Stories are bicycles

There’s a myth that puts storytellers on pedestals. It says that storytelling is the province of poets, novelists, and screenwriters. It says that there must be a moment of perfect inspiration, that the muse must whisper in your ear. It says that stories are supernatural, the revealed truth of someone of extraordinary talent and insight who has something authentic and original to say.

To anyone espousing this myth, I reply that stories are bicycles.

The characters are the pedals driving everything forward. The stakes are the gears ratcheting up and down. The plot is the wheels that take you where you’re going. The theme is the frame holding everything together. The power comes from you, the rider. You embark in one world and travel to another.

Stories are bicycles: machines that move people.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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How to make sense of complex ideas

You know that feeling when someone is explaining an idea and you're struggling to make sense of it—like peering out into dense fog, hoping to glimpse the outline of an approaching ship? Maybe it's because they're using unfamiliar acronyms or taking leaps of logic, or maybe it's simply not something you have any personal experience with. The idea is obvious to them, but not to you.

In Richard Feynman's hilarious and incisive memoir, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the Nobel Laureate shares his personal method for cutting straight to the heart of seemingly complex ideas, even when speaking to experts in fields far beyond physics: “I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.” 

Whenever anything was vague or confusing, he would ask for a concrete example. Then, even as his interlocutor reverted to describing general theory, Feynman would follow the concrete example along in his mind—often noticing flaws or opportunities in the idea that weren't obvious in the abstract. Just as Theseus escaped the labyrinth by following Ariadne's string, so you can use real, physical examples to escape the labyrinth of abstract thought, and arrive at insight.

Writing fiction is often about reversing Feynman's scheme: making up compelling stories that provide concrete examples from which ideas can be derived, thereby illuminating them.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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Creativity is a choice

It’s easy to make your creativity dependent on your environment. You can’t write that book until you escape to the perfect cabin in the woods. You can’t produce that song until you find the ideal recording studio. You can’t initiate that difficult conversation until the time is right.

When I’m working on the rough draft of a novel, this is what my perfect day looks like: Wake up. Make breakfast. Take the dog out. Dive straight into the manuscript and write for a solid three or four hours. Go on a run. Eat lunch. Spend the afternoon working through email, connecting with friends, etc. Make dinner. Relax. Read. Sleep.

But here’s the dirty little secret: if I waited for days like that, I wouldn’t be a novelist.

I finished drafting Veil as my wife and I walked the five-hundred mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. After a quick breakfast, we’d hoist our heavy packs and trek all day through the misty mountains, secluded valleys, and rugged coastlines of northern Spain. Summer sun beat down. Freak thunderstorms soaked us to the bone. Finally, hungry, exhausted, and nevertheless buoyant, we’d stumble into a rural village and arrive at an albergue—a local guesthouse run by volunteers. We’d eat a simple meal, tend to our aches and pains, and then I’d retreat to my bunk in the shared dorm, pull out my laptop, and write a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence, before falling asleep.

Veil exists because I didn’t make writing it dependent on finding optimal conditions. 

Veil exists because I wrote it whenever and wherever I could.

Creativity isn’t some chance aligning of fickle stars. Creativity is a choice. You don’t need the perfect cabin, the ideal recording studio, or the right time. The only right time is now. So stop making excuses. Go make the thing you dream of making, the thing you wish someone would make for you. We’re here, waiting for it.


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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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Don't forget to feed your soul

In times like these, while it's crucial to stay informed, I often lose myself in the news cycle—emerging horrified, furious, and drained. It helps to complement with people, music, and stories that feed my soul, that give me energy for the thing that really matters: action.

A few things that feed my soul: novels by N.K. Jemisin, Malka Older, Mohsin Hamid, and Kim Stanley Robinson; music by Yo-Yo Ma, Grupo Niche, Nina Simone, and Kygo; blogs by Maria Popova and Seth Godin; podcasts from The Moth; Parks and Rec; essays by Craig Mod and Viktor Frankl.

Go feed your soul, and then find ways to make things better.

