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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Fellow Travelers

Over the past few years, I've had the pleasure of interviewing more than twenty of my favorite authors. Our conversations focus on craft, big ideas, and lessons learned. Culture is a single extended conversation about the meaning of life, and we wander its paths in search of insight, however fleeting.

I've finally collected them all in one place: Fellow Travelers. May they aid you on your own journeys as much as they have me on mine.


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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.

Complement with this podcast interview about sharing creative work, a brief anatomy of story, and how to build a fanbase.


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Cory Doctorow on dystopia as a state of mind

It feels like we’re barreling into dystopia. We elect demagogues who seek to destroy the very institutions they nominally lead. We acquiesce to mass surveillance. We dismiss corruption as “the way things work.” We condemn our grandchildren to suffer accelerating climate change because we can’t get our own act together. We rationalize economic inequality as meritocratic and inevitable. We grow jaded to yet another shooting, yet another act of police brutality, yet another humanitarian crisis. We search desperately for meaning in a world that feels bereft of it. Sometimes, we just want to drop everything and walk away...

Cory Doctorow believes we’re missing the point. Doctorow is a prolific science fiction author, activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and co-editor of Boing Boing. One of his previous novels, Little Brother, is a personal favorite of Edward Snowden. Doctorow contributes to the Guardian, Wired, Locus, and Slate, and is a Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Lab. Few living humans can match the extreme density of ideas that he navigates with apparent ease.

Doctorow’s novel, Walkaway, takes place in a future ravaged by corporate greed, broken systems, and the effects of global warming. Eccentric billionaires cheat each other and everyone else, only to revel in post hoc self justification. Young dropouts struggle to get by on the fringes of society. Scientists work to dramatically extend lifespan for the ultra wealthy, even as hackers begin to upload human minds. Social unrest and brutal authoritarian crackdowns syncopate like a depressing political rhythm section.

All in all, it feels somewhat familiar.

Walkaway is so densely packed with weird and provocative concepts that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But perhaps the most illuminating is that dystopia is not a place, but a state of mind. When the next earthquake hits and the power goes out, do we reach for the shotgun and start looting? Or do we light a candle, dig the cookies out of the cupboard, and share them with the neighbor’s children? The beautiful thing about Doctorow’s novel is that so many characters demonstrate difficult but profound compassion in the worst of circumstances.

Reading Walkaway reminded me of my oma. Against her protestant family’s wishes, she married my Jewish opa in late 1930’s Holland. When World War II started, Opa built a coffin-sized cabinet above the wardrobe. Their neighbor, a wallpaper man, helped disguise it to look like a part of the apartment’s structure. During raids, Opa would hide in the cabinet, holding his breath, as Nazis searched the building. Meanwhile, Oma, protected by her protestant credentials, joined the Dutch Resistance and smuggled people, food, and information even as she raised three children during wartime. In the midst of the Holocaust, she risked everything to help strangers in need.

After the Allies’ bloody victory, Opa was one of the only survivors of his entire extended family and later hand-carved the lenses used to photograph the dark side of the moon. Oma was a awarded a medal by the Dutch Queen and later by the State of Israel. They rarely talked about their experiences, but their fierce, pragmatic kindness kindled hope in a dark world. Dystopia is assuming the worst of strangers. The best way to fight a culture of fear is with a thousand small acts of generosity.

We can walk away, and many do. Sometimes it all feels like too much. But the most interesting aspect of Walkaway is how the protagonists step up and face hard, ugly problems with clear eyes and open hearts. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

In the following conversation, we discuss humanity's most pernicious assumptions, how we need to update our world views and institutions to accommodate technological change, and the biggest questions we will face in the coming decades.


Walkaway is full of both visceral physicality and hotly-debated philosophy. What are the core philosophical questions that will shape the next few decades?

