If you are looking for something powerful, creative, provocative, and beautifully done, go look at True Blue by Eliot Peper and team.
In 2017, I wrote a post titled A Clever Short Story About Discrimination about the short story that Eliot had written. It was an idea that David Cohen had. He shared it with Eliot, who then wrote the short story. David then funded a project for Eliot to turn it into an “internet public art project.”
Eliot describes how they made True Blue. It’s a fabulous integration of story, illustration, and design on the web.
Independent of the beauty of the project, the story is a critically important one for today’s society. While a cynic will say “same as it ever was“, consider if eye color (instead of skin color, or gender, or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or …) was a key “categorizer” in our society.
On Monday, I wrote a post titled Look Up and Don’t Give Up that included the 2:48-second video of a mama bear and her cub struggling across a steep cliff covered with snow. 20+ million people have also looked at it and, I expect, found inspiration from it as I did.
I didn’t think very hard about this until this morning when I read The Atlantic article titled The Problem Behind a Viral Video of a Persistent Baby Bear: What appears to be a life-affirming triumph is really a cautionary tale about drones and wildlife.
As I was reading the article, I flashed back to several books from two different authors – William Hertling and Daniel Suarez – that included autonomous drones (and drone swarms) as part of their plots. I remember being incredibly anxious during the sections on killer drones controlled (or programmed) by bad guys, and then even more anxious when the drones appeared to be completely autonomous, just carrying out whatever their mission was while coordinating with each other.
And then I felt pretty uncomfortable about my enthusiastic feelings about the cub and the mama bear. I remembered the moment near the end of the video where the mama bear swats at the cub and then the cub falls down the snow-covered mountain for a long time before stopping and starting the long climb up again. I had created a narrative in my head that the mama bear was reaching out to help the cub, but the notion of the drone antagonizing the mama bear, which responded by trying to protect the cub, rings true to me.
My brain then wandered down the path of “why was that idiot drone pilot sending the drone so close to the bears?” I thought about how the drone wasn’t aware of what it was doing, and the pilot was likely completely oblivious to the impact of the drone on the bears. I thought about how confused and terrified the bears must have been while they scrambled over the snow to try to reach safety. Their dash for cover in the woods took on a whole new meaning for me.
I then thought about what encountering a drone swarm consisting of 100 autonomous drones would feel like to the bears. I then teleported the bears to safety (in my mind) and put myself in their place. That most definitely did not feel good to me.
We are within a decade of the autonomous drone swarm future. Our government is still apparently struggling to get voting machines to work consistently (although the cynical among us expect that the non-working voting machines are part of a deliberate approach to voter suppression in certain places.) At the same time, we can order food from our phone and have it delivered in 30 minutes, no matter what the food is or where we are located. Humans are still involved in the delivery, but that’s only a temporary hack on the way to the future where the drones just drop things off for us.
When I talk to friends about 2030 (and yes, I hope to still be around), most people extract linearly from today. A few of my friends (mostly sci-fi writers like William and Eliot Peper) are able to consistently make the step function leaps in imagination that represent the coming dislocation from our current reality. I don’t think it’s going to be visitations from aliens, distant space travel due to FLT drives, or global nuclear apocalypse. Sure, those are possible and, unless we get our shit together on humans on several dimensions, we’ll continue our steady environmental and ecological destruction of the planet. But, that kind of stuff is likely background noise to the change that is coming.
It’s the change you can see through the bears’ eyes (and fear) while at the same time the joy that humans appear to get – mostly – from observing them, but not really thinking about the unintended consequences. While the killer AI that smart people scarily predict could be front and center, I think it’s more likely our inability to anticipate, and react to, unintended consequences that are really going to mess us up.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I adore Eliot Peper. We met randomly (he sent me an email), which turned into a long-distance relationship, culminating in FG Press (our now defunct publishing company) publishing Eliot’s first book titled Uncommon Stock (and being the first book that FG Press published).
Eliot went on to publish several other books with FG Press. When FG Press failed, we revered the rights back to him (and all of the other authors) for their books, which Eliot went on to self-publish. He followed it with a number of other books, including Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream. He also wrote a clever short story about discrimination which was inspired by David Cohen.
Eliot recently signed a deal with 47North (one of Amazon’s imprints). His first book under that imprint, Bandwidth, just came out. I read an early pre-release version and loved it. So did, apparently, the NY Times Book Review.
