Ted Chiang on the most interesting aspect of time travel

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.
This passage from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” in Ted Chiang's Exhalations short story collection hints at one of the reasons I love reading science fiction like Chiang’s: Not to catch a glimpse into the future, but to inspect the present more closely, and from fresh angles—learning lessons along the way.

Complement with Danny Crichton's new TechCrunch book club for which Exhalations is the inaugural pick, Alexander Weinstein on the art of writing short fiction, and why business leaders should read more science fiction.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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My interview with Nick Harkaway was longlisted for the BSFA Award

My interview with Nick Harkaway about writing Gnomon was longlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award. It came as a complete surprise but probably shouldn't have because Nick is a brilliant writer and you should all read Gnomon. If you already have, the BSFA longlist is full of mind-bending science fiction, as are my reading recommendations.

Here are a few choice tidbits from the interview:

"There are specific technologies—automation is maybe the most obvious—which will kick a lot of things loose, though they won’t actually define what the next stage looks like; that’ll be determined by how we respond. So we could end up aiming for a Basic Income pseudo-plenty society (we’re not really post-scarcity without some pretty dramatic biotech or physics advances), or we could end up in a kind of hypercapitalist wasteland with no social security net and chrome city-states scraping the cloud layer. Or whatever."

"The ultimate end point of being under that control—and surveillance is first and always about control of the environment and of people as an environment—can be startling. That end point can be a fruit-seller setting himself on fire in a marketplace. It can be collaboration in a fugue state — which turns out to have been weirdly common in East Germany. As the Stasi files were released, it turned out that basically one-third of the population was spying on the rest, and a lot of those people were horrified. They didn’t remember doing it. Now, you can be skeptical about that, but it seems possible that a given percentage of them legitimately had no recollection of having been part of a surveillance machine. There was a massive psychological twisting to deal with an intolerable pressure. The other outcome can be revolution in the real sense. Bentham called the Panopticon a mill for grinding rogues honest. He was half-right. It’s a millstone, and it can force compliance, but it also creates explosive resistance."

"Reality is literally not what it seems. Your memory is wrong. Almost everything you think you know about yesterday probably didn’t happen quite the way you think it did, and every time you go over it, you’ll change it. And that’s before we talk about the real difference between the Newtonian world we experience of billiard balls zinging around, and the world Carlo Rovelli explores in Reality Is Not What It Seems, which will really bake your noodle."

"Why are we trying to build AI? It’s not because we want to have something that makes coffee properly and walks the dog. It’s because we want a perfect, wise friend to stop us from doing stupid shit. We’re trying to build the angels we were promised who never show up."

"Our societies are defined by the technologies that enable them. Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet."

"Science fiction is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, science fiction has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that."

"It was infuriating. I loved it, but it was horrible, like climbing a cliff face and then someone comes along in the night and just moves you back to the bottom. I had to write, go back, rewrite another character, then rewrite what I’d just done in line with the new text, then rewrite something else in line with both… and so on. The book is iterative in a very literal sense, or accreted, or laminated, or… I don’t know… 3D-printed rather than just formed or extruded."

"Narratives are compressed expressions of identity, cross-sectional slices. They can tell you things you need to know, but like any section or map, they do not tell you everything."

Complement with my conversations with other authors about craft and big ideas, this New Books in Science Fiction podcast interview, and Cyrus Farivar on why Cumulus should be your favorite surveillance-fueled dystopian novel.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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What sci-fi can tell us about the future

Tom Standage wrote a thought-provoking article about the feedback loop between science fiction and real world tech for The Economist. He happened to quote from an essay I wrote a few years back:

"Writing in Harvard Business Review in 2017, Eliot Peper, a novelist, argued that science fiction is valuable 'because it reframes our perspective on the world'. Business leaders should read sci-fi, he suggested, because exploring fictional futures 'frees our thinking from false constraints' and 'challenges us to wonder whether we’re even asking the right questions'."

You can read the original HBR piece here.

Complement with a reading guide for the building future, this podcast interview exploring how I wrote Borderless, and imagining new institutions for the internet age.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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

Advice for authors

I receive a lot of emails from authors asking for advice. This is where I send them.

