C2GTalk: An interview with Eliot Peper

How can fiction help people think about Solar Radiation Modification?

5 January 2022

This interview was recorded on 14 December 2021 and is available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

When author Eliot Peper first heard about solar geoengineering, or solar radiation modification, he knew he had to write a novel. “There are so many different angles on this kind of a problem. It raises so many questions that impact every area of our lives,” he told C2GTalkSpeculative fiction, says Pepercan spark people’s curiosity and inspire them to become engaged“If it makes other people look more deeply and pay more attention, to me that’s a huge win.”

Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and Neon Fever Dream. He publishes a blog, sends a monthly newsletter, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.  

Peper’s most recent novel, Veil, is a speculative thriller about diplomats, hackers, spies, scientists, and billionaires racing to control our climate future. Janos Pastor, C2G’s executive director, calls Veil “the tale we need to confront climate change. Peper deftly explores one of the most controversial ideas on the climate agenda—solar geoengineering—and its geopolitical quandaries—raising tough questions and showing why we require new forms of governance to answer them.” 

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What drove you to write a novel about solar geoengineering (also known as solar radiation modification) or stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), and how did you go about researching the issues it explores?

Normally when I write a novel it’s hard to pin down that spark, that moment of inspiration when I first had the idea for the story.  Usually it’s a bit blurry, and the story sort of comes in over time, I might have an idea for a character or a theme, play that out, and the book takes shape, but with Veil I can actually point to a very, very specific moment when I realized I needed to write this book.

I was listening to a podcast.  It was Tyler Cowen’s podcast, and he was interviewing Charles C. Mann, who actually was being interviewed about a wonderful book that I highly recommend called The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Reading it changed the way I look at the world today, but I hadn’t read it when I was listening to the podcast, and during their conversation Charles started describing current research into solar geoengineering.  I had never heard of it before.  It was so fascinating, and when he started talking about some of the tradeoffs of what it means to actually engineer the global climate intentionally — whether or not we’ve been doing it unintentionally so far in other ways — I just realized: Oh, my God.  This has to be a novel.  There are so many different angles on this kind of a problem.  It raises so many questions that impact every area of our lives.  So, I was sitting there listening to this podcast and realizing, I’m going to write a book, totally based on that conversation.

That was really the beginning of a rabbit hole for me.  I immediately read Charles’s book, and as any heavy readers who are listening or watching this today probably know, often when you reach the end of a book authors talk about the other books they read that helped inform it, so I just kept following that line.

That led me to Oliver Morton’s wonderful book, The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, and onward from there.  I began reading all the scientific papers on the subject and interviewing different experts on the subject to try to wrap my head around it and figure out where the story was in the material.  That’s how I got into it, and that was Veil’s origin story, as it were.

Tell me about the challenges that captured your particular attention.  What was it about solar geoengineering that really gave you a sense that this has to be dealt with, this has to be talked about?

Sure.  There were a few.  One is very straightforward.  It’s that — at least the kind of solar geoengineering that is described in the novel — when you make decisions about how you are going to try to engineer the global climate, it’s a global decision.  I live in California.  Our state government can’t start doing solar geoengineering solely for the purposes of residents of our state without then impacting everyone else on Earth.  Simply the bifurcation between the way that such a technology would need to be used and how we as humans on this planet make decisions together, they don’t line up easily.  That was an obvious one.  There was obviously a political angle to the story of who gets to decide.  If you set this up, who gets to decide how to use it?  That was really key.

A second element that I found really fascinating and wanted to explore was the more I read about research into the possibility of doing any kind of geoengineering including solar geoengineering, the more I started to look at history and the world today differently.  As an example, the book describes people trying to engineer the planet on purpose, but if you look at the history of cars, we discovered oil, we started using it in cars, at the time it was seen as this amazing thing because most dense human settlements, every city was drowning in horse manure.  Nobody could figure out how to make a city denser.  So, it was this miraculous technological innovation that allowed us to live in urban areas in a much more wonderful way.  Then, over the course of a few decades, we unintentionally engineered the global climate.

Suddenly I started looking at the world differently, that there are actually ways in which humans have been geoengineering for centuries.  When it comes to agriculture, there are many examples.  When it comes to obviously the energy system, there are tons of examples there, and we might not have been doing it on purpose, but we have been doing it.  That really shifted how I understood the world we live in right now as I was writing a book about the near future.

