Ideas aren’t unique, execution is

In his seminal book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly notes that while we celebrate Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the same theory of evolution around the same time, both of them inspired by Thomas Malthus’s ideas about population growth. Likewise, Albert Einstein is history’s archetypal genius, yet the same year he published four papers that would remake physics, Hendrik Lorentz developed a mathematical architecture for spacetime, and the year before, Henri Poincare identified gaps in classical physics that only relatively could fill. The principle underlying multiple independent discovery also applies to invention and art. At least twenty-three people “invented” the lightbulb before Thomas Edison. And before J.K. Rowling introduced readers to Harry Potter, there were numerous books about orphans attending wizarding schools—including one with a protagonist named Larry Potter!

As I was gearing up to launch a new novel in May of 2020, I learned that one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, had a book coming out that November. Both Veil and The Ministry for the Future are set in near futures shaped by solar geoengineering and both start with an unprecedented global heat wave that kills twenty million people. I’m writing this blog post in early 2021, a few days after another of my favorite science-fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, announced that he has a near-future geoengineering thriller called Termination Shock set to publish later this year. “Termination Shock” was a working title for the manuscript that ultimately became Veil.

Robinson and I corresponded about the uncanny parallels between our respective novels, agreeing that the startling thing was that more writers hadn’t already explored this territory, and hoping that more would. Of course, while both stories start with a similar concept, they go in entirely different directions. Concepts in isolation are easy to talk about and, therefore, overrated. Most of the value lies in how a concept is brought to life, complete with layer upon layer of contingent idiosyncrasy. That’s why Harry Potter is Harry Potter and Charles Darwin is Charles Darwin.

Ideas aren’t unique.

Execution is.

We remember those who realize ideas in a singular way and make them stick in the culture.

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Complement with Creativity is a choice, Be bold, and the Science of Fiction on Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Literary leverage

As a writer, it’s important to remember that only a tiny percentage of people read, far fewer read full articles instead of just headlines, fewer still read books, and—even if it’s a massive hit—only a minuscule fraction of those rarified few will read your book.

Knowing that you will never reach everyone frees you to write for a particular someone. You can tell a singular story just for people like them, a story that speaks to who they are and who they are becoming, a story they won’t be able to put down or forget.

The right book at the right time can make a lasting impact on the life of the right person, and people who read books exercise outsize influence on the world. So while writing books will never earn you a mass audience, it may very well be the lever you need to make the change you seek to make.

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Complement with Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas, Strange and incongruous relation, and my advice for authors.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas

Stories are Trojan Horses for ideas, a metaphor that proves its own point. Composed thousands of years ago—initially in Homer's Odyssey and later in Virgil's AeneidOdysseus’s gambit still reverberates through our culture, evolving as it leaps from mind to mind, seeding generation after generation with images, archetypes, and ways of making sense of the world.

You can craft a story that conveys a single big idea like The Tipping Point or that teems with ideas like The Big Short. Stories can map new conceptual territory: 1984 became the definitive allegory of state surveillance. They can spark social change like The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking industry at the turn of the Twentieth Century and led to numerous reforms that ultimately resulted in the founding of the Food and Drug Administration. Science fiction is often called the “literature of ideas” because of its density of thought experiment, and novels like Snow Crash are deeply integrated into the feedback loop between imagination and technological innovation. This dynamic isn’t limited to books, films, podcasts, speeches, plays, essays, epic poems, and other formal storytelling formats. You can become a more interesting conversationalist by responding to questions with stories that embody the answer rather than stating it directly.

On their own, ideas are inspiring but ephemeral—aurorae in our mental skies. Stories ground them, humanize them, give them the narrative weight they need to make a lasting impact. And because the best stories are worth telling for their own sake, ideas can hitch a ride across millennia.