My advice:

Don’t listen to advice, including mine. Live your life. Pay attention. Follow your curiosity. Spend less than you earn. Read books you love. Write books you want to read. Share them with people you care about. Write more books. Make every story better than the last. Pour your heart into every scene, every moment. Take your work seriously and yourself much less seriously. Ask hard questions. Challenge assumptions. Take charge of your career, build direct relationships with your readers, and put their interests above everyone else’s. Eat, sleep, and exercise. Be kind, generous, patient, and brave, especially in the face of adversity. Take the long view. Engage in deep conversations. Experiment. Have fun. Forge your own path.

Ideas and resources that I've found useful forging my path:

PSA for writers, artists and entrepreneurs: "Nobody knows what they're doing. Not even the 'successful' people whose work you admire. Everyone is making it up along the way. You can too."

In the Fellow Travelers series, I interview my favorite authors about their craft, big ideas, and lessons learned. It's a goldmine for insights into creative process.

The Book Business by Mike Shatzkin and Robert Paris Riger is a concise, comprehensive guide to the publishing industry based on many decades of insider experience. An absolute must-read for aspiring or experienced authors, editors, publishers, analysts, reviewers, or bookworms curious about the story behind their favorite stories. Complement with Mike's blog posts on what many people don't realize about the current state of publishing and the trends he believes will shape its future.

Publishing Is Hard from DongWon Song and Agents and Books from Kate McKean are two excellent newsletters sent by leading literary agents aiming to demystify publishing.

Speaking of newsletters, in this thought-provoking essay Craig Mod maps out why they've become so influential in publishing. Complement with Craig's top-notch newsletter, The Roden Explorer's Club.

Three pieces of advice for building a writing career: "Write. Read. Make your own way."

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman is an inspiring manifesto on creativity from of my very favorite writers. Gorgeously illustrated by Chris Ridell, this little book will replenish your creative energy, set off an avalanche of new ideas, and show you how imagination can change the world. Complement with Neil's interview on the Tim Ferriss podcast.

In addition to the many other authors he's interviewed on his podcast, Tim Ferriss has an excellent how-to guide to publishing on his blog.

Peers make the best teachers: "I’ve learned so much more from peers than from experts. Seek out kindred spirits, grow alongside them, help them achieve their dreams, and accept their help with grace. We are each other’s catalysts."

Maria Popova captures shining nuggets of wisdom from Ursula K. Le Guin in this essay exploring how we can use storytelling and imagination to fight injustice and oppression.

This Is Marketing by Seth Godin is a principled, actionable field guide for anyone looking to share their creative work. Seth strips away all the self-serving bullshit that taints so much marketing advice and cuts to the heart of what it means to do work you're proud of for people you care about. As a novelist, reading this book challenged me to examine what about my own work resonates most deeply with readers, and how I can better serve them. Complement with these two blog posts in which Seth explicitly lays out his advice for authors (here and here) and his Akimbo podcast.

How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels: "Write. Write a book you love. Read. Do things that improve people’s lives. Fans are humans, so treat them like people."

The Bestseller podcast interviewed me about sharing creative work and how to earn an audience.

Kevin Kelly's short essay 1,000 True Fans outlines a simple idea that has deeply influenced my approach to publishing.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is packed with invaluable pieces of wisdom for anyone making anything. Whether you're an artist, entrepreneur, writer, or dreamer, Steven will immediately sway you with his all-too-true observations about the creative process, thoughtful perspective, and actionable advice for getting to the heart of what you do best. I found myself marking page after page to come back and reread.

The Geekiverse interviewed me about the creative process behind the Analog trilogy: "I’ve always felt like I’m slipping quietly between worlds. I'm from Oakland, which is a powerful gravity well for cultural and technological revolution. My dad’s Dutch and my mum’s Canadian but I grew up in California, so no matter where I went, I always looked at things from a weird angle—like a future historian reporting on the present or an alien anthropologist filming a nature documentary about Planet Earth."

In this standout episode of the reliably excellent Scriptnotes podcast, Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin lays out his philosophy of how to write a movie, much of which is transferable to books and other forms of storytelling.

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is an insightful and inspiring account of the author's journey from circus performer to founder and CEO of CD Baby—the largest online distributor for independent music that made $70 million for musicians before Derek sold the company and donated the proceeds to support music education. This powerful memoir distills his lessons learned into a concise, compelling philosophy for living a creative life.

