In Praise of Sci-Fi Determinism

Maize Magazine interviewed me for a feature on futurism and science fiction:

https://www.maize.io/en/content/sci-fi-prediction-reality

“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 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.

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Why we suspend disbelief

Last night I binged Russian Doll. The recursive structure, nested plots, and multifaceted characters make it a philosophical thriller as much as a psychological one. As each thirty-minute episode slalomed across the finish line, I fumbled for the remote to inform Netflix that "YES! I'm still watching! More! Now!"

I woke up this morning thinking about how the story never reveals the mechanism behind its premise. It shows us what happens but never explains how any of this is happening. We eat the sausage without ever visiting the factory. That lack of explanation seems like it would threaten the show's verisimilitude. Why should we believe in a story that doesn't even pretend to be plausible?

And that's where things get really interesting. 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.

Russian Doll's cast doesn't understand why reality is shattering around them, but they act, react, fight, love, laugh, aid, and betray in ways that are true to themselves—a fundamental human truth that lends credence to the fantastical narrative dreamscape they traverse. In fact, we identify with their existential confusion precisely because the real world far exceeds our ability to understand it.

Complement with what is a story?what it feels like to write a novel, and how the creative process reflects our evolving selves.

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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.

Finding your voice

I've written eight novels, and I still can't quite wrap my head around the concept of voice. Like porn, you know it when you see it. But what does voice really mean?

Hypothesis: Voice is the ability to communicate with precision, whether you hope to communicate punchy one liners or epic quests through baroque dreamscapes.

Finding your voice means developing the craft of clearly articulating your ideas and feelings. You do not arrive at an answer through search, but hone a skill with practice.

Clarity is not short sentences. Or long sentences. Or sentences of any particular flavor.

Clarity is forging your imagination into a pebble that, when tossed, will ripple through other minds.

Complement with a brief anatomy of storythe creative process behind True Blue, and these interviews with my favorite authors about craft and creativity.

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Eliot Peper writes speculative thrillers that explore the intersection of technology and culture. He is the author of Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series, and his novels have earned praise from the New York Times Book Review, Popular Science, BusinessweekTechCrunchBoing Boing, io9, and Ars Technica. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Harvard Business Review, VICE, OneZero, 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.

Government is a technology, so fix it like one

This essay also ran in TechCrunch.

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently. Malka Older points out that, “Democracy is not a unitary state that can be achieved, but a continuous process. We need to keep reinventing and refining government, to keep up with changes in society and technology and to keep it from being too easy for elites with resources to exploit.”

What might the future of governance actually look like? Older is both a sociologist and a science fiction writer, and science fiction offers some interesting possibilities.

Older’s Infomocracy imagines a future in which governments are geographically distributed and compete to earn citizens, not territory—as if every nation were a sub in a geopolitical Reddit. In Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lighting, people voluntarily join one of seven Hives—each with its own distinctive political, cultural, economic, and social characteristics—whose legal systems interact via a shared baseline protocol. Palmer is a Renaissance historian at the University of Chicago and her rigorous study of the past informs her richly imagined future. Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon features a decentralized direct democracy supercharged with AI that automatically distributes public policy decisions to small groups of citizen experts—laws written and applied by ad hoc juries instead of professional politicians. In my own Breach, a tech giant leverages its ubiquitous digital platform to declare sovereignty, prompting escalating confrontations with nation-state powerbrokers:
"The feed ignored national borders, and Commonwealth had negotiated open immigration for all feed users. If you were on the feed, and essentially everyone was, you could move wherever you could afford to move. Seamless international mobility was no longer the province of the elite. The apocalyptic prognostications of nearly every government had not borne out. After an initial uptick, immigration rates had returned to relatively normal levels. The economy was already global, and people's lives and families were still local. The impact might be important over the long term, but it was undramatic in the short term. Or at least undramatic to demographers. It mattered far more to the millions of refugees whose status was rendered legal overnight, and to nativist groups whose riots laid waste to the homes they professed to protect."
Of course, you might not want to live through the scenarios these books extrapolate. Harkaway tweeted that Gnomon “is *supposed* to be ghastly, but as the world goes progressively into the dark it starts to look rather cosy.” The more apocalyptic the present feels, the more utopian certain dystopian visions appear to be.

But there’s another factor at work here too. Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow.

Complement with imagining new institutions for the internet age, this podcast interview about tech and geopolitics, and my conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson about science fiction and the crisis of representation.

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Eliot Peper is a critically acclaimed novelist who writes speculative thrillers that explore the intersection of technology and culture. His Analog Novels grapple with what it might mean for a tech platform to become sovereign and democratic. His writing has appeared in the Verge, Harvard Business Review, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books and he has given talks at Google, Comic Con, Future in Review, and SXSW.

Kevin Kelly on how technology creates opportunity

"Long before Beethoven sat before a piano, someone with twice his musical talents was born into a world that lacked keyboards or orchestras. We’ll never hear his music because technology and knowledge had not yet uncovered those opportunities. Centuries later the fulfilled opportunity of musical technology gave Beethoven the opportunity to be great. How fortunate we are that oil paints had been invented by the time Van Gogh was ready, or that George Lucas could use film and computers. Somewhere on Earth today are young geniuses waiting for a technology that will perfectly match their gifts. If we are lucky, they’ll live long enough for our knowledge and technology to make the opportunity they need."
From New Rules for the New Economy.

Complement with Kevin Kelly on the technology trends that will shape the next 30 years, look to the liminal, and the internet is just getting started.

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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.

Complement with how I wrote Breach, a brief anatomy of story, and the creative process behind True Blue.

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There aren't even any endings

It's difficult to walk through a rainforest and fear death. Scrambling through saplings growing out of nurse logs fallen across rotting stumps rich with moss, ferns, and fungus. Everything underfoot and overhead a verdant, fecund mess—churning, fractal growth with wonder at every scale. Each tree an ecosystem unto itself. Each tree a node in a vast, evolving network. An eagle's scream. Black piles of berry-ridden bear shit. Rivers thick with salmon. A sign that reads, "We don't inherit the earth from our grandparents—we borrow it from out children."

Dappled light on infinite green calls to mind a line from Neil Gaiman's American Gods: “Not only are there no happy endings, there aren't even any endings.”

A rainforest renders self-evident life's destiny to become other life.

Complement with a brief anatomy of story, how to kill a dragon, and what my secret agent grandmother taught me.

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