Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Imagining the future with Eliot Peper

I spent a wonderful hour last week in conversation with Oakland-based novelist Eliot Peper. Eliot's latest novel Veil tells a story about the world burdened with the consequences of human-caused climate change. In it, Eliot examines the possibilities of geoengineering, and imperfect humans who make sacrifices to stir the earthsystem towards healing.

This discussion came as a result of my own venturing into science fiction over the course of the pandemic. Diving into alternate worlds gave me comfort as I grappled with uncertainty of the lockdown. Eliot was kind enough to hear me out and generously offer his time to discuss the role of imagination and story-telling in hard times.

The recording of our discussion is here. I extracted some of the ideas Eliot shared that lingered with me the morning after the event, read on.

On predicting the future: Although we imagine the future, we often believe that the present will keep extending—the world that we're born into will always be the way it is. [Most] predictions of what the future will be like are extrapolations of how things are.

On our ability to rebuild the world: We made up all of the things that surround us: we invented the government, debt, city councils, the system that we call civilization. Although the reality is more fragile than we thought, this also means that we can re-invent it.

On exercising imagination and Eliot's writing process: I try to tell a deeper story that accesses a deeper truth of what it means to live your life at the time of great change. We are the stories we tell ourselves and other people, either on the individual level, or the cultural level.
We all daydream, all the time. Being a novelist is like being a professional daydreamer. Normally, you would daydream about one thing for half a second and go on to something else. The next time you catch yourself daydreaming, keep the one thing going. Rather than cycling to the next one, think what would it smell like, what would be some of the weird details, what are the consequences, what would be surprising? Try thinking about it for two minutes, and you'll find that, suddenly, it'll branch out and you'll go places you never imagined.

Another piece of advice that was helpful to me in creating a theory of imagination, of how I think about my own work, is that I simply notice things. I follow my curiosity. If I'm interested in something, I'll go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I will read books, and if I have a follow-up question, I might send a follow-up email to the author and ask. One of the things that I came out of college thinking is that I need to read serious books. And that's changed completely. I now only follow my curiosity. If you follow your curiosity you get to a place at which you're most interested. I try to write only what interests me. If I do that successfully, that starts to come off the page for people.

[My writing] is similar to meditation. I strive to be there for the material, to exist for the characters. That is the hard work of writing a novel. My research process is very easy, because I'm reading things that I find interesting. I try to take threads and weave them together. When I was writing Veil, the effort was not of planning a multi-year project. It was rather learning what was interesting, paying attention to my relationships and friendships, and how I was growing - and then pulling all those things together into a narrative. Once you got them, you want to weave them together as tightly as possible.

On the tools for writing: I wrote Veil using Scrivenerwhich is intended for long-form pieces of work. For the current thing I'm working on I'm using Ulysses, which is helpful because it syncs well between my phone and computer. There's no organization, it's just things that I think about and dream of. I want to keep it that way. I even use things like Twitter, my blog or my newsletter, for note-taking. I change the [writing] process with every book. It makes me think in new ways, challenges me.

On positive science fiction: There have been calls in the past few years for more positive science fiction—that misses the point. What defines our experience is not the tropes of the world. What makes the world better is people overcoming adversity, it's people struggling and showing an enormous amount of creativity and dedication and persistence to overcome all of the challenges that life throws at us. I wrote Veil to be a very hopeful book. But I did that not by making the future pretty. I did it by making the future sort of how I experience the present, with beauty and pain woven through the whole thing, with an underlying knowledge that these characters are trying to do their best.

On leadership that inspires him: I am amazed by the people and groups who are stepping up to the plate [during the pandemic]. When you have a moment of disruption of systems, there's an opportunity to build new rules. I am inspired by those people who in their own lives are looking at all of these problems and finding opportunities to make things better.

Recommended readings during the pandemic: Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning: there couldn't be a better time to read this if you're trying to find a sense of strength in the dark times. Second, Alix E. Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

On imagination... Because of your imagination, you have control over how you react to events that are beyond of your control. By taking us on journeys through radically diverse futures, science fiction can help to free our thinking from the subtle bonds of the status quo.

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