Complement with How to kill a dragon, William Gibson on tracking reality's Fuckedness Quotient, and What my secret agent grandmother taught me.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels that explore the intersection of technology and culture. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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

Paul McAuley on writing Anthropocene fiction

Paul McAuley's Austral is a gorgeous, haunting novel—brimming with fractal stories-within-stories—about a fugitive on the run through the backcountry of the new nation established on a greening Antarctica. McAuley's unskimmably precise prose conjure the bleak beauty of the internal and external landscapes the protagonist navigates as she tries to find her way in a world where humanity has become the primary agent of change—the biosphere increasingly subject to the vicissitudes of human nature.

In the following conversation, we discuss the emerging geopolitics of the Anthropocene, why certain stories persist and stay relevant across centuries, and the creative process behind Austral.

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What is Austral's origin story? How did it go from the first glimmer of an idea to the book I’m holding in my hands right now?

In 1997 I was invited to participate in a workshop about stories and myths in the creation of scientific ‘truth’. The participants were a mix of scientists and science fiction writers, and we met in a small research station in Abisko, above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. It was May, the season of the midnight sun, there was still a couple of metres of snow on the ground and the lake behind the research station was still frozen, and the locals were buzzing about on snowmobiles at all hours, jazzed by all the light after the winter dark. There’s a little of that in Austral, but the real inspiration came when, on our day off, some of us decided to take the railway line to Tromso, on the Norwegian coast. Abisko is on a high plateau. The train descended below the snow line into pine forest, ran along spectacular fjords where more than one World War II shipwreck could still be seen, preserved in the clear cold water. That contrast stayed with me, and informed my idea of the Antarctic landscape emerging from the ice.

The natural world of this near-future Antartica is described with impressive, transportive precision. What research did you do to inform the book? What did you learn that surprised you?

I studied a lot of maps of the Antarctic Peninsula, where Austral is set—just about every place mentioned in the novel exists; all I did was work out what they might look like with a little less ice, and add cities and settlements. And I read a lot of first-hand accounts of Antarctic research and exploration, and research papers on existing Antarctic fauna and flora, the forests of Tierra del Fuego, the boreal forests of the Arctic, reclamation of deserts, and so on. Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade was a good introduction to the politics and possibilities of geoengineering; that was a deep rabbit hole full of surprising possibilities and moral dilemmas and potential conflicts.

What did your process of extrapolating this future look like? How did you translate your research and life experience into speculation?

As far as I’m concerned, the central question of any extrapolation goes something like: if x happens, who does it benefit, and who does it hurt? In Austral, I wanted to figure out what benefits might come from the greening of Antarctica due to climate change, as well as the obvious problems and losses. And the central character, Austral, has to deal with the consequences of her parents’ decision to gift their child with a suite of genetic changes that, supposedly, adapt her for life there.

There are many stories nested within the book's larger narrative arc: anecdotes from Austral's family history, Kamilah's book, etc. What role do stories play in culture? What role do you hope Austral might play in our rapidly changing world?

I’m interested in the way some stories persist; why they continue to be relevant. The deep human patterns that they contain. The story in Kamilah’s book is based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, which has its origins in 12th century Ireland (or perhaps even earlier), was incorporated into Arthurian mythos, and variations of it continue to be created. The many, many versions of the folk song ‘Barbara Allen’, borrow the image of the briar and the rose growing together from the two doomed lovers’ graves, for instance. I relocated it to the archipelagos of a far future Antarctica where the ice had completely melted, and as the story unfolds inside the main narrative there are echoes of it in the romance of Austral’s parents, and her flight across the ice with Kamilah.

As for Austral, the novel, I didn’t write it as a message or a lesson. It’s a little hopeful speculative story about the new countries that may emerge in the Anthropocene, if we have any luck at all.

What did writing Austral, the character, teach you about life?

Austral would no doubt say, don’t be like me. It’ll only get you into trouble.

What did writing Austral, the book, teach you about craft?

It should have taught me to plan my books more thoroughly before I started. To begin with, it was told in the third person, about a character also called Austral, who also lived in a greening Antarctica and was also genetically altered, but who was leading a different life as a politician’s bodyguard. About a hundred pages in, I realized that I was telling the wrong story from the wrong point of view, and started over, with Austral as the narrator of her own story. And as far as I’m concerned it was her voice that made the story live.

Anyhow, despite nearly driving Austral onto the rocks by not planning out the route beforehand, I persist in finding the right frame and direction for the novels I write by trying out various wrong ones first. Just the way I am, I guess.