Most successful people have no idea what made them successful: "They weren't executing a clever plan, they were riding a rocket they don't understand. When we ask them how they did it, the post facto narrative is rationalization, not explanation. Even if they are the insightful exception that proves the rule, their path is unlikely to be replicable."

Formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art: "When I wrote my first novel, I opened up Microsoft Word and started typing. I didn’t take any classes, attend any workshops, or join any writers groups. Many writers learn a lot from all of those things, but formal instruction is never a prerequisite for making good art."

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu is an accessible and provocative history of the attention industry from yellow journalism, to World War I propaganda, to MTV, to Facebook. These dynamics are especially important not just because they shape public discourse, but also because they form the business model underlying so much of the internet. Between powerful theses and data-driven conclusions, Tim weaves in factoids and anecdotes sure to ignite your curiosity. This context on the media landscape is crucial for authors to understand. Complement with this blog post from music industry analyst Bob Lefsetz.

Kerelyn Smith interviewed me about my publishing journey: "When people talk about publishing there is a lot of noise in the room. When writers talk about publishing, it is just how you share your writing with the world. Your work is your intellectual property. So that means read your contract and understand all the terms. Know where your rights are. It’s the same with self-publishing: you are in charge and you need to realize all the stuff you are getting into. Being an artist is being an entrepreneur, because you are putting your work out into the world. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be fast. But it is the only way."

Deep Work by Cal Newport is an inspiring, practical guide to doubling down on concentration in an age of distraction. With overflowing inboxes, packed schedules, and social media only a click away, it's amazing we get anything done at all. Cal taps research in fields as diverse as neuroscience and economics to show the results focus can yield and dispenses no-nonsense advice for protecting and investing time and attention. This book provided great motivation as I finished up the manuscript of a new novel.

Three writing tips for novelists: "Only write the important/exciting/dramatic/conflict-filled bits. Think of your characters as friends, not fictional figments. Pour your whole self into your writing."

How to overcome the post-launch blues: "Post-launch blues are one of the things authors talk about amongst ourselves but rarely mention publicly: the emotional low immediately following the release of a project you've sunk years of life and energy into."

Hit Makers by Derek Thompson is a titillating deconstruction of the science of popularity. If you've ever wondered what really happens behind-the-scenes when a song, movie, book, or idea "goes viral," this is the book for you. In a series of brain-teasing anecdotes, Derek weaves together Impressionist painters, Hollywood hits, and social media phenomenons into a compelling analysis of what makes blockbusters tick.

This brilliant experiment from Duncan Watts reveals how music, books, movies, network effect tech, and other cultural products become blockbuster hits. In an echo chamber of post facto rationalization about the mechanics of popularity, Duncan's rare scientific rigor is a breath of fresh air.

Courtland Allen interviewed me about writing and publishing for Indie Hackers: "It's important to remember how significant a role luck plays in success, particularly in a hit-based field like literature. Nobody knows what will work and what won't. Instead of trying to engineer popularity, we need to focus on making truly amazing things that add far more value than they capture."

The Man with the Golden Typewriter by Fergus Fleming is a fascinating collection of personal letters written by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Ian's correspondence with his friends, editors, partners, and publisher provides a unique window into the driven, conflicted life and creative process of a man who was a (rather mediocre) spy himself before inventing 007.

A brief anatomy of story: "Every story is about getting lost in a dark forest and trying to find your way to the other side. Who you are (character) shapes what you do (plot) which defines the lessons you learn (theme) which changes who you are (transformation) at which point you stumble into sunlight."

What MUST happen next?: "The faster I advance the action, the more the momentum builds, and the more richness, depth, and conflict develops between the characters."

On the suspension of disbelief: "Realism and suspension of disbelief seem like they should go hand in hand, but actually operate on independent axes. We don't believe in stories because technical footnotes justify every leap of faith. We believe in stories because the characters believe in them, and we believe in the characters."

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday dissects the process of making and marketing classics. Drawing on examples ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to Craigslist and Iron Maiden, Ryan distills the timeless principles shared by Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Stefan Zweig. Perennial Seller deserves a spot on every author's bookshelf. Complement with his blog post about wanting to become a writer.

Richard MacManus had me on Creator Interviews: "I shared work I was proud of with people I cared about, people whose work I respected and championed, people who had real, personal, specific reasons for wanting to take a chance on my novels. Over time, that group of people grew."