People throw around the terms "positive feedback loop" and "negative feedback loop" so much that they've lost their original sense from engineering. In engineering, "negative feedback" is the damping system: well-designed negative feedback engages whenever a process threatens to run away into some chaotic/catastrophic realm (the term "negative" gives it an unfortunate connotation). "Negative feedback" is the idea that lets us harness our ingenuity without being consumed by it. It's how we can spin up a turbine without having it spin free of its moorings and kill everyone in the room!

In theory, markets have lots of damping mechanisms—loan defaults provide negative feedback to reckless lenders, falling profits provide negative feedback to managers with bad ideas—but accumulated wealth allows for an awful lot of overrides to these mechanisms. CEOs can cook their books to keep shareholders happy, too-big-to-fail financiers can lobby governments for bailouts, expensive climate denial can muddy the waters about the true costs of carbon-intensive industry.

It's hard to distinguish between "healthy" growth—growth we can control—and cancerous, out-of-control growth whose true costs are shuffled around and disguised.

Much of the green left has decided that the answer to this is "de-growth"—reducing the world's population so that we can be less technologically intensive and, perhaps, more tractable.

But the "promethean left" says that growth is the only way out. There's no graceful way to reduce the world's population to 3 billion (or whatever) and the alternative is to use technologically intensive methods to feed and shelter us all without the brutal, deadly and chaotic consequences of a system that has many accelerators but no brakes.

How is technology changing our relationship with our own bodies?

For people who find satisfying and validating lives online—people who find their best subculture, or are able to overcome some cognitive, physical, or temperamental limitation through online discourse—there's an amazingly seductive idea that we are just meatsuits that serve as support systems for the "real" us, the part that lives between our ears.

At the same time, networked technology gives us the power to work and live in highly idiosyncratic ways, from customized UIs to customized views of the daily news to customized physical objects that also have the smarts to customize their action from moment to moment based on our sentiments.

This lets us get a lot more mileage out of our bodies! We can timeshift our conversations with potential collaborators, rather than forcing everyone to converge on common waking hours; our clothes and tools can be fashioned to suit the oddities of our anatomy and mentality, turning once-problematic quirks into potential superpowers.

Then there's the metaphorical colonization of our conception of ourselves; as previous eras have conceptualized their physical beings as analogous to agriculture, or clockwork, or engines, we are today tempted by metaphors of software and hardware.

As the saying goes, "all models are wrong but some models are useful." There are ways in which our minds and bodies are analogous to computers, but many ways in which they are not. Ironically, the fact that computer metaphors sometimes pay dividends in the form of better physical and psychological outcomes encourages us to trust them beyond the point of usefulness, to think of "consciousness" as something "uploadable" and so on.

Your characters wrestle with how their personal beliefs and worldviews aggregate into systems with unintended (often nasty) consequences. What popular assumptions do we hold dear today that are inaccurate and/or self-defeating?

The big one is the belief that, when the chips are down, strangers are barbaric and selfish and untrustworthy. This view is profoundly innumerate: it starts from the proposition that while you, your family, and the people you know are generally kind, honorable, and generous, you are in a tiny minority—and that somehow this tiny minority managed to all find each other, out of a planet of billions of cruel, vicious, and bad people.

It's far likelier that the people you know are representative of the world: generally good, sometimes careless or selfish, and, on the whole, wanting to make things better for everyone.

How is technological abundance already undermining historical institutions and empowering new ones? What does it mean to be a walkaway today?

The copyright wars of the past 20 years are a good example of the ways in which abundance disorders our minds. We created copyrights and other limited monopolies to "promote the useful arts" (as the U.S. Constitution has it), but these were relentlessly converted from a utilitarian policy—we create exclusive rights to the extent that this produces more creative works—to a moral right to own "your" creations (a work of mental gymnastics that requires that you relegate all the stuff you pilfered to make your work as being in a separate category of creativity that doesn't give rise to these moral rights, while elevating your own creation to a more important status that does attract them).

Today, there are modes of production and reproduction that militate for a much more limited—and in many cases nonexistent—set of exclusive rights, both as a matter of economic growth, as well as creative freedom and human rights (universal access to all human knowledge is nothing to sneeze at!).

