Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone on writing This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is a mind-expanding, heart-wrenching tale of dastardly intrigue and burgeoning romance that follows two supremely competent secret agents traveling through time to bend the arc of history toward their respective masters' incompatible political ends. The story is a shining example of the authors' lovely definition of literature in the acknowledgements: "Books are letters in bottles, cast into the waves of time, from one person trying to save the world to another."

Among other wonderful things, Max is the bestselling author of the Craft Sequence, and Amal is the New York Times Book Review's science fiction and fantasy columnist. Both are Hugo and Nebula Award-winners and are as generous as they are brilliant. In the following conversation, we explore their creative process, the power of speculative fiction, and how letters warp time and kindle intimacy.

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What is This Is How You Lose the Time War's origin story? How did you decide to write this particular book together?

Max: We knew we wanted to write a book together long before we knew we wanted to write this book. I came off a book tour one summer feeling a powerful need for solitude, and at the same time for deep connection, as one does after a week or two of the constant light chat that characterizes that sort of thing. I was feeling the miles. I found myself at an Italian restaurant near the Flatiron with a glass of wine and a folder of short stories Amal had sent me. We’d been corresponding—writing each other letters—for about a year by this point, but I hadn’t been able to receive any letters on the road, of course. The stories stood in for letters. Reading them I thought: these are great, they’re really really great, and there’s so much here that I’d love to learn from, and to work with, to work against. I started texting her as I left the restaurant. We need to write a book! It’ll bring the universe into harmony! And let dolphins sing!

How did writing the book change your understanding of time, love, and war? How do you read history differently having written about secret agents dueling to shape it?

Amal: I think we were both coming to the book with a sense of wonder around the expression of time in hand-written letters—that sense of folding up a singular moment of yourself and sending it into the future to be read by a person who doesn’t yet exist, and who’ll be reading a letter from a person who no longer exists, but was preserved in the amber of ink on paper. Wonder, too, around time’s stoppages: that a letter can include someone having stopped, perhaps even mid-sentence, walked away, and returned to the letter three days later, while the person receiving the letter reads it smoothly in a sitting. Or vice versa! These all seemed to touch on conceptions of time travel and intimacy—the vulnerability of committing a truth of yourself to your invention of a person—that we were already talking about, already developing, but getting to explore and articulate and develop them in the book, together, was just tremendous.

If This Is How You Lose the Time War is a conversation between the two of you, how does Red and Blue's correspondence reflect your joint creative process? What do you hope readers glean from your message in a bottle?

Amal: That sense of striving together, “against and for,” as we say in the book—of wanting to impress each other while pushing against our limits, our comfort zones, our areas of familiarity—was very much part of our writing process! You might find, too, as you read the book, that their insights and styles are blending a little—purpling, you might say—as they share themselves with each other, and this was very much our experience in crafting it. At the beginning of the process, Max wrote about four times as quickly as me, and had to wait for me to finish my sections; by Act Two, he slowed down and I sped up to the point where we were finishing at exactly the same time. There was definitely a feeling of… Synchronizing with each other, reaching towards each other, admiring and encouraging each other.

What did you learn about craft from cowriting the book? What did you learn about each other? What did the experience teach you? What advice can you offer other writers looking to develop and grow?

Max: It was so great to have someone specific in mind—as a reader, as audience, but also as a sort of good-natured competitor. Amal would write a line that totally slayed me, just laid me out on the mat, and I’d think, shit, I have to give her something back that’s at least that good. You get that sense of two rabbits racing one another. And then there’s the joy of swapping laptops, each seeing what the other one has written—cackling, because it’s better than you ever could have guessed. I think it’s important to write for an audience that impresses you.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What does literature mean to you?

Max: Right now we’re in a culture of science fiction. Marketers spin science fictions to sell apps and technologies and political philosophies. I think science fiction, correctly practiced, can help see the water we’re swimming in, understand its weaknesses and failure modes. The rhetorical tools of science fiction (and fantasy) can tease out the implicit metaphors in our lives. If you’ve never had a headache before, you might need one described to you before you realize that’s why you’re miserable this afternoon, and take corrective action.

