Review: Eliot Peper’s “Cumulus”

by Miles Raymer


For fans of speculative fiction, the early 21st century has been both a triumph and a challenge: a triumph because our beloved genre has gained popularity and respect, and a challenge because sorting through the ever-increasing surfeit of new works can be paralyzing. It helps immensely when an enterprising author takes the time to identify and approach a prospective reviewer. When I received Eliot Peper’s inquiry about whether I’d be interested in reviewing his new novel, Cumulus, I breathed a sigh of relief; choices can be so much easier when made by someone else.

I’ve been similarly solicited by several authors since becoming an amateur reviewer, and I can honestly say that Peper is the first one to impress me. Cumulus is a fun, intelligent, and thrilling escapade through the mind of a writer who clearly understands much about the culture of Silicon Valley and the future of technology and politics. The book is short enough to digest quickly while still containing plenty of food for thought. And––best of all––it’s not the first in a series. In an era when the standalone novel has been overshadowed by the undeserving serial cash cow, Cumulus exudes a sense of place and purpose that doesn’t require additional installments to prove edifying and rewarding.

Cumulus addresses head-on a question that is harrying technologists the world over: Which technology company, if any, will become the curator of the Internet of Things? Since we are building technology platforms to analyze and optimize nearly every aspect of human life, it seems reasonable to assume that a meta-company might emerge with the goal of bringing all the new platforms together under a single corporate umbrella. This is the vision of Huian Li, the CEO of Cumulus:

Technology was the only scalable tool available to help shape a better future. The question was whether people chose to participate in that future or not. Huian was a harbinger of that new reality. She would stop at nothing to push forward the inexorable, beautiful, conflicted locomotive of human civilization. Dystopias were the province of the undisciplined. (loc. 1320)

Peper has reduced this perspective to its bare bones, constructing a scenario that feels oversimplified but just plausible enough to be convincing. In a near-future version of the Bay Area, Cumulus gains power and influence by purchasing companies like Fleet (an Uber-for-everything transportation platform), Security (a large-scale privatized police force), and Tectonix (a specialist in geophysical sensors and global data consolidation). Spiraling inequality has caused the Bay Area to splinter into a stable Green Zone populated by those wealthy enough to pay for protection and social services. The Green Zone is surrounded by chaotic Fringes inhabited by the less fortunate. The public sector has all but disappeared, and the private sector has stepped up (or slithered in) to pick up the pieces:

Like so many other things, leadership and control of previously public infrastructure had been ceded to the private sector. No. Not just the private sector. Cumulus. (loc. 1160)

It’s unclear whether Peper is politically motivated to distrust the public sector or simply believes its marginalization is inevitable. Regardless, he is not alone in his appraisal; there are a great many real-world leaders who think we are headed in this direction.

Instead of playing the unwinnable game of trying to predict what will or won’t come to pass, Peper focuses on how people from different backgrounds might navigate this tenuous landscape. Abstract issues such as geopolitical strategy, the value of analog media in a digital world, socioeconomic inequality, the benefits and dangers of automation, and the mercurial role of privacy/anonymity in a surveillance state come alive as the plot of Cumulus unfolds.

As is the case with most works of speculative fiction, the characters in Cumulus often amount to little more than mouthpieces for Peper’s ideas. Peper makes a sincere effort to render his characters believable and distinct, but characterization is not his strength. The novel’s villain is especially weak––a cliché power player who creates conflict without a proper motive and is too easily dispensed with when the plot demands it. Even so, there is undeniable promise in Peper’s writing; if he wants to ascend to a higher tier of authorship, he should explore with more vigor the idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies, and nuances of human nature.

While it pains me to consider a future in which the public sector is stripped of any real power, Cumulus does offer hopeful suggestions about how the private sector can become more ethically conscious and socially robust. Huian comes to see that the boons of Cumulus technology should ultimately be democratized, and propounds the model of “perpetual beta” as a general framework for the optimization of technological services:

[Perpetual beta] refers to the idea of constant experimentation that assumes a high level of implicit failure instead of trying to avert every contingency through careful planning. The logic is that careful planning doesn’t work very well because both failure and opportunity arrive from unexpected directions anyway…It’ll be messy and awkward. But so is almost every adolescent. If it’s going to happen, we have to start right now. (loc. 2937-45)

To complement this point of view, Huian undergoes a shift in her ideas about the limits of centralized power:

The company was too reliant on her. She might have dedicated her life to building the future, but the future couldn’t depend on her. Through careful management of board composition, voting rights, and equity dilution, she had ensured that she remained firmly in control of Cumulus. That had given her the authority to be agile in a world of lethargic institutions, and go boldly where others balked. But it had also made her a critical point of failure. Good leaders made themselves indispensable. Great leaders made themselves expendable. Conflating the two had nearly cost her everything…You might discover that incredible things can happen when you relinquish control. (loc. 2864, 2975, emphasis his)

It is gratifying that this photon of insight has escaped the black hole of egotism called Silicon Valley. As Frederic Laloux has suggested, the successful organizations of the future will be structured like organisms, not machines. Hierarchies should not be extirpated entirely, but absolute top-down control is inefficient and ultimately impossible. We must mimic living systems by cultivating vast networks of data and interpersonal exchange that are both autonomous and interconnected, striking a careful balance between individual self-interest and the common good.

It’s up to each of us to carve the path to a better civilization, and to choose which thinkers we will look to for guidance and inspiration. Put Eliot Peper on your list.

Rating: 8/10