Nick Harkaway on Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality

I interviewed Nick Harkaway for the Los Angeles Review of Books about how to make sense of the future, the power of speculative literature, and how he wrote his mind-bending novel, Gnomon:

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/an-interview-with-nick-harkaway-algorithmic-futures-literary-fractals-and-mimetic-immortality

Gnomon muscled its way into my head and it gets to people in a way that seems to be equivalent—that sense of something organic happening independently in one’s own mind, slightly creepy, weirdly exciting… I hope.”

"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."

"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."

"There are aspects of the book—truthful allusions, deliberate mistranslations, misstatements, references and implications, signs and phrases, secrets I slaved over, faithfully wove in and reiterated in different sections—that I no longer remember or understand. I pushed my limits more than I ever have before."

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

"Borges is simultaneously enlightening and infuriating. He claimed to be too lazy to write a novel, and said it was just easier to write critical appreciations of fictional novels he might have written. I didn’t believe him when I read it, but now I almost do; to write the kind of novel he’d have written, you have to run your brain on so many levels, see things that can’t be envisaged. Each of his short stories is like an explosively compressed sculpture. You let it go off in your head and bang! It’s there and then you turn around and it’s… melted away."

Thanks to William Gibson, Max Gladstone, Hannu Rajaniemi, and Michael Dirda for their generous suggestions on this interview.

Complement with Cory Doctorow on Bandwidth, Kim Stanley Robinson on lunar revolution, and Meg Howrey on the inner lives of astronauts.


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A reading guide to building the future

I wrote an essay for TechCrunch that explores the literary culture of Silicon Valley. It digs deep into the feedback loop between books and innovation and turns up weird gems along the way. Think of it as a reading guide to building the future:

https://techcrunch.com/2019/02/16/the-best-fiction-for-building-a-startup/

"Every year, Bill Gates goes off-grid, leaves friends and family behind, and spends two weeks holed up in a cabin reading books. His annual reading list rivals Oprah’s Book Club as a publishing kingmaker. Not to be outdone, Mark Zuckerberg shared a reading recommendation every two weeks for a year, dubbing 2015 his 'Year of Books.' Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube, joined the board of Room to Read when she realized how books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate were inspiring girls to pursue careers in science and technology. Many a biotech entrepreneur treasures a dog-eared copy of Daniel Suarez’s Change Agent, which extrapolates the future of CRISPR. Noah Yuval Harari’s sweeping account of world history, Sapiens, is de rigueur for Silicon Valley nightstands."

"Cloud Atlas, The Inevitable, The Overstory, Gnomon, Folding Beijing, and AI Superpowers might appear to predict the future, but in fact they do something far more interesting and useful: reframe the present. They invite us to look at the world from new angles and through fresh eyes. And cultivating beginner’s mind is the problem for anyone hoping to build or bet on the future."

"The Kindle was built to the specs of a science fictional children’s storybook featured in Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, in fact, the Kindle project team was originally codenamed 'Fiona' after the novel’s protagonist. Jeff Bezos later hired Stephenson as the first employee at his space startup Blue Origin."

"Just as technological innovations are incremental and relational—machine learning wouldn’t exist without the internet which wouldn’t exist without the transistor—literature is best described as a single extended conversation. One author in particular made a significant impact on both Harkaway and Gibson, as well as many of the most influential computer scientists and venture capital investors in Silicon Valley: Jorge Luis Borges."

"Life is parochial. Every one of us is born into our own little pocket universe with a unique set of parents, friends, opportunities, threats, circumstances, and choices. To make sense of the world around us, to catch a glimpse of underlying reality, to notice those invisible forces, we must step outside ourselves. Reading is one way to do that. Books are windows into other hearts and minds. Books allow us to communicate with the dead and to imagine countless alternate dimensions. Books contain the ideas of our greatest philosophers, the insights of our most brilliant innovators, and the tales of our most inspiring storytellers."

Complement with why business leaders need to read more science fiction, my Whose Century Is It? interview, and my monthly reading recommendations.

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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.

Complement with how to create meaning instead of trying to find itthis radio interview about creativity, and do what matters.

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Interview with Indie Digital Media

I talked to Richard MacManus at Indie Digital Media about lessons I've learned writing and publishing novels:

https://indiedigitalmedia.com/2019/02/05/interview-with-author-eliot-peper/

"Books (and other creative products) succeed when readers tell other readers about them. That means that the most important thing I can do when I launch a new thing is get it into the hands of people who will love it so very much that they won’t be able to keep their enthusiasm to themselves, and then trust them to share it with the world."

"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. In short, I kept writing and built direct relationships with a small but growing community of readers."

"We can’t control popularity, but we can control inputs. Doing your best work and putting it out there exposes you to serendipity. Focus on that, and sooner or later the rest will take care of itself."

Complement with three pieces of advice for building a writing career, how to build an organic fanbase, and my Indie Hackers interview.

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Special Event: The Art of Fiction and Memoir

Bay Area people, mark your calendars! Eva Hagberg Fisher and I are hosting a very special joint book launch party and it's going to be, ahem, AWESOME.

We will be interviewing each other about our respective books (How To Be Loved and Borderless) and the art of writing fiction and memoir. Eva's flying out all the way from NYC and this will be the only Bay Area event I do this year, so we are going to go deep, dig into craft, and ensure you seriously don't want to miss it.

The estimable Novel Brewing Company is hosting and will have a bunch of special beers on tap. Oh, and we'll be supplying mouthwatering Cheeseboard pizza to those who show up on time.

When: 7PM on February 7th
Where: Novel Brewing Company, 6510 San Pablo Ave., Oakland
Bring: Friends, appetite, curiosity
Do: RSVP ASAP so we know how much pizza to order

For the uninitiated, Borderless is a lush, philosophical, near-future novel extrapolating the rise of tech platforms and the decline of the nation state and How To Be Loved is a raw, moving memoir about illness, friendship, and figuring out what love really means. Eva is an incredibly talented writer and I would follow her voice to the ends of the Earth. Seriously, read it (and you'll probably weep). Both books have earned critical acclaim and we can't wait to delve into the creative process behind them.

Come eat, drink, ask us hard questions, and blow your literary minds!

Complement with the East Bay Express on Borderless, three pieces of advice for building a writing career, and my Google Talk about Cumulus.

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Look to the liminal

Barely plausible niche ideas. The outskirts and underpasses of a megalopolis. Burgeoning self awareness. The cultural fringe. Technologies that appear to be nothing more than toys. The fractal outline of a fern frond. Marginal returns. Emotions that are just barely ineffable. Border towns. The moment just before you lean in for a first kiss. Coastal ecosystems. Flirting with irony. The lucid dreamscape halfway between sleep and wakefulness.

The ragged edges of things are always the most interesting part.

Complement with how the creative process reflects our evolving selves, why isolation can hinder creativity, and how reading science fiction can make your thinking more flexible.

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Kim Stanley Robinson on the crisis of representation, the future of geopolitics, and the power of science fiction

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