But at national and intergovernmental bodies, we are incapable of considering that this might be the case. Instead, we're *strengthening" "intellectual property rights"—allowing GM to claim that the copyright in a car-engine's software gives the automaker the power to decide who can fix that engine.

There are a lot of people carving out weird, walkaway-ish existences in our world—itinerant hackers and roving activists and makers of all description. I see a lot of this in the so-called millennial circles, thanks to the lack of other options—communal living, couch-surfing, gigging, and taking the streets in the name of Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

What did your creative process look like for Walkaway? How has your work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation informed your fiction, and vice versa?

My creative process for all my books is pretty much the same. I set a word target and write that many words, every day, even on days when I feel like the words suck. I finish mid-sentence every day so I have an easily extended rough edge for the next day.

I trawl the web all the time for blog posts for Boing Boing, and writing them up for public consumption helps me think them through and sets up my subconscious to look for unobvious and interesting connections between seemingly disparate phenomena that I can bring out in fiction.

Working for EFF keeps me very engaged in the fundamental justice of a networked world, and exposes me to a constant stream of people working on cool and important things, a front-row seat for the weirdest, most important, often least-sexy, and thus most obscure fights in our modern age.

In addition to myriad new technologies, Walkaway imagines new political realities. What political science fiction books have changed the way you think about society?

I was profoundly moved by Kim Stanley Robinson's utopian novel Pacific Edge, which imagines a heavily industrialized, high-tech society where selfishness is a vice that can't be openly practiced. It's odd how rare that is.

Bruce Sterling's novel Distraction introduced a networked politics grounded in making and smart-matter and loose, networked affinity groups long before these were obvious things in our world. It's decades old, and still futuristic.

Not content with resignation, Walkaway’s protagonists put everything on the line against unassailable odds again and again and again without surrendering their ideals. When you face ugly truths or impending dystopia in the real world, how do you fight on? In your darkest moments, from what reservoirs do you draw strength?

To be honest, I often despair. But experience has taught me that the landscape shifts, and that seemingly hopeless situations acquire new avenues and paths of action, given time and perturbation. So when I feel like giving up, I go through the motions, power through, and fake it until things start to look up.

It's pretty much the same as my approach to so-called "writer's block," which, for me, manifests as the sense that the words I'm writing are terrible. I know from hard-worn experience that I'm capable of writing unworthy words—but I also know that there is *no* correlation between the way I feel about the words I'm typing and how I'll view them given the time and distance to look on them dispassionately.

So my cure for "writer's block" is to remind myself, intellectually, that my emotional certainty that I'm writing shitty words is an illusion, and I just need to keep putting down sentences until the feeling passes.


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.


Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.

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Alexander Weinstein on how technology is changing what it means to be human

Technology is something we often think about in abstract terms. We read the latest trend reports, keep an eye on new scientific papers, or maybe just browse Wired every once in awhile. We know technology is important. But its prevalence belies its impact. We complain about the wifi as we soar around the world in the belly of an aerospace engineering miracle, rocketing us to our destination at hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet in the air.

Living in an age of wonders, we suffer from boredom.

In his magnificent collection Children of the New World, Alexander Weinstein’s masterfully crafted science fiction short stories illuminate the impacts of technology on our most intimate personal lives. A family adopts a robot to provide companionship for their only child. A team of hipster entrepreneurs make a living constructing artificial memories for enthusiastic fans even as their real world relationships collapse. A washed-up extreme skier struggles with false pride and flagging celebrity as climate change renders his calling obsolete.

Weinstein tackles topics as diverse and difficult as food system risk, virtual relationships, and the neurolinguistic effects of digital media with equal aplomb. Every tale will suck you in and spit you out with a thousand ideas, as riveting and provocative as a literary Black Mirror.

Taken as a whole, Children of the New World is a bold and harrowing book in constant pursuit of what technology means to us in the deepest sense. Where some science fiction shines on its technical merits, Weinstein’s stories summon worlds rife with thought experiment but also reveal the raw, subtle, and, conflicted inner lives we all lead.