Let me pick up that issue of who decides and how do you decide.  In the book you paint a picture of a rogue program, started in secret and captured by vested interests, and there is a bit of a battle over that, but it ends on a more positive note with international governance and so forth.  Do you think a secret program would actually be possible in practice, or is this more of a dramatic tool?  To what extent do you reckon international governance systems could anticipate and overcome these challenges through a more open and inclusive process?

That’s a big, sticky question. I would say that I definitely used some dramatic license in making sure that the folks who are in charge of the clandestine program in the novel have the ability to keep it secret.  I gave them a bunch of tools to make that more plausible than it otherwise might be.

I am sure that probably many of our listeners are familiar with solar geoengineering much more so than many of my readers are, so one thing that I think is different about solar geoengineering versus certain other kinds of technological scenarios you could play out in the James Bond movie in your head or whatever of what a villain could do, standing up a solar geoengineering program, at least in theory, is really cheap compared to any of these other scenarios you could imagine.  That opens the field a lot.

When I was interviewing folks about, “Oh, how would this need to work if it was going to be secret?” or “What are the other ways it could go wrong?” it’s very clear that any government on earth could decide to try this.  Their ability to keep it secret would vary by government.

Also, because it’s cheap and more accessible, it means that you’re going to have more heterogenous groups that might try it.  Whether or not it’s secret, I think it could be very, very messy, and ultimately if it’s messy or secret, you are going to wind up in a situation where now, rather than deciding together how to do this right, you wind up in a situation where you’re deciding together how to deal with the fact that someone has already started doing it, and the dynamics are quite different.  That was something I gave a lot of thought to.

Obviously one of the challenges of governance and a more open or inclusive way of taking these decisions is that people come from different places and live in different contexts, different countries might have different interests in different outcomes, and so on.  Do you think it is possible for the world to have a conversation, come to some shared understanding, and a just and fair approach to this?

My take is that it is possible, but I think it will take way more time than we normally think.  Let me take that a step further.  As a culture we have only recently had the tools necessary to even communicate quickly across distance.  We have only recently had the Internet.  We have only recently had all of these different things.  I think we’re still trying to get used to it.  You could take a whole batch of headlines from the past ten years and put it into the category of “humanity trying to figure out how to be in close contact with each other.”  Just like kindergartners need to learn to share, clean the classroom together after school, and not steal each other’s snacks, I actually think there is like a pretty strong parallel to geopolitics, that you have nations that are trying to learn those lessons too.

Conflict and collaboration between nations is not new.  Obviously, that has been going on since we invented nations.  But the thing that is new is that a lot of people within those nations now communicate with each other a lot more directly.  If you think about a simple example like Netflix, Squid Game, as a Korean show that takes over the global charts, that would never have happened 15 years ago.

I live in California, and by virtue of the tech industry here and also the entertainment industry in California, there has been this vast global reach of this strange, weird state on the West Coast of the United States into global culture, but now we’re getting more of that going in many different directions at once.  If you take the long view, we are collectively building a more global culture of which we are all a part, and I think the more that we are able to do that, the more that we are building shared context for which to make governance decisions together more easily.

I think that if we are saying what will happen next year if we discover that someone has been running a clandestine geoengineering program, I’m worried, but that over the long view — and whenever you are talking about climate change, you better make sure to take the long view — I’m much more optimistic.

Let’s imagine that there is some system of governance that is put in place.  I’m interested in your opinion about public trust in those systems.  Obviously over the period of the pandemic we have seen a lot of governance systems work out approaches to deal with it, and yet in certain contexts there is a large number of the public who don’t trust that this is really being done properly and suspect secret forces at play, even if they aren’t.  Similarly, one might imagine that even in a well-governed geoengineering situation there would still be people who suspect that things are not as they say. How do you see dealing with the issue of public trust in governance these days?  I’m actually wondering to what extent books like Veil help reinforce a conspiracy narrative, or can they address them?

Let me take those two questions in reverse order.

First of all, could a story like Veil — or any other thriller that has a conspiracy in it — reinforce conspiracy narratives?  I think it absolutely does for people who believe in conspiracy narratives, 100 percent.  It is confirmation bias.  It’s a great way to reinforce the fact that you think this is how the world works.