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Complement with how Richard Feynman made sense of complex ideas, what I learned about the power of stories from my secret-agent grandmother, and the Science of Fiction on the ideas embedded in Veil.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Strange and incongruous relation

My bookshelves are overflowing, and always have been. And it’s not just the shelves. As I write this, there are three separate piles of books on my desk. I’ve read many of these books. They are old friends. Seeing their spines reminds me why I love them, what I learned from them. I have yet to read many of these books. Seeing their spines reminds me what inspired me to buy them and all the amazing things I have yet to learn, yet to experience.

There are cycles at work. If I read a book and it doesn’t resonate with me, I put it in the Little Free Library in our front yard so that a stranger might crack it open to discover that it’s the perfect book for them. If a friend visits and I realize I’ve got something they need to read, I snatch it off the shelf and send it away with them. If I listen to an audiobook or read an ebook and fall in love with it, I pick up a physical copy to have an artifact that will summon the story in my mind whenever it catches my eye.

Unlike those at a library, my books have no organizing principle. They are not categorized by genre or publication date or title or author name or size or color or when I bought them or whether I’ve read them. You might find Cloud Atlas nestled up against Flash Boys, or Unaccustomed Earth hiding between “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and Sourdough. When I choose a book to read, I put it back somewhere else. Sometimes I grab a few books on a whim and rearrange them randomly throughout the shelves.

This apparent disorder allows stories to mix and mingle. No. That’s not quite right. These books, however much they mean to me, aren’t doing the mixing and mingling. They are beautifully crafted objects, but they are objects, and inert. Rather, the idiosyncratic and evolving arrangements transform the shelves into more than a place to store or display books. The bookshelves become an engine for curiosity and creativity. Whenever I enter the room and my gaze falls across them, they conjure a mandala of stories, ideas, and feelings within me—everything juxtaposed and interpolated in strange and incongruous relation.

So I guess there is an organizing principle after all: Foment literary anarchy. Let all those shuffling spines unconsciously challenge me to forge new connections, to trace lines between disparate concepts, to flex my imagination to encompass ever-expanding constellations of possibility, to fall in love with reading over and over again.

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Complement with Look to the liminal, these interviews with my favorite authors, and my book recommendations.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Cory Doctorow on writing Attack Surface

Cory Doctorow's new novel, Attack Surface, is inseparable from the zeitgeist—both are riven by insurrection, corruption, misinformation, and inequality—and the near-future it portrays illustrates how technology and politics are inseparable. The story follows a self-taught hacker from San Francisco who helps build the American digital surveillance apparatus out of a genuine sense of patriotism, only to discover that she’s propping up exactly the kind of unjust, predatory system she’d set out to defeat. Computers play a role as important as any other member of the diverse cast, and computing is treated with a rare technical rigor that reveals the extent to which our tools shape our lives and world.

Having established that dystopia is a state of mind and how to fix the internet, Cory uses Attack Surface to explore what it means to build a better future. This is a novel about reinventing democracy and imagining new institutions for the internet age. You will cringe. You will grit your teeth. You will keep turning pages late into the night because this is the kind of fiction that creates space for truth to reveal itself.

Over in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I asked Cory why cryptography is a crucial political tool, what tech workers can do to take responsibility for the systems they build, and how the manner in which Attack Surface was published evinces the precise themes the story grapples with.

Read the full interview here.

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Complement with Cory on Bandwidth, William Gibson on tracking reality's Fuckedness Quotient, and Annalee Newitz on who owns the future.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Yogurt

Ten years ago, my wife and I had a quirky neighbor named Dell. He taught us to make our own yogurt and the results were so delicious that we've made it weekly ever since and taught friends to do the same.

We just found out that Dell passed away two years ago.

It's profoundly bittersweet to consider the unpredictable echoes we leave in each other's lives. You can’t control cultures directly—be they yogurt or human—but you can create the conditions for them to grow and thrive.

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Complement with How to kill a dragon, What my secret agent grandmother taught me, and There aren't even any endings.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.

Magic

The world is brimming with magic. 

Summon it by bringing your attention to bear, by following the path into being. 

The keener your sense of presence, the more miraculous the universe reveals itself to be.

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Complement with Look to the liminal, Maria Popova on reality's density of wonder, and There aren't even any endings.

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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.