What books have changed each of your lives, influenced who you are becoming? What other books would fans of This Is How You Lose the Time War enjoy?

Amal: One of mine is in This Is How You Lose the Time War—I have Blue mention Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light, about which I’ve written elsewhere (in fact, the first thing of mine that Max read, if I’m not mistaken—before we’d met or exchanged words!). A more recent one is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which feels like the kind of book that arrives once a generation to just illuminate all the neglected corners of your soul and befriend the spiders making homes there. In terms of things fans of our book might enjoy—Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan books (A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace), Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (Jade City, Jade War, Jade Legacy), Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower, and Sofia Samatar’s Olondria books (A Stranger in Olondria, The Winged Histories) are the tip of the iceberg of things I’d like to recommend.

Max: In case anyone who’s read This Is How You Lose the Time War hasn’t read Madeline Miller’s books, I think Song of Achilles and Circe are brilliant, must-reads. Beyond that—these aren’t necessarily anything like Time War but they are books that found me like a rope finds someone at the bottom of a deep dark pit: Kay Ryan’s poetry collection The Best of It, Sarah Caudwell’s brilliant, witty, sly Hillary Tamar mysteries beginning with Thus Was Adonis Murdered, and Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagganath.

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Complement with Alix E. Harrow on writing The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Meg Howrey on writing The Wanderers, and my recent TechCrunch interview about how speculative fiction empowers readers to challenge the status quo.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Ten popular Bandwidth highlights, annotated

A while back, Goodreads asked me to annotate ten of the most popular Kindle highlights in Bandwidth. I love snatching glimpses into other people's creative processes, and these notes give you a sneak peek into mine.

Let's dive right in. The highlights from the novel are indented and my notes follow.

There was a deeper silence behind the music. A quiet no mere noise could fill. It took a moment to register. His feed. His feed was gone. Not dimmed, not marginalized. Gone. Dag swayed on his feet. His window into the digital infinite, that whirling vortex of endless global conversation, had been slammed shut. It was always there in the periphery, the low murmur of the entirety of human culture, as present and comforting as the sound of waves from inside a beach house. A vast, pulsing constellation of voices, information, art, commentary, and dramas, distilled through the algorithmic sieve to the intimately relevant personal feed. So second nature that it was obvious only now, in its absence. It was as if he had gone suddenly, inexplicably deaf.

Years ago, a designer friend explained to me how white space—the empty areas surrounding design elements—is just as powerful and important as the designs themselves.

The seed he planted grew into Analog—the off-grid social club that hosts so many of Bandwidth's crucial scenes. I realized that a powerful way to demonstrate the methods by which a ubiquitous digital feed shaped the lives of people living in this particular future was to cut them off from that feed.

Dag's shock at having the feed stripped away illuminates the depth of its influence.

It was a painful lesson, but eventually I realized that building something meaningful requires you to let go of the obsession with perfection. It requires empowering others and trusting them to do their part, even if they do it differently than you might have. But trust is a two-way street. Autonomy means you’re held accountable.

In some ways, every novel is really about the act of writing a novel. This is one of those places where that truth gleams out through the interstices of its tightly woven nest of story.

Great lobbyists are like novelists, they use lies to tell a deeper truth.

Although the idea for Bandwidth had been gestating for a while, I had a number of false starts. Who among the cast would be the protagonist? Was this a contemporary tale, or would it take place decades hence? What might that future look like?

At one point, I thought that the hero might be a stand-up comedian. I am so glad I didn’t go down that route. I’m not nearly funny enough to do justice to a comedian’s inner life. But the jump from comedian to lobbyist was shorter than you might think. Both professions require a finely tuned sense of observation and an intuition for the invisible systems that shape our world and lives. As a novelist, I'm keenly aware of the parallels with writing fiction.

It was from that milieu that Dag began to emerge. A striver with a keen eye for the dynamics and incentives that guide and warp society. A survivor who was willing to do what it took to win. A seeker who couldn’t deny his own failings once he finally achieved true introspection.