In the following conversation, we discuss what it means to be human in a world dominated by technology, how speculative short stories can reveal hidden answers to important questions, and what we should to prepare for the new world we are barreling into.


How is technology challenging our conception of what it means to be human? What does tomorrow hold for our internal lives?

I find that many of our newest cyberspace technologies lead us away from inner contemplation and instead make us much more attached to the material world. This is interesting, because in many ways the internet is the exact opposite of material. There’s nothing solid to hold onto—we may think we’re crushing small pieces of candy, but they’re just programs and pixels. Similarly, when we introduce virtual reality into the mix, there are fully realized landscapes that seem material to us but are completely fabricated.

So technology is making many of our human interactions intangible rather than physical. Our text-messages go LOL-ing down an invisible echo chamber. We reach out to online dating profiles and have our desires stoked or quelled by their virtual responses. And we all have hypothetical Facebook friends—people we haven’t seen in decades, but who we know just had a great meal, or a baby, or got married. We don’t actually hear their voices or hang out with them in person though, and so these old acquaintances might as well be AI programs!

All of this leads us to a diminishment of some of the central elements of what it means to be human: To have actual physical contact with others, to learn empathy for strangers (rather than swiping them into the trash as our dating apps would have us do), to be able to sit quietly with another person without the need of checking a virtual screen. So I think technology is changing our ability to be present in a very deep and meaningful way.

Of course there are plenty of wonderful things about technology—the way it can help to motivate social action (and boy do we need active resistance these days). It allows us to find friends who might otherwise have been lost forever, and couples do meet online and fall in love. These are wonderful aspects of the internet, and I think when used well, it can bring people together. More importantly, we’ll likely need technology to help get us out of some of the ecological predicaments we’ve created (i.e. the need for wind/solar power and clean drinking water). But on the day-to-day social level, the Internet seems to be moving us toward a more robotic consciousness.

How do you tease out the personal, emotional, and philosophical implications of technological innovation? What thought experiments did you perform while working on this book?

Many of the stories in Children of the New World emerged from my own bumbling attempts to use technology. For example, "Saying Goodbye to Yang," came from my computer crashing. One night my computer died, taking with it much of my work. I was pretty devastated because I had an emotional connection to the laptop (it had traveled with me through three states, been with me when I got into an MFA program, etc.) and I began to cry. At that moment, I realized I was emotionally connected to my electronics! So my laptop became Yang, the robot child who malfunctions in the story.

In other cases, I needed to experience the emotional component to fully understand the technological metaphor I was working with. For example, in "Openness," the characters are dealing with a kind of psychic technology where they can virtually access people’s inner lives and send mental text-messages. The idea for the psychic technology came quite quickly. I was on a crowded bus in Boston, and I suddenly thought of how useful/horrifying it would be if we could project our likes/dislikes/preferences onto a visual aura around our bodies. You could look across a room and know that a stranger enjoyed Tom Waits, or hated cats, or was originally from Maine, and, in turn, you could psychically message people who shared your interests. So the technology of the story was fully formed, but I couldn’t yet place the human conflict of the story.

It was about two years later, as I was going through a break-up with a woman I loved dearly, that the human element of the story took shape. The break-up dealt with putting up emotional walls—and as we were navigating this, I suddenly understood how the psychic technology of layers was a metaphor for the emotional barriers which arise in a romantic relationship. This became the central theme of "Openness" which explores the way in which we can retract our “layers” from those closest to us.

So, rather than consciously trying to work out the emotional/psychological implications of my stories, it’s often my own life and the trials of the heart that provide the deeper plot/conflict/themes in my fiction.

What present observations or realizations inspired the futures portrayed in these stories? What important details in our own lives do we regularly overlook?

Alongside the technological satire that my stories present, I’m working with two main themes: Ecological/social disaster & human kindness.