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander shares the paradigm-shifting life lessons of a veteran therapist and celebrated conductor. Reading it challenged me to question deeply held assumptions and reframe my worldview. This book is a gift to the world—and makes a great gift for absolutely anyone. (With both authors narrating and integrated clips of referenced classical music, the audiobook is in a league of its own.)

Simple and difficult: "Listening, doing your best work, cultivating an open mind and heart, seeking inner truth, being there for your loved ones—the important things in life are simple and difficult."

On Writing by Stephen King is an insightful memoir on craft from one of the greatest storytellers of our time. Funny, personal, and thought-provoking, Stephen delves deep into his creative process—unearthing many gems for aspiring and experienced writers alike.

What is a story?: "A story is anything that makes you want to find out what happens next. A good story doesn’t leave you feeling cheated at the end. A great story changes your life and becomes part of who you are."

To write a novel: "To write a novel is to spin up a black hole that sucks in your fears, hopes, dreams, fascinations, doubts, ideas, speculations, and memories until it collapses into itself under its own weight. And there, in the dying light of fading plasma jets, sits a manuscript."

Hugh Howey published a series of blog posts that contains some of the best writing advice I've ever come across. Reading Hugh's blog has been a big inspiration to me over the years and his candid insights into the world of writing and publishing helped convince me to write my first book. This series is an invaluable resource for experienced or aspiring writers. Complement with Hugh's blog post about how to make sense of the different publishing paths authors can explore and his interview on the Shane Parrish podcast.

Reedsy interviewed me about working with Amazon Publishing: “No matter what publication path you choose or who you publish with, you are in charge of your career. Always put your readers' interests before anyone else's. Start from first principles and never accept ‘this is just how things are done’ when something doesn't make sense. Build your own audience on your own terms. Be kind. Be generous. Be patient. Every artist is an entrepreneur, so embrace, understand, and grow the business of your creativity.”

In The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham deconstructs why the traditional essay format can be so maddening, and provides a thought-provoking guide for how to write them much, much better. Complement with Paul's essay collection, Hackers & Painters, which is so dense with big ideas that it might set off a Geiger counter. He will challenge your assumptions on everything from software architecture and Renaissance history to business strategy and the craft of writing. More than anything, these essays capture and illuminate a comprehensive philosophy of Silicon Valley, providing a rare glimpse inside the worldview of hackers and founders seeking to build the future.

Franco Faraudo interviewed me for the Chicago Review of Books about inspirations, creative process, and how our feeds create our reality: "When I write about possible futures, I think in terms of human stories. Technology has implications for every part of our lives, from how we fall in love to how we make our living and where we choose to go on vacation."

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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

The best books I read in 2019

Every month, I send a newsletter recommending three books that changed the way I see the world. Every year, I review each missive and curate my absolute favorites. I discovered so many gems in 2019 that choosing between them was excruciating, so I hope you enjoy this list of the twelve best books I read this year.

Complement with my Fellow Travelers author interview series, this podcast about why reading fiction is like taking a journey through a foreign country, and my novels.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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

When is a project done?

When is a project done? Like really done. Done, done. It's a problem that every writer, artist, and creator struggles with.

An idea strikes from an orthogonal angle. You flesh it out, explore its possibilities, get to work. Eventually the fuzzy front end slides into focus and you grind through the messy middle until you reach the glorious, long-awaited end.

Except that—like any obnoxious inspirational poster will tell you—the end is really just a new beginning. Edits. Notes. Revisions. Feedback. Refinements. Real artists ship, but where exactly do you finally call a halt? You can't stop until you've made the project the best it can be, but what if the changes you're making threaten what makes it great in the first place?

When is a project done? When you glare at it, and it glares back—proud, unafraid, demanding to face the world on its own terms.

Complement with how to overcome the post-launch blues, why creativity is a form of leadership, and how to earn an audience for creative work.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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

In Praise of Sci-Fi Determinism

Maize Magazine interviewed me for a feature on futurism and science fiction:
Now that technology is changing our world at an unprecedented pace, science fiction is building a mythology of the 21st century—a mythology shaped by technology and climate change.
Complement with imagining new institutions for the internet age, using science fiction to understand the future of the web, and my recent interview over on the New Books in Science Fiction podcast.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Tor.comHarvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, TechCrunch, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

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