But I think that if you zoom out from those people, from that subset, what does speculative fiction, science fiction, these stories that imagine popular futures do for us as a culture?  Steven Johnson the journalist has — it’s not his idea, but he popularized it — this wonderful idea of the “adjacent possible,” that if you imagine in Earth’s primordial soup, where you only just had a bunch of atoms bouncing around forming molecules, then those molecules formed more complex molecules, and over time you have these recombination’s that form the first life, then the recombination’s of life itself formed multicellular life, and onward and onward.  At any point in time, at any point in human history, there are tools at our disposal in the world we are born into, and those tools open up a possibility space of what you can do with them to build the next tool or do the next thing, and then that changes the world your children or grandchildren are born into, but that space, while vast, is limited.  You are limited by the scope of what you are able to do with the tools.  If I was born 2000 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to write novels on a computer.  There is no electricity.  That’s obvious.

In my point of view speculative fiction is sort of a possibility engine.  It’s a way of exploring the adjacent possible, of thinking, Hey, what would the world be like if — and that actually can challenge us to think differently.  So, if I wrote a story about a clandestine conspiracy-laden geoengineering program, could that inspire some people who want to believe it?  Sure, but it’s also a warning for people who might be concerned about it, or it’s a spark for people who have never thought about this.

I remember talking to one of the most famous paleontologists in the world — I apologize; I’m blanking on his name — who discovered the largest dinosaur that we currently know of in southern Argentina, and I remember him saying that the movie Jurassic Park is obviously totally not technically plausible, but it was basically the most important work in his field because every one of his graduate students went into paleontology because they watched Jurassic Park.  So, it’s not that it was technically rigorous that makes it powerful in human culture; it’s that it inspired people to go work on that set of problems.

From my point of view as a novelist, one of the things that I hope Veil does is spark people’s curiosity about these questions, not because I have answers — I don’t; I make up stories for a living.  I don’t know any better than anybody else.  But if it makes other people look more deeply and pay more attention, to me that’s a huge win.

You’re in some good company now.  I don’t know the precise ordering of all the novels, but there is also Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, and Neil Stephenson has just come out with Termination Shock.  It’s almost a subgenre of speculative climate fiction now dealing with geoengineering questions.  Do you think there is any common thread between the questions that are being answered, the sense of where we are now in terms of uncertainty about technology and society and the size of the climate problem?  Why are we seeing all of these come along at the same time, do you think?

There are actually many parallels that are both fun but insignificant.  For example, if you read Veil, The Ministry for the Future, and Termination Shock

I’ll tell you a little story.  Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote The Ministry for the Future, one of the books you just mentioned, I sent an advance copy of Veil to him for a blurb — authors all ask each other to praise their work — and I got an email back.  He says: “Eliot, I have a new book coming out six months after Veil, The Ministry for the Future, that also starts with a global heat wave that kills 20 million people and sparks this solar geoengineering program.”  It led to a wonderful correspondence, where it was like, “Wow, we’re reading the same scientific papers.”  Then myself, Neil, and Stan, if you read those books, you can see all the common references, like references to Mt. Pinatubo or references to these common threads that if you start learning about solar geoengineering you’ll just see them in every paper or mentioned in every article, and they’re mentioned in the novels for the same reason.

I sort of think of speculative fiction writers as riffing on reality in the way that a jazz musician would riff on a standard.  So, rather than trying to predict the future, you’re actually trying to recombine the ingredients that are already in the world in a way that challenges how people see the world right now.  To me that’s a fun common thread that goes through them.

Fiction by its nature has to have an element of drama in it, certain tools you use.  Veil is a thriller, a bit of a family drama.  The reality of climate policy might feel a little bit more mundane and incremental.  How does fiction portray that world and make that world seem attractive?

That was one of my biggest creative challenges with Veil: How can I take something that could easily as a story devolve into just a bunch of people arguing with each other and turn that into something that has a narrative drive to it?  That was one of my biggest challenges working on the book.

One thing that might be interesting to folks is the difference between stakes and scale.  This is something I think about a lot as a storyteller.  If you think of the latest Hollywood blockbuster you’ve seen, like the Marvel movies, which I enjoy.  They are super-fun and I really enjoy watching them, but they sort of have this trap that the writers have gotten themselves into, which is: “Well, okay, you’ve saved the world, so now you need to save the Solar System and then the galaxy.”  You have to keep raising the stakes because otherwise somehow it feels like it’s not important enough to deserve a Marvel movie.

But when I’m working on a story, the thing that really drives it is not scale.  It’s not, “Oh, we’re saving the world and then the galaxy.”  It’s stakes.  It’s what do the characters care so much about.  What do they care about that they will go to the ends of the earth to try to make it work?  That’s their quest.  That could be saving the world, but that feels fairly generic.  It could also be popping out to the store to get some milk if you cared that much about it.