Characters rarely stride onto the page fully formed, like a stage actor entering from the wings. Instead, they start as a blurred sketch, and only become more solid, more real, as the story progresses. Like all of us, they define themselves through their actions, and I always know that a character is becoming a human being when they start doing things that surprise me. By the end of the rough draft, Dag and the rest of the cast had become dear friends.

Like memory, history was synthetic. Humans thought of both as factual records, but study after study confirmed that they were more like dreams, narratives constructed and reconstructed by the mind to fit the demands of the present, not the reality of the past.

I've always felt that writing history and science fiction are related endeavors. Both involve living life with an eye toward gleaning theories of how the world became what it is and the forces shaping what it might become. Both involve not only putting yourself into someone else's shoes, but doing so for people who inhabit a context totally foreign to your own. Both involve combining analysis and imagination. That is not to say that science fiction and history are equivalent, only that they are distant cousins to each other, as dreams are to memory.

Shankar Vedantam wrote that those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers, while those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.

Vedantam's beautiful metaphor powerfully highlights the ways in which we so often draw false conclusions about individual successes and failures—forever discounting the major role that hidden variables like bias and luck play in determining outcomes.

If there’s one thing I believe, it’s that optimism compounds better than cynicism. You can either complain about how some French noble predetermined your desire for a lawn, or laugh at how ridiculous life is and build yourself a rock garden. It all depends on your point of view. And at the end of the day, your point of view makes all the difference in the world.

It's a facile misconception to believe that any problem has an ultimate and final resolution—be it personal, social, political, moral, or technical. Problems can be solved, and yet every solution begets new problems. Problems are inevitable and soluble. That's what keeps life interesting.

The real question is how to summon necessary courage, curiosity, and compassion as we face and solve the problems life brings our way. Believing that a better future is possible is the first step towards contributing to it.

Acting on a whim, he ducked into what turned out to be a bookstore. Every book faced cover-out from the dense forest of shelves, and Dag was immediately absorbed in scanning the thousands of titles on offer. Most of the books were in Mandarin or English, with some Spanish and Arabic thrown in for good measure. As he grazed, Dag occasionally picked up a book and flipped through it, only to replace it on the shelf. Books are sharks, he remembered reading somewhere once. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark. As antique media went, books were still far more popular even than vinyl, surprising analysts who predicted time and again that the feed would render them obsolete. Perhaps being outside the feed was in fact part of the appeal, offering readers something similar to what Analog patrons sought. Of course, that line about sharks must have been from a twentieth-century source, for the metaphor broke down now that the marine predators were all but extinct. With luck, today’s vote would shift civilization’s direction onto a path that might allow for such species to return in a distant, happier future.

The wonderful line about books being sharks is from the brilliant Terry Pratchett, whose richly imagined Discworld series of fantasy novels does a better job distilling the social, political, psychological, and technological forces shaping our culture and extrapolating their consequences than any explicit analysis I've ever read.

Discovery consisted not in exploring new lands but in looking at the world through fresh eyes.

I've always loved the feeling of getting off a plane and entering a new country where I don't speak the language. It's thrilling and challenging and sometimes overwhelming to throw yourself into the unknown like that—wandering foreign streets, tasting strange foods, miming your way to a bathroom.

But my favorite part about traveling to distant lands is the experience of returning home to discover that things you took for granted reveal themselves for what they are, that basic truths are unveiled as cultural assumptions, and that there is so much beauty and wonder right in front of us all the time every day if we take the time to really look.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. The world existed at the cusp of history just as Dag lived at the cusp of his feed. Collective and individual identities might be shaped by circumstance, but only acquiescence guaranteed them to be determined by it.

If we are the stories we tell ourselves, what happens when someone else controls the narrative? What does it take for a cynic to rediscover authenticity? How is technology changing the structure and exercise of power?

These were some of the recurring questions that surfaced again and again as I worked my way through Bandwidth chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word. They are questions I am forced to consider every day when I succumb to the distraction of social media, find myself ignoring injustice because it all just seems to be too much, or contemplate just how out of touch our social institutions are from a world of accelerating innovation.