In terms of ecological/social disaster, I’m regularly appalled by the governmental and corporate decisions that destroy our culture and our environment. I’m thinking here of fracking, the destruction of Flint’s water supply by corporate/political greed, coal mining and mountaintop removal, the Dakota Access Pipeline, attacks on Native Americans and indigenous tribes worldwide... I could go on. All of these major human rights atrocities are happening right now, and they’re often overlooked in our daily lives (unless we happen to be the recipients of the attacks… which, alas, we all ultimately will be if we don’t stand up together).

The dystopian landscapes in my stories are just a bit further down the line than where we find ourselves now. In "Heartland," a family is selling off the topsoil of their yard and peddling their children’s online privacy to survive. In "Migration," everyone has moved into virtual worlds while the cities become ghost towns of mini-malls and empty car dealerships. There are oil spills, American wars against Buddhists, and second Ice Ages ravaging the planet. All of this came directly from looking at the disasters we are engaged in on a daily basis.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is my faith and optimism for human goodness. While the backdrop of my stories are dystopian, my characters are still trying to love well, to understand what it means to care for one another, and to become better people. It’s often these small but profound daily acts of love and kindness which we can also lose sight of.

Being with an old friend in contented quiet, lifting your child high into the air, showing kindness to a stranger, or telling those close to you that you love them: There’s a great medicine in all of these things, and it’s these moments of love, for my family, for fatherhood, for friendship and love, which I’m also striving to portray in my fiction.

What does your creative process look like? What was the darkest moment you faced writing this collection, and how did you get through it?

I always have paper close at hand—because I find that when stories suddenly “bite” I want to get them onto land as soon as possible. This might mean that if I’m driving, I have to pull over to the side of the road (somewhere safe) and write for an hour. Or I might be getting ready to go to sleep—and I’ll have a flash of the plot of a short story. Rather than go to sleep, I’ll turn the light back on, get out my journal, and begin writing (sometimes for the next 2-3 hours) even though I have class to teach in the morning.

I write by hand first—it allows me to be much looser and more experimental in the first draft. This way, I can make a mess on the page without worrying about it, and I have fun while I’m drafting. I take each story from the handwritten page to the computer, and from there I’m usually drafting/revising/editing the piece anywhere from eight to a dozen times. My stories take six months to a year to reach completion. Luckily, I have at least 4 or 5 stories working at a time, all in various stages of completion, so I don’t really notice how long it takes for each story’s gestation period.

As for the darkest moment, it’s more a question of which one! When I first started sending work out, I didn’t know how hard it would be to get published. I’d waited many years to submit my work to literary journals, had chiseled my stories, and thought I’d get published quickly. Well, my first publication didn’t come until 94 rejections later! During that time, I would literally come home after teaching on a Monday and find a dozen rejections in my inbox! So that was a hard time. And there have been many of these dark nights of the artistic soul along the way. In retrospect, though, these moments made me a stronger writer. I learned that regardless of acceptance or rejection, I was going to keep writing, and this was deeply liberating.

What makes the best short stories great?

For me, the story either has to engage the heart or the imagination (and even better when it can achieve both). My favorite stories touch my heart and, in this way, increase my sense of compassion, empathy, and understanding for the world. Writers like James Baldwin, Grace Paley, and George Saunders (just to name a few) work in this mode.

There are also stories which create a deep sense of awe and wonder. I’m thinking here of the work of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Stephen Millhauser. And of course there are other forms of greatness. I love the experimentalists and high-wire meta-fictionalists like John Barth, Tatyana Tolstaya, and Michael Martone.

I suppose, in all these cases, what unifies the work is that the story transports me to a place of deeper awareness.

What are the most common mistakes short story writers make? How do you approach teaching creative writing? What questions should writers ask themselves when they embark on a new project?

I only have to look at all the mistakes I made early on to remember the most familiar pitfalls! The biggest pitfall may be the wish to be seen as cool, or intelligent, or scathing, or avant-garde, or ironic, etc. I would never have admitted it at the time, but early on I totally wanted people to like me because of my work. What I’ve learned is that the moment this ego-level anxiety takes over, the story and characters become compromised.