A good pop culture example of this is the show Succession which just had its season finale, and if you think about that show, it’s just about a bunch of kids basically trying to maneuver around each other over control of a company.  But who else in the world cares?  Nobody.  They just really, really care, and that’s what drives the drama in the show.

So, one of the things that I needed to find when I was working on Veil is, who is the kind of person who would care about trying to resolve at least one problem associated with geoengineering in such a deep personal way that it would change them, that in questing for the thing they wanted, it would show them what they really need out of life?  That’s what I try to think about when I’m grappling with something like, how do I turn this into a story?  Who is the person, and why do they care so much about this thing?

What kind of response did you get with this framing and how you did it from some of the environmentalists and climate experts that you had spoken to?  What was their reaction to what was finally given back?

Honestly, I have been really delighted.  I mean, they’ve said nice things.  Maybe they’re saying that because they’re saying it to me.

No, the response from folks in this field has been overwhelmingly positive, which I was sort of shocked by, because when you’re making a piece of art you want people to like it.  It has been really wonderful and inspiring to see that it resonates with people who know far more about this subject than I ever will.

Do you think there’s a sense in which some of those people who knew more and guided your original research then got something back in terms of how they felt about the work they doing, how they were emotionally reacting to the work they were doing? 

I hope so.  I think that ultimately that’s part of what stories can do.  When I read a novel that really resonates with me, it helps me look at my own life in a new way.  It helps me feel more connected to other people, even if they’re made up, if they’re fragments of someone’s imagination.  When you really connect with someone on a human level through fiction, it can shift the way you see the world and make you feel more connected, so I hope that that’s the case with Veil.

Early in our conversation I mentioned Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade, and many people who have started to go down this solar geoengineering rabbit hole, that’s a great place to start because Oliver does such a tremendous job. If you’re listening now and this conversation makes you want to learn more, start there.  It’s a great place.

But the thing with The Planet Remade is that basically the people who read it have already raised their hand intellectually to say: “I’m interested enough to learn more.  I picked up a book called The Planet Remade.  I’m going to find out what this stuff is all about.”

The Planet Remade is perfect for people who are at that point in their lives.  But a cool thing about a book like Veil — and not just Veil but Termination Shock and The Ministry for the Future — is that these books actually make a very different promise to the reader.  The promise to the reader is: “I’m going to take you on a journey.  I’m going to bring you on an adventure, and it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting, and we’re going to learn stuff.”  Hopefully, if I’ve done my job as an author, you’re going to want to keep reading.  You’re not going to be able to stop turning the pages, and then, when you finish it’s going to stick with you long after you reach the end.  The ending is going to be surprising but inevitable, all of those things.  Because the promise to the reader is different, you get different readers.

Many of my readers have never heard of geoengineering.  This is in fact probably the only interview I’ve done for the novel since it came out where I actually used the word “geoengineering” by far the most times because you know what it is, and the audience does.  But for the most part, this is totally new to my readers.  They are coming because it’s a story, and if it sparks a little bit of curiosity in just a tiny percentage of them, to me that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing in part because as we are collectively building this big cultural ship, we need those common metaphors to make sense of the world.

If you think of George Orwell’s 1984, think about having to have a meaningful discussion about state surveillance without being able to use that as a common metaphor.  It would be really hard.  Fiction can offer that, and I hope, whether it’s Termination Shock, The Ministry for the Future, or any of these other novels that grapple with how the climate is changing and what we could be doing about it, that fiction can help give us the tools to do it right.

On your website you posted an interview with Stewart Brand, the futurologist, Whole Earth Catalog, a famous icon in this area.  He famously said, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”  First of all, do you agree?  Second, are books like these helping people get to grips with what it would be “to be as gods and be good at it?”

I don’t know if I can credibly call Veil a good how-to guide to apotheosis, but I do think Stewart is right.  Imagine that you could go back in a time machine and bring someone from the Roman Empire to the present.  We have towers of glass and steel that go so many stories into the sky.  We have used electrons and sand to make thinking machines that we can have instant communication anywhere on Earth with.  We have these flat panels that we spend all day looking at because we’ve brought them to life.