These are dark thoughts, and there is a dark vein running through Bandwidth. But whenever I struggle, I try to channel Dag’s passion for history. I’d rather live in 2021 than in 1921. Or 1821. Or 1721. Or any other time. Dag would never trade his future for our present.

By historical standards, most people alive today enjoy miracles that the emperors of old could only dream of (and likely didn’t). We are a lucky and privileged few, and whatever corruption and injustice we seek to overcome isn’t new or unique. And that leads us to a challenging conclusion.

The world is what we make it.

If we throw up our hands when the going gets tough, we get what we deserve. So take a deep breath, do some gentle stretching, and make the world a better place. Do a favor for a stranger. Be kind when instinct calls for harshness. Question your assumptions. Make good art. Tell your loved ones how grateful you are to have them in your life. Lend a hand to those in need. Take real risks to do the right thing.

Oh, and remember that in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power. The feed can only define you if you let it.

Schemes begat schemes begat schemes. Outside the false constraints of sport, there was no such thing as decisive victory. There was only the blind fumbling of the fallible, of which history was its record.

One key difference between narrative and reality is that while fiction often builds toward a crux upon which the future depends, in the real world there is no endgame.

Instead, the world keeps turning, actions beget reactions, yesterday's heroes become tomorrow's villains, ideas wax and wane, and we live through it all straining to hear the signal in the noise.

It is this strange cascade of successive, interdependent new beginnings that simultaneously brim with meaning and are destined to fade that my novels explore.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on Bandwidth, the East Bay Express on Borderless, and this podcast interview about writing the Analog trilogy.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Loosen the straps

When water leaks into your SCUBA mask, beginners tighten the straps.

But this warps the seal, letting in more water.

Experienced divers loosen the straps because they know that the ocean provides all the pressure you need and the straps are just there to keep the mask in place.

The same principle applies to creative work. 

When you get stuck trying to make something, don't force it. If you tighten the psychological straps, stress floods in, drowning your ideas.

Instead, go for a hike, read a novel, play a game, call your mom, let your mind roam free—a solution will reveal itself when you least expect it.

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Complement with Quantity is a route to quality, not its opposite, Be bold, and Creativity is a choice.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

This blog exists thanks to the generous support of loyal readers.

Brad Feld on Nietzsche for creators

“One man had great works, but his comrade had great faith in these works. They were inseparable, but obviously the former was dependent upon the latter.” -Nietzsche

I didn’t write my first novel to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a writer. I wrote my first novel because I was a voracious reader, and there was a book I wanted to read but couldn’t find, so I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing.

At the time, I was working at a venture capital firm as a drop-in operator for their portfolio companies. Startups were thick with human drama—enormously ambitious projects, fortunes won and lost, cofounder disputes, friendships forged, dreams shattered, success, betrayal, etc.—but many business books seemed to gloss over the depth of the human experience of entrepreneurship in favor of sterile lessons learned. Startups seemed a perfect canvas for fiction that could pry open that interior world, so my embryonic manuscript followed a pair of friends who drop out of college to start a company and get sucked into an international conspiracy along the way.

As I set to work on the opening chapters, Brad Feld’s blog proved to be an invaluable resource. Brad is a VC at Foundry Group, and over the many years he’s been publishing his blog, it has helped render a previously opaque industry transparent. The candid glimpses he provided were grist for my literary mill, and the genuine vulnerability evident in his writing was a welcome respite from an internet rife with self-congratulation and performative failure. Also, he loved science fiction.

So I bit my lip, crossed my fingers, and cold emailed Brad the first few chapters of my novel. I didn’t expect a reply, but he responded four hours later saying that he loved the story and wanted more.

Fast forward to last month when I put the finishing touches on my tenth novel. Along the way, Brad has gone on to support my writing as a publisher, patron, fan, and friend. My books wouldn’t exist without him. Life’s fulcrums are only visible in retrospect. That unreasonably fast and unreasonably generous reply to a tentative email from a stranger was the crux.

By believing in me, he gave me the faith to believe in myself.