There’s also the problem of trying to do too much in a short story. It’s the commonly taught adage of “killing your darlings.” Over time I’ve found that I’m often cutting out more than I’m adding, and so learning how and when you’re putting too much into a story is a skill, so you don’t overstock a piece with ideas that are best saved for another story.

Recently, I’ve found myself teaching away from plot. I still explain the idea of conflict, the Freytag pyramid, internal and external character development, and other traditional “rules” of fiction. But I think what’s crucial is to invite students to play within their writing again.

Many writers are worried about all the above issues (being accepted by their peers, accomplishing what they need to make a “successful” short story, worrying about publication, etc.) And so, inviting writers to return to that creative space, where their imagination can play, is a vital first step.

This philosophy is what led to me founding The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. I wanted to create a place where writers could explore their craft and support one another. I believe that when we stop worrying about what it is we’re “meant” to do in our writing, the subconscious steps in to produce meaningful work. Later, we’ll have to use our editorial skills to shape the work but early on just allowing oneself to lean into the exploration can transform our craft.

I think the big question worth asking oneself when starting a new project is: What’s the inherent feeling of this piece? The answer may be a mood (based on the setting), or the voice of a main character, or some piece of life which still sticks in your heart like a splinter and which only the written word will dislodge. Write toward that feeling, listen to its melodic scale, and keep digging to excavate the story. Then, later, when the short story/poem/novel has been unearthed, you can begin to ask questions like: What haven’t I unearthed yet? What will help give this more shape? What parts don’t I need?

What should we keep in mind as we hurtle towards the new world?

Kindness, compassion, empathy, love, and activism. If we ask ourselves how we can make this world a better place, that’s a good daily practice. Then our job is to look around, to see who is suffering, and work toward ensuring justice, equality, and wellbeing for our fellow humans and the earth community.

I’m still deeply hopeful that we can avoid the technological futures I write about in Children of the New World, along with the dystopian realities that our present corporate and political leaders are creating. And I’m hopeful that we’ll find ourselves in a world with a much greater sense of equality and love.


Find more Fellow Traveler interviews right here and subscribe to my newsletter to find out when new ones drop.


Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.

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Annalee Newitz on who owns the future

Ownership often feels like a natural law. We all know what’s ours, and sometimes covet what isn’t. Hedge fund managers trade against each other in an endless cycle of one-upmanship. Kindergarteners refuse to share. Some master bathrooms have jealously guarded twin sinks. The pursuit of rational self-interest is what fuels the economy, right? Where would we be without our stuff?

But private property isn’t like gravity or special relativity. It’s a product of human imagination, what Yuval Noah Harari would call a “collective fiction.” Your house is only “yours” because we all agree to abide by a set of rules that assign you dominion over the plot and the building that stands on it. The deed is a ritual object that demands we respect the conventions it represents. If the government wants to build a highway through your neighborhood, their eminent domain seizure will show you just how quickly those rules can be rewritten.

A mountain of legal precedent and rich cultural history frame how we define ownership for physical objects, but we only decided to allow things like ideas, inventions, or digital goods to be considered private property relatively recently, and it turns out that physical objects aren’t always great analogies for the ownership of things like DNA sequences, software, or pop songs. Advances in computing, biotech, and a host of other areas confound the picture further, and raise entirely new questions.

These are the questions Annalee Newitz wrestles with in her debut novel, Autonomous.

Autonomous is an electrifying science fiction adventure that maps out the future of biotech, AI, and robotics. The story is fun, fast-paced, and jam-packed with sharp speculation on everything from patent law to human trafficking. As the diverse, quirky cast barrels through countless unexpected plot twists, Newitz deftly tees up thought experiments that explore the consequences of allowing things like source code and genes to become private property. This entertaining brainteaser of a novel will rope you in with its hackers, pirates, and robots, and leave you wondering whether we are already living with, or perhaps under, real AIs that we just happen to call corporations, financial markets, and legal systems.