“In a setting that could be a prequel to “Trail of Lightning,” Eliot Peper’s BANDWIDTH (47North, $24.95) is a thoughtful meditation on the ethics of power among those who broker it. Not far in our future, San Diego is a perpetually burning wasteland, the Arctic has melted and Dag Calhoun, a partner at a lobbying firm called Apex Group, helps rich people get richer from catastrophe.
But while working on behalf of Commonwealth, a company that provides internet to most of the planet, Dag is recruited by a secret organization called the Island. Their ability to hack into people’s feeds — the augmented reality through which everyone experiences the world — grants them unprecedented powers of surveillance and persuasion. But while Dag’s in the business of breaking the world, the Island’s in the business of saving it — and they want Dag to be their double agent.
“Bandwidth” is a book that savors everything: Dag dwells as much in the scents and tastes of coffee and tequila as he does in philosophical problems of means justifying ends and the limits of ethical persuasion. Peper manages a great deal of complexity without sacrificing clarity or pace, and I read it all in a single fascinated sitting.
That said, the book gives me pause where its women are concerned. A portion of the plot hinges on the premise that one’s sexual predilections can be deliberately and artificially curated, and while I could see the effort made to embed that premise in the novel’s context, it still left a bad taste in my mouth; similar logic underpins rhetoric about “turning people gay” or “curing” homosexuality. Still, the depth and vulnerability of Dag’s perspective, his loneliness and the value he places on his few real friendships, kept “Bandwidth” feeling real and urgent.
In an afterword, Peper observes that “in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power.” It’s a good note on which to end — perhaps with an exhortation to digital readers to seek this column in print, where you can linger and contemplate to your heart’s content.”
As any writer knows, it’s a huge deal to get a review in the NY Times. As my GPS often says, Eliot, “you have arrived.”
On May 23rd, I got an email from one of my favorite sci-fi writers (and close friend) Eliot Peper. It was titled “My very first scifi short story” and said:
“David Cohen shared the idea that inspired this story. I drafted it last week. Thought you might enjoy and would love to hear what you think.”
I was in the middle of grinding through my email backlog, so this stopped me in my tracks as I spent the next 15 minutes reading Eliot’s new short story. The first few sentences grabbed me.
“Kamran Tir gazed into the mirror and confronted the fact that his genes had betrayed him. His thick dark hair was carefully groomed, his olive cheeks clean shaven. For someone who worked late so often, he was in reasonable shape.
The problem was his eyes.”
It was stunning. I’ve been reading and responding to Eliot’s writing since he wrote his very first book in 2014 titled Uncommon Stock. It’s a great example to me of the development of a writer and the effort required for mastery of the craft.
The backstory of how this came together, is a fun one. Eliot put it up on Amazon in the From the Author section, but it’s worth repeating to warm you up to the story.
A few months ago, I received an email from my friend David Cohen, “I’ve had an idea for a book for a while. Given what’s going on in America, I thought I’d send it to you because I sure as hell am never going to write it.” David went on to present a thought experiment: what if discrimination targeted eye color instead of skin color or any other trait?
Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you start writing books, your friends will start sending you ideas. Strangers too. You’ll get very good at letting people down easy. After all, you have your own dreams to bring to life.
But David’s premise stuck with me, lurking in the shadows of my subconscious and rearing its head at opportunity moments. It would visit me as I took the dog on a walk or did the dishes. It made me think of my opa whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis and my oma who risked her life every day to fight in the Dutch Resistance. Every time the idea resurfaced, it took on weight and texture, building up creative momentum until I had no choice but to write it.
Speculative fiction has a secret superpower. Imaginative stories invite us to experience plausible realities unlike our own. In doing so, they empower us to confront the myriad hidden assumptions we take for granted in our day-to-day lives. We cannot explore new worlds and return unchanged.
True Blue is a story about the absurdity of discrimination, the importance of being true to yourself, and our irrepressible capacity for overcoming injustice. It’s a story about standing up instead of standing by. It’s a story about finding the courage to stop caring what other people think.
These are truths we need to keep in mind now more than ever. Oh, and next time someone sends me an idea, I promise to pay attention.
Eliot just released True Blue on the Kindle. If you have Kindle Unlimited, it’s free, otherwise, it’s $2.99.
Neon Fever Dream by Eliot Peper was outstanding. But you can’t read it yet as it’s still in draft form.
Eliot’s last book Cumulus was published a few weeks ago and has gotten awesome reviews. He’s turned into a writing machine and already had a draft of Neon Fever Dream ready to go when Cumulus was finalized.