Every artist, entrepreneur, and creator knows the power of a helping hand from a fellow traveler. Setting out to explore unknown territory is scary, and the least we can do to aid each other in our respective quests is share notes. Philosophers distill such notes into language that ignites the mind and endures in the heart.

So I was delighted to receive an email from Brad saying that he and Dave Jilk had written a book that collates their best notes—and notes from many of their friends—into a compendium of practical wisdom for people determined to contribute to shaping a better future. And I was doubly delighted to discover that, like this blog post, each chapter opens with a line from Nietzsche memorably capturing a timeless truth.

The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche provides an invaluable philosophical toolkit for anyone building a business or forging a new path beyond the beyond. In the following conversation, Brad and I discuss the creative process behind the book and what he learned studying and applying Nietzsche’s ideas.

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As you explored his body of work, what surprised you most about Nietzsche?

I was fascinated by the number of different thoughts his philosophy stimulates. It is said that “Nietzsche philosophizes with a hammer.” He is provocative. He is blunt. He is clever. His aphorisms have incredible depth. As we dug deeper, so much of what he said was relevant to entrepreneurship. He wasn’t giving answers but providing context for intense contemplation.

In what important ways is he misunderstood?

Some people think Nietzsche is a Nazi. More recently, the alt-right has tried to co-opt some of what he’s said. Dave and I explored this deeply, and we included an Appendix that is written like a journal article (e.g., lots of footnotes) titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Hear About Nietzsche.” The section headings cover the primary misunderstood topics: Anti-semitism, German Nationalism, White Nationalism, and Misogyny. The irony of all of this is that he’s extremely disdainful of anti-semitism, gave up his citizenship, was stateless for much of his adult life, and was generally apolitical.

As with much history, there are fascinating stories behind the story. For example, Nietzsche’s sister was a Nazi and, when Nietzsche died in 1900, she took over his literary estate. She cobbled together notes from some of his writing into a book titled Will To Power. She promoted this as his magnum opus, but in the 1960s, the philologists Mazzino Montinari and Giorgio Colli read the entirety of Nietzsche’s original documents and, after completing their comprehensive translation, called The Will to Power a "historic forgery" artificially assembled by Nietzsche's sister and K√∂selitz/Gast. Imagine if you had an agenda, took my entire collection of emails, cut and paste sentences that fit your agenda, and then published this after I died? That’s essentially what Nietzsche’s sister did. The Nazi’s then embraced this, and Nietzsche didn’t have a posthumous version of Twitter to call his sister out as a fraud.

This is a philosophy book written for practical, determined people intent on making things better by making better things. How did you go about linking theory to practice?

We started with 52 Nietzsche quotes that we thought refer to entrepreneurship. After pondering them, we translated them into modern English and then wrote a two to four-page essay about the thoughts stimulated by the quote. We weren’t prescriptive, but rather provocative, the way we envision Nietzsche would have been. Our goal wasn’t to say “do this, do that,” but to cause the reader to think, reflect, and relate the quote and our essay to their own entrepreneurial experience. About two-thirds of these are followed by narratives from entrepreneurs that were simply prompted by the Nietzsche quote. These narratives are lightly edited by us, so the voice of the entrepreneur writing them really comes through.

I love how every chapter opens with a quote and then brings the idea to life in a concrete example. You’ve mentioned how Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic was an inspiration, and there are also parallels to Seth Godin’s The Practice. Why this format? Why did this particular book take this particular shape?

Soon after Dave and I started seriously working on this book, Ryan Holiday came out with his book The Daily Stoic. I’m an enormous Ryan Holiday fan and love how he has made Stoicism accessible to modern life and entrepreneurship. Dave and I couldn’t get our mind around 365 Nietzsche quotes (like Ryan did with Stoicism), so we decided to use a weekly format—hence 52 quotes and chapters.

What was it like to co-author the book with Dave? How was it informed (or not) by the business you built together? What did the process teach you about creative collaboration?

Dave and I have worked together on many projects going back to our first company (Feld Technologies) in 1987. We met in college in 1983 and have been best friends ever since. Given our extensive experience working together, we knew how to collaborate. We are very tolerant of each other’s quirks, annoyances, and style. Dave is exceptionally patient with me as I’ve never met a deadline that I took seriously, even though I get plenty of things done on time.

