3 book recommendations for September, 2022
On a sunny afternoon in early 2020, on the brink of COVID lockdown, I met Brian Merchant for lunch at a cafe in Los Angeles. Brian is the founding editor of Terraform, my favorite publisher of speculative short stories, and we discussed, among many other things, our respective book projects. Brian was collecting stories from Terraform into an anthology for FSG Originals (which came out last month!), and I was hard at work on the rough draft of Reap3r.
As we were swallowing the last bites of our sandwiches, Brian generously invited me to write a story for Terraform. As an admirer, I was flattered, but I nevertheless demurred, explaining that I wanted to finish the manuscript I was working on first.
But Brian’s offer lodged itself in the back of my head, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So a few days later, I sat down and wrote “Human Capital” beginning to end in a single sitting—if for no other reason than to get the idea out of my head. Then I shared the draft with Brian and returned to working on Reap3r.
This is the moment when, in any good story, something goes terribly wrong.
I finished Reap3r and shared the manuscript with my small brain trust of advance readers. I was convinced that it was magic. Sure, the prose might need some polishing, but the story was tight. Then the feedback rolled in. The advance readers asked a few simple questions about why characters were doing what they were doing. That’s when the floor fell out from under me. I had no answers to these fundamental questions. The story was broken, and I had no idea how to fix it.
For the next few months, I struggled, going down countless blind alleys trying to find an exit from the maze. I considered refactoring the plot, reinventing the protagonists, starting a new book from scratch, or splitting the manuscript into three separate novels. I arrived at dead end after dead end. And then, at a loss, I remembered this little short story I had banged out in a single afternoon months before.
I read through “Human Capital.” I read it again. And again. A strange idea began to take shape: maybe, just maybe, I could rebuild the broken novel around the kernel of this short story.
I started writing and rewriting. It wasn’t easy. It took many more revisions and much more time than I was expecting. But, ultimately—astonishingly—it worked! And while you should judge for yourself, I think Reap3r is the best thing I’ve written.
That’s why I’m so excited to share “Human Capital” with you today. It’s rough. It’s spare. It’s tight and choppy and suggestive. And, for me, it was a key that unlocked a novel.
If you’ve read Reap3r, I hope reading “Human Capital” lets you return, however briefly, to a world and characters you love. If you haven’t read Reap3r yet, I hope it plants a seed you won’t be able to ignore any more than I could ignore Brian’s invitation. Either way, I hope it offers you a glimpse into my messy, unpredictable creative process.
Check it out, and then hit reply to let me know what you think.
And now, books I love that you might too:
How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil offers an extremely rigorous yet accessible inside view of the underlying systems that shape the world we inhabit, from energy to food to materials and beyond. Smil is a supremely critical thinker who arrives at counterintuitive conclusions that will challenge your conceptions of how things work.
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers is an updated version of the short memoir I’ve previously recommended that packages practical wisdom in personal stories full of humor, insight, and unexpected twists. This is life advice for people who don’t think they need life advice.
Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller is a fascinating investigation into the many and varied complexities of the scientific process and what it means to seek better explanations for the countless mysteries the universe delivers to us. By the end, you’ll realize the profound significance of the title.
Bonus recommendation: I recently discovered Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and it immediately leapt onto my shortlist of all-time favorite movies. Go watch it right now. You can thank me later.
Things worth sharing:
If you read an infinitely long novel, then no matter what page you reach, you’re still infinitely close to the beginning. Humanity is the protagonist of precisely that kind of story, as long as we decide to keep writing it.
Read books you can't put down. If you can put down a book, quit and find something better. Reading is all about finding the right book for you right now. As Jorge Luis Borges said, “If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”
Utopia is impossible because problems are inevitable. Solving any problem leads to new problems. Dystopia is impossible because problems are solvable. Any solution not prohibited by laws of nature can be figured out. Progress means solving better and better problems forever. Life in inherently problematic, which makes it inherently interesting.
From my work-in-progress: “To achieve speed, don’t try to go faster. Watch any great athlete. Not just a good athlete. A great one. No matter how quickly they accelerate past the competition, they aren’t in a rush. They aren’t seeking speed. They are seeking grace, and speed is a side effect.”
I'm surprised and delighted by the volume and depth of the messages I've received from friends and strangers about this little blog post. You never know when something will strike a chord.
From my conversation with Andy Weir about writing Project Hail Mary: “I like to break problems up into small, bite-sized pieces. Fix all these little problems and you’ll be able to fix the big problem.”
When you lose someone, it's often said that they live on inside you. That cliche is literally true: we live in an ongoing feedback loop with the world—it shapes us, we shape it—and the people we love are an integral part of that world. We exist in relation to each other.
From my essay about writing as a tool for making new ideas: “By externalizing your thoughts, writing puts you into conversation with yourself. It’s always easier to diagnose other people’s problems, and to identify opportunities they might be missing. Just so, writing from the heart gives you a new vantage on you.”
I turned 36 this month and one thing I learned this year is that while it seems smart to try to avoid mistakes, it’s a trap. You grow much faster by trying lots of new things and then nimbly detecting and correcting errors as they inevitably crop up.
Thanks for reading. We all find our next favorite book because someone we trust recommends it. So when you fall in love with a story, tell your friends. Culture is a collective project in which we all have a stake and a voice.
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Eliot Peper is the author of Reap3r, Veil, Breach, Borderless, Bandwidth, Neon Fever Dream, Cumulus, Exit Strategy, Power Play, and Version 1.0. He publishes a blog, consults on special projects, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.
“Spectacular near-term science fiction. Game upon game upon game.”
-Brad Feld, managing director at Foundry Group, on Bandwidth