What books have made a major impact on how you see the world? What other books might fans of Austral enjoy?

I mentioned the Arthurian mythos earlier. One novel that showed me how a novel could contain an entire world and make a familiar story fresh by telling it slant was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. The book that first alerted me to the depletion of nature by human activity was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There are many good books about Antarctica and I haven’t read all of them, but here are a few I have read and liked. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica is a good novel about Antarctica as a fantastical world of science and scientists. John Calvin Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica is the story of a latter-day Viking who leads a fleet of the damned through apocalyptic adventures as civilization collapses, and at last becomes the King of the white continent. I read Apsley Cherry-Garrad’s classic account of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World, around the same time as I read Silent Spring; the perils and suffering that Scott and his men endured were far worse than any in Austral’s little adventure. Sarah Wheeler’s Terra Incognita is a very good account of modern life at the bottom of the world, and I also recommend Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice.

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Complement with my new novel, Veil, that imagines a near-future shaped by geoengineering, Oliver Morton on the art of science journalism, and Alix E. Harrow on opening doors to other worlds.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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

How to kill a dragon

My friend Derek has a six year old grandson who came for a visit. They were exploring the basement together when the boy pointed to the door on the left and asked, "What's in there grandpa?"

"Canned foods and supplies for the kitchen," said Derek.

His grandson pointed to the door ahead of them, "What's in there grandpa?"

"Your grandmother's files," said Derek. "Nothing too exciting."

He pointed to the door on the right, "What's in there grandpa?"

"I don't know," responded Derek, entirely truthfully. "I have no idea. Maybe dragons?"

"Dragons!" he said, eyes lighting up. "Get me a broomstick!"

"What?"

"A broomstick!"

After a quick search, Derek returned with a broomstick and handed it to his grandson.

"What are you going to do?" asked Derek.

"You're going to open the door," said his grandson. "And then I'll run in there and see what happens. Okay, go!"

Derek complied and his grandson rushed headlong into the dark room, smashing everything right and left. After a few seconds of commotion, grandpa hit the light switch, hoping that nothing too valuable or dangerous had been shattered. The light revealed his grandson stomping his foot onto the floor with great enthusiasm.

"What are you doing?" asked Derek.

"I'm killing the dragon, grandpa!" he said.

"But I don't see it," said Derek.

"You're silly, grandpa," he said. "Don't you know how to kill dragons? If you run away they get bigger and bigger and you'll never escape. But if you charge forward and face them down they get smaller and smaller until they disappear. I just squished it."

Complement with What my secret agent grandmother taught me, Why we suspend disbelief, and Simple and difficult.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter and lives in Oakland, CA.

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

Veil

[Drumroll. Rising strings. Lights!]

My new novel, Veil, is out today.

Veil is a character-driven science-fiction thriller set in a near-future shaped by geoengineering. Diplomats, hackers, scientists, spies, journalists, and billionaires grapple with the power and consequences of technology, life in the Anthropocene, and what it means to find a sense of agency in a world spinning out of control. August Cole calls it, "A brilliantly imagined eco-punk future filled with memorable characters locked in a life-or-death contest to control the direction of Earth's climate in the 21st century."

Get your copy of Veil right here.

I've always imagined literature to be a single extended conversation, and here are a few conversations that Veil is contributing to: Seth Godin recommended Veil in Books for SpringOneZero ran an exclusive excerpt, I talked to BBC World Service radio about the book (the Veil segment starts at the 17-minute mark), I partnered with Goodreads on this video tour of where and how I write, Andrew Liptak interviewed me about what inspired the story, the Geekiverse ran a glowing review, I went on the Technotopia podcast to discuss the creative process behind it, Polygon featured it on their list of the best new science-fiction books, and I shared some lessons I learned writing it over on Chuck Wendig's Terribleminds. Some lovely reviews are bubbling up through the blogosphere herehere, herehere, herehere, here, here, and here.

Books thrive on word-of-mouth, so the best way to support it and me is by helping the right people discover it. We all find our next favorite book through recommendations from people we trust. So if you read and love Veil, please leave an Amazon review and tell your friends about it. I know it might sound insignificant, but it makes all the difference in the world. Culture is a collective project in which all of us have a stake and a voice.

