Eliot Peper is a novelist and start-up strategist living in Oakland. Oakland then, unsurprisingly, is the setting for his excellent cyberpunk novel Cumulus (which we reviewed). Before Cumulus, Peper wrote the Uncommon Series which are classified as financial thrillers and more recently he has written Neon Fever Dream, which is about mystery and conspiracy at Burning Man. We had the oppurtunity to interview Peper and extract insights from his mind.
ND: You live in Oakland, and grew up there. How has Oakland changed from your perspective? How did it inform Cumulus?
Peper: In many ways, Cumulus is a love letter to my hometown. Oakland has changed a lot over the years and many of those changes have been enormously positive. New restaurants and small businesses are opening up left and right. We’ve become the artistic and cultural hub of the Bay Area. Our neighbors are friendlier than in any other major city that I’ve spent time in.
But at the same time, we’re plagued by many of the social ills that America as a whole is struggling with. Two days ago, there was a shooting literally around the corner from our house at 10:30AM. Poverty dominates entire swaths of the city even as some wealthy neighborhoods hire private security and send their kids to private schools. Our street was the terminus for a multi-thousand person protest.
Oakland exemplifies the best and worst of our nation, and that sentiment infuses the entire book.
ND: You work with entrepreneurs and start-ups when you’re not writing and Cumulus is obviously inspired by start-up culture. Tell us about your experiences working in that sector. How did it inspire you to write Cumulus.
Peper: I worked a part time job at a startup in college and caught the entrepreneurial bug. I ended up cofounding a company and then joining a venture capital firm as an entrepreneur-in-residence. Now I work as a strategist, helping entrepreneurs tackle the new problems that crop up as their companies grow.
As a novelist, every life experience I’ve had influences the stories I tell. My work with startups shaped Cumulus in numerous ways. The world-building allowed me to imagine, explore, and articulate one direction that technology might take our society. The characters harness qualities common in Silicon Valley: the power of one person to change the world, the danger of unchecked ambition, and how seemingly insignificant things can generate enormous impact (both positive and negative). The story also projects the accelerating rise of economic inequality and cultural insularity.
ND: You quote William Gibson at one point in Cumulus. Has Gibson inspired your writing?
Peper: I’ve been a diehard fan of William Gibson as long as I can remember. Reading Neuromancer profoundly impacted the way I saw the world when I first read it in middle school. His stories weave together mind-expanding ideas with profoundly cool characters and settings that feel as real as they are strange. His Blue Ant books are some of my favorites because they examine the present through a science fiction lens.
ND: Then William Gibson called you on the phone! Tell us about that experience.
Peper: Essentially, I spent the conversation skirting the edges of a fanboy coma. Cumulus had come out two days prior and gone viral. His longtime literary agent, the estimable Martha Millard, reached out to me about representation and arranged the phone call so that Bill could tell me about his experiences working with her and share some writerly advice.
He was unbelievably sweet and brilliant. We talked about building a career as a writer, how the publishing world is changing, and our mutual love for British Columbia. Three tips he passed along were: (i) never do a multi-book deal with a publisher, (ii) don’t buy a big house with your first advance, and (iii) no matter what, keep writing. Oh, and I’m now happily represented by Martha. If you’ve written something amazing and are on the hunt for a literary agent, make sure to check her out.
ND: What other cyberpunk media has inspired you?
Peper: Some of my favorites include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and The Water Knife, Ramez Naam’s Nexus series, William Hertling’s Singularity series, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Daniel Suarez’s technothrillers, and anything by Neal Stephenson. I’m excited to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy and Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. HYPER-REALITY is amazing and terrifying.
ND: The Class divide is a huge theme in Cumulus. How do you feel about class issues in reality?
Peper: I think that economic inequality is a defining issue of our time. History is a story of inequality and the expansion of the middle class in the late 20th Century was an aberration. Technology has reshaped the playing field at every major turning point.
Prior to the development of agriculture, human societies were, by default, largely egalitarian. Farming helped us specialize labor, which increased net productivity but also allowed power brokers to hoard the returns on that productivity. The Industrial Revolution signaled a new shift and information technology is doing so again, only a few hundred years later. The magic of technologies like software is that they reach scale more efficiently than any prior tool we’ve built. But the efficiency of that scale also concentrates power in the hands of a small group of individual humans.
I’m an optimist and I believe that technology has helped us, and will continue to help us, make enormous strides towards improving quality of life. But technology and economics do not operate in isolation, they are part of our larger social ecosystem. And moral values like fairness, compassion, mutual sacrifice, and civic duty are even more important to emphasize now than ever.
If you’re interested in these issues, check out Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel.
ND: Technological trends are also very important in Cumulus. Where do you technological development in 10 years?
Peper: I’m neither interested nor good at making predictions. The beauty of science fiction is that it allows us to speculate about ourselves and our toys from the safety of our imagination. But the history of predictive speculation shows us that we’re most often wildly wrong.
Instead, I focus on trying to pay close attention to the strange details and currents of the present. What does it mean that more and more neighborhoods are hiring private security? What does it mean that computers are able able to cognify every manufactured object? What does it mean that so few smart young people are pursuing careers in public service? Thinking about these kinds of questions quickly yields dozens of visions of what the future might hold. That said, if folks are interested in a more systematized and prescriptive outline of important technological trends, I highly recommend The Invevitable by Kevin Kelly (I interviewed Kevin about the book here).
ND: Do you have any advice for fledgling authors?
Peper: Don’t listen to advice. Write stories you want to read. Read and share stories you love. Take your work more seriously and yourself less seriously. Follow your own curiosity and enthusiasm. Be kind. Be generous. Stay humble.
ND: What inspired you to self-publish Cumulus, rather than pursue traditional publishing?
Peper: My first two novels were published by a small press. I’ve self published three novels since then. Self publishing is wonderful because it creates a direct path from writers to readers, but it’s not a panacea. Writing is art but publishing is business. While I’m drafting a story, I use a creative lens. Once a story is written, I use an entrepreneurial lens. I very much enjoy self publishing but if a publisher made me the right offer, I’d experiment with that as well. There’s never been a better time to be a writer. We have more options than ever before.