What lessons did you learn from Nietzsche that you applied in writing and publishing this book? How might artists or other creators benefit from reading a philosophy book for entrepreneurs?

To think. To reflect. To be uncomfortable. To go deeper than the surface on an idea. To allow contradictory notions to co-evolve into something with more clarity. To love beautiful wordplay.

Which philosophers have changed how you see the world and live your life? What should fans of The Entrepreneur’s Weekly Nietzsche read next?

Read all of Ryan Holiday’s stuff. If you find our book interesting and want to learn more about Nietzsche, read Nietzsche by Lou Salome and translated by Siegfried Mandel. Try some Nietzsche in the original. And, when you get a little tired from the effort, gobble down Andy Weir’s The Hail Mary Project.

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Complement with Kevin Kelly on the technology trends that will shape the next thirty years, Brad on riding the entrepreneurial rollercoaster, and why business leaders need to read more science fiction.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Blake Crouch on writing Summer Frost

Blake Crouch's Summer Frost is a technothriller in miniature. Only 74 pages long, it conjures a complete, compelling narrative arc through a near-future where a non-player character in a computer game evolves into an autonomous AI. As thought-provoking as it is propulsive, this is a story that will suck you in and stick with you long after you reach the end.

In the following conversation, we discuss Blake's creative process and the big ideas that Summer Frost brings to life.

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What is Summer Frost’s origin story? How did it grow from a road-trip debate into the story I just read on my Kindle?

Summer Frost was originally going to be a novel called The Lost Coast, which was to be the follow-up to Dark Matter. I got about 150 pages in and realized I didn’t have my arms sufficiently around the AI technology aspect of the story. I didn’t really know how to dramatize a program becoming aware. And for me, that was the whole reason to write it. So I set that book aside and started in on the idea that would become Recursion.

After Recursion, I wanted to do something other than a novel. I had agreed to curate this Amazon Original Stories collection, and as I started thinking about the story that might be my contribution, I started thinking about The Lost Coast idea again. I’d had some distance from the initial idea, and I suddenly saw my way in. I think there was something freeing about approaching it as a story or novella, instead of all the pressure that comes with MY NEXT BOOK. Also, I wanted to do a super-dark ending, which I didn’t think would work as well after readers had invested hours and hours in a novel.

What are the key questions that define this technological moment? What does it mean to live in an era of accelerating change?

Well, it’s not just artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s biotech. It’s the insidious way social media is impacting social discourse and how the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter are being used to manipulate us. I don’t know what it means to live in an era of accelerating change. It’s hard to have perspective on something when you’re inside of it.

In researching and writing Summer Frost, what surprised you most about the advances in and the implications of AI? What do the headlines miss? What under-appreciated emerging trends really matter?

I chose to take the more dramatic perspective on AI for Summer Frost. The sudden, exponential growth side of AI. For obvious reasons. I write thrillers and there’s a lot of thrilling possibilities with the idea that AI could rapidly evolve. But some people don’t think the threat is necessarily going to be from AI to human right away. There’s an angle on the problem that takes the position that AI will very slowly gain sentience. Imagine an AI with the awareness of a dog, or a two-year-old child. Or an orangutan. Then the question becomes how we treat that AI. And if history is any guide, if you look at how we treat animals in product testing, migrant children at our own borders, and generally every other living thing from forests to coral, we’re going to abuse these fledgling AIs. We’ll treat them like monsters. And that will become a problem for us, because where will they gain their sense of morality by the time superintelligence + full sentience arrives?

Even though it’s the length of a short story, Summer Frost reads like a novel—it follows a complete narrative arc rather than zeroing in on a single idea, twist, or feeling. How did the form shape the story, or vice versa?

A lot of that came from its origin as a novel. I also made the choice (once I picked it up again) to let the story unfold over years and years. I do think this iteration of the story could have been expanded to become a novel, but hopefully there’s power in the restraint.