The breadth and rigor of extrapolation in Autonomous is mind-bending, and Newitz, a veteran journalist, draws on the expertise she’s developed reporting on science, technology, and the future to construct a vision of tomorrow that stands up to serious scrutiny. She’s an editor-at-large for Ars Technica, founded io9, and has written for a wide array of publications including Wired, the New Yorker, and New Scientist. Newitz’s nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember lays out how human ingenuity will help us avoid mass extinction and echoes of this underlying message of pragmatic hope in the face of disaster reverberate through Autonomous.

In the following conversation, we discuss the life and death implications of intellectual property law, the vital roles that journalism and science fiction play in our culture, the future of ownership, and who owns of the future.


The creation, economics, and control of intellectual property are integral to the future Autonomous portrays. Why is IP such an important issue in this version of tomorrow? What core contradictions are inherent in our definition of IP today and what side effects do they already have?

I started really thinking about this question when I was working as a policy analyst at EFF back in the mid-00s. At that time, folks like Lawrence Lessig and Wendy Seltzer were worried that IP expansionalism was going to undermine free speech (which it did). I worked on a project with Jason Schultz, now at NYU, that was dedicated to challenging overbroad tech patents by asking the PTO to re-examine and nullify patents on ridiculous "inventions" like recording a concert and putting it online. This was kind of at the dawn of the era of patent trolls, and we were trying to fight back. In Autonomous, my character Jack Chen is in some ways continuing that fight we and many other activists started. I wanted to dramatize how these problems of patent trolling and IP hoarding aren't just wonky issues, but truly a matter of life and death. When you consider how pharma and biotech companies use dirty tricks to extend the lifespan of their patents, you can see immediately that intellectual property regimes exert tremendous power over our lives. A guy like Martin Shkreli is just the first of many pharma robber barons that we're going to see.

Taking that a step further, how is technology changing the definitions of private property, money, and ownership? How do our current versions of these ideas fit into historical context? How might they change a few decades down the road?

Maybe a better question is how do ideas of private property and money change the way we build new technologies? These ideas become a prison house that impedes innovation. The quest for profit warps the way we design technology, and leads to situations where billions of people become vulnerable to shady outfits like Cambridge Analytica, the company that used Facebook data to spread disinformation during the recent US presidential election. On the bright side, humans are inventive little creatures and we are always coming up with ways to circumvent rules, whether they are hard coded or part of a clickthrough agreement.

How do these ideas apply to human trafficking and modern slavery, issues that are painfully relevant today and that Autonomous extrapolates? How are the internet, AI, and synthetic biology changing our conceptions of human rights and shaping how we choose to apply or defend them? What should we do today to build a future we actually might want to live in?

One of the most chilling comments I've heard from more than one AI developer is that the goal is to create happy slaves. Of course, usually the people who say this don't mean it literally--they assume that some putative future AI will behave exactly like a servant but without all the baggage of being resentful about their lowly roles in society. As a corollary, you have Elon Musk saying that AI are on the verge of becoming sentient and crushing us all, so we need to program them with failsafes. What will these failsafes be? Some version of Asimov's Three Laws, which force conscious beings to place another being's needs ahead of their own? I'm grateful that ethicists like Damian Williams are already questioning these ideas, pointing out that any being which is "conscious" will not enjoy slavery. Of course we don't know how to define human consciousness and intelligence, as AI researcher Joanna Bryson has pointed out, so it's hard to say what's likely to happen with these issues as we move forward.

Part of me thinks we may never really have AI as many science fiction writers (including me) have depicted it. Maybe AI will be more like a prosthesis for human brains, making us "smarter" but also more vulnerable to brain hacking. Nicky Drayden, author of Prey of Gods, has talked about this idea a lot. Maybe we should be planning for a cyborg future, rather than a future of easily-distinguishable humans vs. robots.

