening, and you start to see how people can live in totally different ways than you are used to living.

That's really interesting in itself, but what I find even more interesting is when you return home. You return home, and suddenly you see all of the contingencies that make up your world for what they are, that life doesn't have to be that way. It is that way, and there are reasons it's that way, but it does not have to be that way, that the status quo sometimes feels like a given, is not given at all. It's actually a human invention, a collective human invention. I find that travel is a wonderful way to remind ourselves of how handmade every part of our worlds are, from the things we use everyday like the microphone I'm speaking into right now, to our institutions like the public high school I went to, our democracy.

All of these things are human inventions. That means they can be reinvented, and that they constantly are being reinvented, and that you can have agency in reinventing them if you realize it's possible. That's something I really think about a lot that finds its way into my fiction. One thing that I think is a unique strength of prose fiction is that it doesn't show you the picture. Prose fiction is not actually explicitly showing you anything. It's a blueprint for a story you invent for a world you build in your own mind as the reader. That allows you to have nuance and sort of richness to the experience that is just different from what other mediums offer. They have their own strengths.

That's something I really love about reading speculative fiction and parallel between exploring these new worlds in order to find a new vantage on our own is a really powerful, powerful thing.

Danny Crichton:
I usually say the other benefit of a book, particularly fiction, they're not team-oriented processes. Not to discount editors, and agents, and the whole shebang of folks who contribute to these projects sometimes very heavily, but nonetheless it is a singular artistic vision. I think that's very different from movies and TV shows where hundreds of people are involved. They're team efforts. No one sort of has command over the final product so to speak, not even the director or the producer. Books still is that image where you can still have one point of view. To me, that is still really, really special.

The other thing I would reflect on is, I'm similar to you, I leave these great citadels of infrastructure, airports in other countries, and then I come back to JFK Airport in New York City and there's a bucket holding the water coming in from the roof. I'm like, this is contingent. This is a choice. This bucket is a choice. We could get rid of the bucket if we wanted to. We are almost out of time. This has been a great interview. Let's do a couple of lightening round questions. Let's just do a couple of quick things.

Favorite book you've read in the last couple of months?

Eliot Peper:
Richard Powers, and he wrote The Overstory. He has a relatively new novel that I just read called Bewilderment. I loved this book. Actually, I loved The Overstory. I liked Bewilderment even more. It's very different. It's much more intimate. It's a story of a father and son dealing with loss. His wife and the son's mother has died recently when the book starts out. It's about them processing that. That's not a great sales pitch.

The thing that Powers does in The Overstory, where he manages to illuminate the natural world that we inhabit, like the leaves on a Trident Maple as you step out of your apartment door, and how deeply connected we are to the biosphere that we live in, and bringing those connections to life in narrative rather than reading a textbook about how mycelium networks allow trees to communicate and share nutrients across entire forests, rather than taking an ecology course where you're just learning the straight facts, that he actually manages to weave this incredible sense of wonder and depth, of curiosity about the natural world into the narrative world that he invites you into with this story.

I found Bewilderment just awe-inspiring and sweet, and tragic, just extraordinarily sad. But sad in the kind of way where it reminds you how beautiful life can be. That book really touched me, and I think listeners would enjoy it.

Danny Crichton:
With that, I think we're going to close it up. Eliot Peper, novelist of 10 novels now, it keeps on going. The latest, Reap3r, is out this week on Amazon. Grab a copy as soon as possible because apparently the printing industry is really suffering on the trees these days. We're talking to all about trees and overstories, and I got to be honest with you, I have become like... it's like bread lines at the book store. I have to compete to get the one copy of every book. Be sure to pick up Reap3r as quickly as possible. Thank you so much for joining us.

Eliot Peper:
Thanks so much for having me. This has been a joy.

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