This is a story about two spies locked in a room with a gun.

This is a story about how semiconductors are refactoring 21st century geopolitics.

This is a story about the greatest of games, the game that subsumes all other games, the only game that really matters: power.

This is a story about finding yourself before they find you.

This story is a trap.

You will face catastrophe, so get over it

Foundry began with a dream.

I woke up in the middle of the night with an emotionally resonant image hanging in my mind, but no memory of the dream’s larger context. I made a note and went back to sleep.

The next morning, I read the note and realized it was the perfect opening line for a novel. So I wrote the next line, and then the next. I didn’t have an outline. I didn’t have a plan. Lines became paragraphs, paragraphs became chapters, and Foundry took shape.

Writing Foundry line-by-line taught me something interesting. Reflecting on his time at Pixar, Ed Catmull says that the team would face a catastrophe during the production of every single movie. Initially, they tried to put processes in place to prevent the same thing from happening on the next film. But no matter what they did, the next film would bring a new kind of catastrophe. So instead of trying to avoid catastrophes, they focused on building a team that could respond to them with grace and efficacy.

Just so, when I write a novel, I inevitably face a creative crisis. Foundry was no exception. In fact, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next, drafting the manuscript felt like a single extended creative crisis. But precisely because the crisis never ended, my angst about creating in the midst of crisis sloughed away through sheer exposure. I could face the unknown without emotional baggage. I could ignore sunk costs and release expectations. I could discover the story alongside the reader.

Stories are about one thing

Novels are long. They are complex. They are pocket universes. One of my favorite feelings is to wander the shelves of a bookstore and run my finger along the spines, each a world patiently waiting to be explored by the right reader.

So when I sit down to write a novel, I often try to come up with long, complex story ideas. I worry that without sufficient material, the narrative may peter out prematurely. What if you tell everything there is to tell and it’s not enough? That never happens. Every time, I wind up having to cut the complicated ideas. What I forget is that stories are about one thing.

Foundry is about the memory of a dream. I mean, sure, it’s a near-future espionage thriller that spirals across time and continents to reveal the games people play to win control of the technology at the heart of modern civilization. But the entire novel is about unpacking that single haunting image I woke up with in the middle of the night. Everything derives from that. There’s no need to manufacture material. Stories are fractal. The closer you look, the more there is.

If given the chance, don’t travel back in time

Judging by headlines and social media feeds, we are barreling toward apocalypse. Wars rage. Disease runs rampant. The planet is in jeopardy. Corruption plagues our institutions even as our culture shatters into a thousand razor-sharp shards.

Fucking bleak, am I right or am I right?

After a recent conversation enumerating these many and varied woes, my mother-in-law asked me what historical period I would travel to if I had a time machine. I answered immediately: I would decline any temporal voyages and stay right here in the present, thank you very much.

To write novels set in the near future, I read a lot of history. From a certain angle, history and science fiction are two aspects of the same genre: both explore realities different than the world we inhabit—experiencing the gap between our world and the historical or science fictional one is part of the appeal—and both suggest explicit or implicit theories of historical change. You can learn a lot from reading history, but one lesson overshadows all the others: the farther back you go, the worse life gets.

Augustus may have ruled an empire, but he didn’t have antibiotics, electricity, Wikipedia, or burritos. Many of those lucky enough to survive childhood would go on to die young in violence or childbirth. Slavery was commonplace. Plumbing was exceedingly rare. People drank astonishing amounts of alcohol in order to avoid contracting waterborne illnesses. Basically, it sucked.

So no matter how bleak things appear right now, don’t fall into the trap of seeking to return to a mythologized past that never existed. Instead, study the past to make sense of the present and contribute to building a better future.

Treasure thorny questions

You’re reading this sentence on your phone or laptop. Do you know how the chip powering your device is made? It’s TOTALLY INSANE.

A robot the size of a room drips a tiny droplet of molten tin into a vacuum. Then it hits the droplet with a laser, turning it into a falling pancake. Then it hits the pancake with a more powerful laser, vaporizing the tin and releasing a flash of light with a wavelength so short it can only survive in outer space. The light goes through a reticle that gives it a pattern and then bounces off a series of mirrors that shrink the pattern still further before hitting a silicon wafer, drawing billions of resistors on a chip the size of a fingernail. Oh right, and you have to repeat the procedure fifty thousand times a second with perfect accuracy. It makes the Apollo Program look like child’s play.

Even wilder, almost all advanced chips are manufactured in Taiwan, one of the most hotly contested territories on Earth. So this intricate supply chain is a magnet for high-stakes espionage. What if China invades Taiwan? What if a typhoon or earthquake takes out key fabs? What if a new discovery revolutionizes the production process? What if spies weaponize the semiconductors civilization depends on?

The more I learned, the more intriguing the questions became. None of them had easy answers. Each of them connected to all the others. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s how I knew I needed to weave the implications into Foundry—not because I had something to say, but to figure out how to even make sense of the possibilities. Writing often seems to be a way to capture answers, and it can be. But it’s also a way to explore questions, the thornier the better.

Share your enthusiasm

Remember that high school teacher who made you fall in love with a subject you thought would be boring? Their enthusiasm was contagious. Just so, a writer’s enthusiasms define their writing. You can only write well about something you genuinely care about. You thinking something is cool is a key ingredient in readers thinking something is cool, so the best books are about what the author thinks is cool.

So be selfish. Indulge your curiosity. Go down the rabbit hole. 

And then be generous. Report back. Tell us what you found. Show us why it matters.

This is the power of art: enriching our lives by inviting us into each other’s worlds.

Eliot Peper is the bestselling author of eleven novels, including, most recently, Foundry. He also works on special projects. The best way to follow his writing is to subscribe to his newsletter.

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