It’s magic.  It’s technology, and that’s magic.  What that means is it gives us power.  Instead of spending all day foraging, I spend all day making up stories, typing them out, and sending them to people.  We right now are talking over Zoom from totally different sides of the word.  You explained to me before we started the interview that not only will this just be distributed globally on the Internet but you’re going to translate it into many different languages and make it available.

All of this is incredible, but it also means that the second- and third-order effects of anything we do are extraordinary.  Instead of throwing little pebbles into the pond, we’re throwing boulders now.  If you throw a boulder and expect it to create the ripple of a pebble, you’re in trouble, and I think that’s what Stewart is really getting at.

One of the really core themes in Veil that the hero grapples with is that often we look at the world and we see all of these problems.  Read the headlines.  It’s just a list of these huge problems that feel so big.  How do we find any traction at all with them?  I think the tension that she tries to transcend in herself over the course of this story is that those problems are inevitable.  You bring in cars, solve the problem of horse manure, allow cities to grow again, and then you create the problem of climate change.  These problems will keep happening.  There’s no endgame.  You’re always going to have more problems.

Also, these problems are soluble.  We did solve the problem of manure in cities.  We just invented a new one for ourselves.  I think that often internally we have this emotional tension where we want the world to just work.  We want the solution that doesn’t create a new problem, and I think that is what is beyond our grasp, so instead what we need to do is look at the world in a clear-eyed way, create the best solutions we possibly can without pretending that they’re not going to have consequences that we didn’t expect.  I think that’s part of what Stewart is getting at.

A lot of us working in this field and generally people learning and writing about the enormity of the climate crisis, these huge problems, really start to face issues of anxiety, despondency, and grief, and this is emerging as a serious challenge as to how we as a community help solve this problem if such a thing is possible — “solving” is an interesting word sometimes.

You spend a lot of time looking into this.  It is somewhat bleak sometimes when you are following through the threads.  How do you personally maintain a sense of agency and hope, and, without underplaying the actual size of the problem and the inevitability of these issues, how do you think wider society can actually tackle this sense of grief and maintain a sense of agency and hope?

Veil actually starts with the main character losing a parent.  What you just said is why.  We have this grief for how the world is changing in all of these unexpected ways that we don’t want and at our own apparent inability to do anything about it.

I think everybody can connect with this.  Whenever in your personal life, whether something happens in your family and you want to help that person but there’s nothing you can do, you know they need to make that change for themselves, or whatever it is, that’s a core part of being human, and I think that it’s such a dangerous trap when it comes to people who are working on problems of the size of the climate crisis.  It can be overwhelming.

The way that I try to handle that — I’m using different tools than a climatologist might or that a policymaker might — as a storyteller, as a novelist is that I am deeply interested in these problems, and I’m trying to find a way to contribute.  So, I have those same feelings.

The thing that I find helpful personally is twofold: One, whenever I start to feel that despondency, that blanket grief, I look for ways to do very, very practical things for people in my life.  That might be a friend, it might be a stranger, it might be like I get an email from a student who wants to be a writer and they don’t even know what question to ask, but I’ll actually spend a lot of time trying to basically do a favor for a stranger.

I find that because of dealing with something like the climate crisis is so big and in some ways abstract.  It’s something that is happening in our imagination.  We’re experiencing the effects of it concretely — I live in California; we are choked by smoke every summer from wildfires — but the solutions are much more abstract, so finding practical ways to do something to make someone else smile in my life is actually extremely helpful.

It’s even more helpful when I pair it with something we already touched on in this conversation, which is that we are, the human lifespan is a totally arbitrary number.  We’re not alive for that long.  If you look at the geological time scale it’s not even a blink of an eye.  If you look at it from a mayfly’s perspective, we live forever.

When we’re talking about things like the climate crisis, that’s a huge-scale problem that will be playing out for a long time regardless of what we do about it, so it’s really helpful to remember that we’re all still trying to figure it out.  It may feel like it has been going on forever but in fact, if you look at any other big problem that human civilization has been faced with, we’re reacting faster than anyone ever has to basically anything, and we have new tools at our disposal to do so.

I find that to be a source of hope because I’m not worried about the planet.  I am worried about real people who are living in specific places on the planet and are in terrible situations that this will make worse, but I’m not worried about the planet itself over a long time scale, and I have a lot of confidence that as our culture starts to process this set of problems, we will invent new ways of solving them.

What that means is that, if I believe that, I can’t then come around and blame myself for not having invented it yesterday.  That’s not how this is going to work.  It’s going to take all of us over the course of generations to do this right and to figure out the right path forward.

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