Summer Frost was published as part of the Forward collection, for which you recruited a dream team of fellow contributors: N.K. Jemisin, Amor Towles, Veronica Roth, Paul Tremblay, and Andy Weir. What did you learn from working with them?

They’re all masters at what they do. I’m very fortunate to know a lot of extraordinary artists, and the one thing I keep being amazed by is how differently they all come at story. We could have been given the same general prompt, and I’m sure I could have published an anthology of one story, six different ways, and it would have truly felt like a completely different reading experience for each story.

In fact, this was the prompt I gave them: “The common DNA I'd like all of these stories to share is a sense of discovery. This could cover everything from a new scientific invention, uncovering of alien artifacts, first contact, discovery of a new disease, cures, AI and VR breakthroughs, new modes of interstellar travel, literally anything that places characters in the midst of groundbreaking, world-altering discoveries, and then explores the consequences. And it could take place at any point in time, from the far past to the distant future. The only other requirement is that it integrate some type of science and/or technology in the story.” 

Some people were concerned we might get four “AI stories,” or four “first contact” stories, but I thought we all had such diverse voices and approaches, that if it happened, it would be fine.

What can stories that imagine possible futures teach us about the present? What does science fiction mean to you, and what role does it play in the culture?

I think science fiction is really just the story of humanity. The story of us. It shows us possible futures and asks, sometimes as a warning, sometimes as a beautiful promise: “Are we sure this is the direction we want to be heading?”

What books have changed your life? What should fans of Summer Frost and the Forward collection read next?

My most impactful books (and this is a revolving list): The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, any of Hemingway’s great short fiction, all of Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century), Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary short fiction of Ted Chiang, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, the great Ursula K. Le Guin. And what should people read next? Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, is a total triumph. I would have to go back years to think of something I enjoyed reading more.

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Complement with Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface, Barry Eisler on writing Livia Lone, and five things I learned writing Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

“Can I get your take on something?”

When you face a tough decision and need advice, start by writing a description of your situation. Define the problem, stakes, options, and tradeoffs. Identify questions and risks. Explain what you think is important and why it matters. 

Read it out loud to yourself. What’s missing? Add it. What’s irrelevant? Cut it. What’s confusing? Clarify it. Don’t stop until everything important is on the page and any excess cruft has been trimmed away.

Now, sleep on it. Then read it out loud again the next day. Congratulations! Nine out of ten times you will no longer need advice. Nothing refines thinking like writing. The choice may still be difficult and the tradeoffs may be significant, but the path forward will be obvious. And even if you find yourself in the rare situation where the path stubbornly remains obscure, you’ve just written the email you should send to your trusted adviser in order to help them help you.

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Complement with Most successful people have no idea what made them successful, Ideas aren’t unique, execution is, and Be bold.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Can speculative fiction teach us anything in a world this crazy?

Danny Crichton interviewed me for TechCrunch about the feedback loop between imagined worlds and the real one:

Current events are a painful reminder that unlike fiction, reality needn’t be plausible. The world is complex and even the wisest of us understand only a tiny sliver of what’s really going on. Nobody knows what comes next. So while it may feel like we’re living in a science fiction novel, that’s because we’ve always been living in a science fiction novel. Or maybe speculative fiction is more real than so-called realistic fiction because the only certainty is that tomorrow will be different from today and from what we expect. Depicting a world without fundamental change has become fantastical.

As a writer of speculative fiction, I’m an enthusiastic reader of history. And in reading about the past to slake my curiosity and imagine possible futures, I’ve learned that the present is exceedingly contingent, fascinating, and fleeting. For me, speculative fiction is less about prediction than it is about riffing on how the world is changing like a jazz musician might improvise over a standard. Accuracy only happens by mistake. The most interesting rendition wins because it makes people think, dream, feel. And thanks to technological leverage, to a greater and greater extent people are inventing the future—for better and for worse.

So I’m not worried about reality catching up with speculative fiction because speculative fiction is rooted in the human experience of reality. Every black swan event is simply new material.

Read the full interview.

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Complement with this podcast interview about the speculative scenario extrapolated in Veil, what The Truman Show can teach us about the internet, and using science fiction to understand the future of the web.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.