Regardless, I believe that any effort to create robot slaves is bound to affect how we treat each other. You can't have slavery sectioned off into one part of the culture, because slavery is a system that affects everyone. Once we start seeing humanoid beings as slaves, it's only a matter of time before we see other humans that way too. Indeed, slavery is still alive and well in our culture. It takes the form of prisons, of forced labor on fishing vessels, and what amounts to indentured work at tech manufacturing plants. We already treat each other like robot slaves. In Autonomous, I've tried to suggest that it won't be robots who enslave humans in the future—instead, it will be corporations who enslave robots and humans.

What can Autonomous’s treatment of “repos” teach us about the present and future of journalism? As surveillance and disinformation vie to capture our attention and shape our worldviews, what can we do to empower ourselves? Can we be free and were we ever free? What does freedom mean in a world with a ubiquitous digital substrate?

What do you mean by "free"? Can you be free to harass people on Twitter and create free speech zones for racism on Reddit? Apparently, yes. Can you be free to moderate and regulate digital tools that make it easy to automate the process of driving vulnerable groups out of public conversations? Nope. New information tech is going to force us to reevaluate what free speech really means. I think the rise of automated disinformation will push this process along, too. Journalism will definitely survive, and proliferate into new formats. But we will need both new regulations and new kinds of media education to protect people from scams and malevolent agitators.

How has your own work as a journalist and editor influenced your work as a novelist and vice versa? How do your creative and research processes differ? What surprised you most about the experience of writing fiction?

My journalism is integral to my fiction writing process. I get a ton of ideas while reporting on tech and science, and there are a lot of themes that cross from my nonfiction into my fiction. What's pleasurable about writing fiction is that I never have to worry that I'll write something that ruins a person's day—or their career. I can torment my fictional characters as much as I want! I think what surprised me, however, was how much I still felt that my fiction needed fact checking. I ran my novel by several scientists to make sure I wasn't saying anything that would inspire facepalms. Scientists are among my favorite readers, and I consider my science fiction to be the cultural wing of the scientific project. So it's very important for me to get science right, even while spinning crazy futuristic lies about it.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What role does it play in your life? What sparked the technological thought experiments Autonomous depicts? What inspired its speculative social and political institutions?

For me, science fiction is about hope. Even at its darkest, it provides us with a way to think about our problems in the safe space of our imaginations. I wanted to offer readers a picture of how people cope with oppression and unfair institutions in their everyday lives. Some characters try to work within the system, while others go completely rogue. Still others just want to survive, and simply doing that is a huge accomplishment. No matter how fucked up things get, people will always resist. And they'll do it by telling each other stories, and making connections with each other. To me, friendship is the smallest measurable unit of political resistance. This is something that LA Kauffman captures so beautifully in her book Direct Action, which is about protest movements after the 1960s. So I guess you could say I'm inspired by small alliances between people, and by the big movements that arise to challenge oppressive institutions.

What books have fundamentally changed the way you see the world? What have you read recently that you simply can’t get out of your head? Who are some of your biggest creative influences?

There are tons. Like a lot of politically-minded scifi nerds, I've been a longtime fan of Fredric Jameson. And Judith Butler's early work contributed a lot to my robot character Paladin's gender troubles. My biggest SF influences are probably Octavia Butler, Iain M. Banks, Joanna Russ, and (more recently) NK Jemisin. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of Ursula Le Guin, Lawrence Yep, and Ray Bradbury. I'm also one of those weirdos who loves to read books similar to the books I'm writing or have written, and I adored reading Ann Leckie, Malka Older, and Martha Wells during the whole process of bringing out Autonomous--though mostly I read them after I was finished, so I can't say I was influenced by them so much as in total admiration of their work. I'm also a huge fan of many science journalists, including Rose Eveleth, Ed Yong, Lizzy Wade, Maddie Stone, Sarah Zhang, and Charles Mann. And many, many more. My days are divided between reading scientific journals, science journalism, and science fiction. I can't believe how lucky I am to have a career where I get to do this. I feel like I've tricked people into letting me do what I love. As long as I stay tricky, my life will be pretty good.


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Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.


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