I first met Eliot several years ago when he emailed me a few chapters of the first book he was working on about a fictional tech startup in Boulder. With it he was pioneering a genre that I referred to as “startup fiction” – kind of on the edge of Cyberpunk and near-term science fiction that I love dearly, but set in the immediate present. Uncommon Stock was the first book that FG Press published and I spent plenty of time with Eliot as chief cheerleader and mediocre editor and, when the book was finished, loved it.
Eliot went on to write a trilogy starting Mara Winkel. While a fictional character, I became good friends with Mara and would have invested in her if I could have.
When Eliot wrote Cumulus, he moved away from Mara but retrenched in his home town of Oakland. This time he wandered a little further into the future and wrote a great dystopian thriller that fits clearly in my near-term science fiction category and puts him in the same zone as one of my other favorite contemporary writers, William Hertling.
And then came Neon Fever Dream. You’ll have to wait a little while for it, but this time, instead of Oakland, Eliot takes us to Burning Man and spend 90% of the book there over the course of a week. His writing has matured with each book and he totally nails it at all levels. I love that his protagonists continue to be these incredibly powerful female characters who are simultaneously introspective and totally kickass heroic leaders. The pacing is great – I read the entire book in one evening on day two of my vacation last week. I noticed Mara in the background in one scene early on and paid attention for a few more easter eggs, but didn’t find any. But I loved it nonetheless.
Eliot – I’m deeply proud of you. Thirty years from now I get to point at these blog posts and say “I knew him way back at the beginning …”
If you are a looking for an awesome sci-fi book to read, download Cumulus by Eliot Peper right now. And, if you want some independent confirmation from others not named me, this just happened.
Eliot nails a dystopian future set in Oakland that incorporates the evolution of all the tech we are currently using. The early reviews are outstanding – including ArsTechnica’s Cumulus is your new favorite surveillance-fueled dystopian novel and Tech.co’s Startup Thriller Book ‘Cumulus’ Warns of a Dystopia Under Surveillance – and match my experience of the book.
I’m super proud of Eliot. He was the first author that FG Press published and I wrote about getting to know Eliot in my post about his first book Uncommon Stock 1.0 in 2014. If FG Press hadn’t failed I expect we would have published Cumulus. I’m happy that Eliot is continuing to write and finding the success he deserves from his efforts.
Following is a guest post from my friend Eliot Peper. I met Eliot several years ago when he approached me about his first book. I loved his writing and FG Press went on to publish Eliot’s first two books – Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and Uncommon Stock: Power Play.
Eliot’s third book, Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy came out recently and the topic is particularly timely. Enjoy some deeper thoughts of his on why. Oh – and grab Eliot’s books – they are awesome.
Our institutions are failing to protect us. In fact, they’re not even trying. That wasn’t what I set out to discover when I started drafting my first novel. I just wanted to write a page-turner about tech startups with enough real grit to make readers think (true fans may remember that I noted my original inspiration right here in a previous guest post). To research the book, I interviewed federal special agents, financial service executives, money laundering investigators, cybersecurity experts, investors, and technologists in order to deepen the story’s verisimilitude.
The novel turned into a trilogy and along the way I discovered how fact can be far more disturbing than fiction (a point of frustration for novelists). Every day, our government officials, bankers, and corporate leaders are betraying our trust through shortsightedness and technical ignorance.
The now-infamous breach of The Office of Personnel Management by state-sponsored Chinese hackers shocked the nation. Detailed background files on more than twenty-two million Americans were stolen. The pilfered data included medical history, social security numbers, and sensitive personal information on senior officials within The Department of Defense, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even The Central Intelligence Agency. The national security implications are staggering.
The emperor may have no clothes but he doesn’t stand alone. Every year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spirited away from major financial institutions. The United Nations estimates that organized crime brings in $2 trillion a year in profits and the black market makes up 15–20% of global GDP.
How do cartel bosses, arms dealers, and human traffickers stash their cash? By working with corrupt insiders, exploiting legal loopholes, lobbying crooked politicians, and taking advantage of the same kinds of technical weaknesses that made the OPM hack possible. They are only able to get away with it because banks and regulators turn a blind eye or, more often, don’t even know when it’s happening.
Large organizations like government agencies and international financial institutions started incorporating software into their operations decades ago. Ever since, they have consistently chosen to pile new updates on top of old code rather than rebuild systems from the ground up. Why? In the short run, it’s cheaper and easier to address the symptom instead of the cause. Now, that shortsightedness is catching up with them.
