Eliot Peper, author of the near-future dystopian novel Bandwidth, sees stories everywhere around him. In the following interview, we discuss how the narratives that grab us dictate our actions and the future we’ll inherit.
Unbound Worlds: Bandwidth is set in a very near future. Everyone’s brain is wired into an augmented reality-based internet, and the Earth is dying right in front of highly distracted eyes. I’m wondering if you see some of the same in our present use of social media.
Eliot Peper: I wrote Bandwidth during the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Vitriol filled the headlines and I found that rather then well-informed, reading the news often left me feeling emotionally exhausted, powerless, and alone. So many stories were urgent but not important, and certainly not actionable.
Frustrated, I decided to run an experiment. I read and engaged with dramatically less news, and spent that time reading books instead. I read ancient philosophy, fantastical adventures, historical biographies, scientific treatises, globetrotting thrillers, and mind-bending stories of magical realism. I followed my enthusiasm and read what I loved, challenging myself to think more deeply and broadly in the process.
After a few months, my life and outlook had changed completely. Reading was no longer an exercise in rubbernecking and literature armed me to face the challenges of the present with fresh eyes, seek out other points of view, and put the political turmoil into perspective. Taking ownership of my media diet turned the stories I read into sources of strength, fuel to fire my own personal and public life.
We are what we pay attention to. The stories we read don’t just inform, entertain, or inspire, they shape our identities, become a part of us. Bandwidth wrestles with what happens when someone hijacks our attention in order to transform us into the person they want us to be.
UW: Protagonist Dag Calhoun isn’t exactly a good guy. He’s a lobbyist for tech and energy industries, and he and his clients profit from things staying the way that they are. Without giving too much away here, what changes his mind?
EP: I’m fascinated by nuance. The future Bandwidth portrays is ravaged by climate change, but also features an America renewed by universal public healthcare and education. The same applies to its characters. I hope that readers discover things they might have in common with the villains, and things they don’t like too much about the heroes.
But complexity isn’t interesting for its own sake. What makes it interesting is that change is possible. We can learn. We can grow. In changing ourselves, we can change the world. In Bandwidth, Dag is a cynic who rediscovers a pragmatic idealism that empowers him to build a future he actually wants to live in.
UW: The crew of activists that Dag finds himself allied with are using the net to hack into the brains of powerful people and tweak their behavior. They would say it is for a good cause, but is there any cause that is noble enough to warrant such a thing?
EP: The Allies were inspired to defeat the Nazis by stories of resisting oppression, protecting freedom, and ending humanitarian disaster. The Nazis were themselves inspired by stories of racial superiority, national dominance, and the return to a mythical past. Humans are capable of transcendence and unspeakable horror when we convince ourselves of the righteousness of our cause.
The members of Bandwidth‘s cast do good things for bad reasons, bad things for good reasons, good things for good reasons, bad things for bad reasons, neutral things for all manner of reasons, and even things they don’t realize they’re doing that have dramatic unforeseen consequences. My hope is that the story might inspire some readers to reassess their own most deeply held beliefs with candor, kindness, and healthy skepticism.
UW: When I look at our own lobbyists, and things like political action committees, “dark money”, and nebulous influence campaigns behind the 2016 elections, I wonder if things are going to get better or worse here. What do you think? Are we heading toward a Bandwidth-like future?
EP: For all the reasons you mention and quite a few more, we already live in a Bandwidth-like present. Therein lies the power of speculative fiction: By imagining many possible tomorrows, it invites us to reframe today.
Will things get better or worse? It depends who you are. A subsistence farmer in Uganda, a Google engineer in Mountain View, and a kindergartener in Prague live very different lives in very different worlds with very different constraints. Their futures depend on a constellation of factors that not even the most competent megalomaniac could hope to wrangle.
The best we can do is do our best, and make the little corner of the world we happen to inhabit a fairer, kinder, more beautiful place. Twenty-eighteen is fraught with political strife, but there’s no other time in history I’d rather live. We were born into an age of miracles that we are lucky enough to take for granted.
UW: I understand there’s a follow-up novel just around the corner. Is this a direct sequel or something else?
EP: Borderless takes place in the same future and features much of the same cast, but stars a different protagonist and has a standalone narrative arc. Where Bandwidth focuses on the geopolitics of climate change and how feeds shape our lives, Borderless explores the rise of tech platforms, the decline of nation states, and what it means to reconcile sins of the past with dreams of tomorrow.