I poured my heart and soul into this book and it's my best work yet. As with any creative project in which you've invested years of your life, I'm simultaneously nervous and thrilled to share it. May it offer you welcome refuge, wellspring, and adventure in these strange times. Writing Veil changed my life, and my greatest aspiration is that reading it might enrich yours.

[Mic drop. Silent tears.]

Selected praise:

"A brilliantly imagined eco-punk future filled with memorable characters locked in a life-or-death contest to control the direction of Earth's climate in the 21st century."
-August Cole, author of Ghost Fleet and Burn-In

"Veil is about collapse, redemption, and heroes. As always, Peper's near-future science fiction will stick with you."
-Seth Godin, bestselling author and entrepreneur

“This is the best kind of science fiction, in which the overriding issue of our time, climate change, is addressed with vivid characters serving as exemplars of all the roles we need to take on in the coming decades, all gnarled into a breath-taking plot. I hope it’s the first of many such novels creating climate fiction for our time.” 
-Kim Stanley Robinson, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning author of Red Mars

"A modern parable about ecological collapse, climate change, technology, and power."
-OneZero

"Near-term science fiction at its absolute best. Peper consistently makes step function leaps in imagination. Veil is so crazy relevant and timely."
-Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group

"Eerily prescient speculative fiction."
-Axios

"Veil is the tale we need to confront climate change. Peper deftly explores one of the most controversial ideas on the climate agenda—solar geoengineering—and its geopolitical quandaries—raising tough questions and showing why we require new forms of governance to answer them."
-Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative and former UN assistant secretary-general for climate change

"Beautifully captures the mix of mourning and resolve that pervades this apocalyptic moment."
-Brendan Koerner, contributing editor at Wired and author of The Skies Belong to Us

"Peper turns his attention to the future of geoengineering in his latest tech thriller. The lives of billions are at stake."
-Polygon

"A wild ride through the Anthropocene, a near-future where geoengineering and climate grief clash head-on, and help unveil a path for meaning in our rapidly changing world. You're going to love this book."
-Eric Holthaus, climate correspondent for The Correspondent

"A fantastic novel addressing an imminent geopolitical, moral, and techno-economic issue: who dictates the Earth's climate in this century? Strong characterization, genuine emotional development, dead-on technical accuracy, and a fun, fast pace."
-Matt Ocko, managing partner at DCVC

"A taut near-future science-fiction thriller, with themes that resonate. Highly recommended."
-Templeton Gate

"Technologists are inventing the future—a future cut through with their own flaws and hubris as much as it is informed by their ingenuity. Veil imagines a world in which truth, politics, and nature itself are at the mercy of human engineering, for better and for worse. This is an adventure that will stick with you long after you reach the end."
-Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

"Thrilling, thoughtful, and richly imagined. A lovely book about a terrifically important subject."
-Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade and briefings editor at The Economist

"The worlds Peper builds echo what we live through. I'm both afraid and hopeful that we will see echoes of Veil's future in our present."
-Sentiers

"Sinister oil conglomerate SaudExxon selling the Earth for profit? Check. New Orleans sinking beneath the waves? Check. A pleasant walk through Central Park, a revitalizing hike through the Swiss mountains, a Blue Bottle at Z├╝rich airport? Check, check, and check. Death, despair, and plenty of hope. This sci-fi thriller has it all, plus plenty of scientific grounding to contemplate how solar geoengineering might play out on a planet struggling to bring global warming under control."
-Gernot Wagner, author of Climate Shock and Bloomberg's Risky Climate column

"Peper delivers his best novel yet. Veil is filled with diverse characters, complicated relationships, and ethical dilemmas that are sure to spark late night debates."
-The Geekiverse

"The perfect stay-at-home read to get your mind blown."
-Manu Saadia, author of Trekonomics

"Interrogates Anthropocene themes with respect to their complexity and wickedness."
-Alternative Fictions

"Eliot Peper weighs the promises--and perils--of geoengineering in this tautly paced thriller which, in its final chapters, offers an intriguing solution and that most welcome of messages: a glimmer of hope."
-Meg Howrey, author of The Wanderers

(And I mean come on, just look at that cover!)

Speaking, media, and rights inquiries: eliot [at] eliotpeper [dot] com

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels that explore the intersection of technology and culture. He sends a reading recommendation newsletter, hosts Fellow Travelers, and lives in Oakland, CA.

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