All of this is just what we know about already. It takes a median of 229 days for data breaches to even be discovered. That’s a long time for criminals to be inside our systems, building new backdoors for future exploitation. Worse, institutions are loath to report breaches even when they are uncovered for fear that our trust in them will degrade even further.
The software powering the digital infrastructure of our institutions is a mess of half-measures, lost source code, and mind-boggling integrations. It’s like a vault built out of swiss cheese, a house resting on a matchstick foundation, or the plot of a telenovela. You can choose your own metaphor, but every hole is a VIP ticket for society’s antagonists.
And that’s not all. In a study released earlier this month, The Government Accounting Office found that many federal examiners in charge of bank information security audits have little or no IT training. They also discovered that regulators are not even doing comparative analysis on system-wide deficiencies, limiting their scope to individual banks. Worse, the National Credit Union Administration lacks the authority to examine third party service providers to credit unions, leaving large segments of their systems beyond the jurisdiction of examiners. It’s painfully ironic that at a time when the NSA terrifies us with its digital omnipotence, so many government agencies can’t get their act together for legitimate enforcement. Our watchdogs are asleep on their feet.
Whether their endgames are espionage or financial malfeasance, we’re making it too damn easy for bad guys to do their dirty work. I was only trying to make my books feel real but now reality is forcing me to suspend disbelief. It makes for great plot twists, but verisimilitude isn’t worth this level of vulnerability.
These are big problems. Big problems always represent big opportunities for creative founders. Mattermark just released their first report on the hottest cybersecurity startups. But we need fixes that are even more fundamental than security. We must rebuild the technical infrastructure and human governance systems that shape our institutions. That change might come from an extraordinarily dedicated internal leader or it might emerge from a garage in Boulder.
We need hackers, makers, artists, and independent thinkers. We need to play smarter and think long-term. We need to call our leaders to action. We need to educate ourselves and build a future in which we can thrive, not fight to survive.
It’s been a blast to get to know and work with Eliot Peper. His book, Uncommon Stock, is the first one that we published at FG Press. If you want to read – and comment – along with me, grab a copy of Uncommon Stock on BookShout.
I asked Eliot to write a short post about how he’s feeling and thinking about the category of “startup fiction” now that the book is out in the wild and he’s getting some great feedback.
Following are his thoughts.
Business case studies have wrestled through many different components of entrepreneurship. Bloggers and Quora have picked up the slack for the situations those case studies miss. Management books delve into every nook and cranny of strategy and tactics. Talking heads discuss the ins and outs of everything from product development to investment theory. Gurus wax lyrical about vision and lean, focused execution.
But there’s one critical piece of entrepreneurship that these experts miss. Their analyses emphasize the rational. They draw out lessons-learned from business experiences and try to share best practice with aspiring entrepreneurs. Knowledge is important and many experts are happy to share their thoughts (whether you want to hear them or not!). But they too often focus on the brain at the expense of the heart.
Building a business is a human experience as well as an institutional one. That’s why I love Brad and Amy’s frank discussions in Startup Life. In thinking about growing an organization it’s easy to forget that it’s all made up of individuals. These people lay the groundwork and set the course for the companies they found. They also struggle constantly with work/life balance, relationships, burnout, and team dynamics.
It’s a truism in venture capital that startups fail most often not because their product explodes, but because their team implodes. If you think high-school had a lot of drama, try a high-speed tech startup. Inspiration, betrayal, falling-outs and last-minute-comebacks are par for the course. Everyday I’m blown away by the incredible entrepreneurs I know and work with. Their passion fuels them through the equally challenging rational and the irrational halves of company building.
The emotional reality behind the scenes in every startup is what inspired Uncommon Stock. I thought that fiction could give an intimate peek into the minds of founders. Early readers have pointed out something that I find hugely cool: the other benefit of Startup Fiction is that its so damn accessible.
People who read non-fiction books about entrepreneurship tend to already be engaged in the startup world in some way. We’ve worked for a startup. We read Techcrunch regularly. We go to SXSW. Living and breathing that world, it’s easy to forget anyone else is out there. But readers that aren’t engaged with tech and picked up Uncommon Stock simply because they wanted a good page-turner are reaching out to say how awesome it is to steal a glimpse into our startup boudoir.
We are blessed to live in a magical world filled with some of the most talented people on Earth. Hopefully together we can help to illuminate the heart of the start.