I’m not proud of it, but it’s true: I read the bulk of Eliot Peper’s latest sci-fi thriller, Borderless, over multiple trips the bathroom. It probably deserved drawn-out sessions in a fireplace-adjacent armchair or at least an airplane ride with a cheap mixed drink at the ready, but hey. Given all of the demands on my time, both personal and professional, I found that there are ever-diminishing opportunities to sit down and read an honest-to-goodness, dead-tree book.
Like most of you, I do a ton of reading—nearly all of it on a computer screen or, more likely, my iPhone. I’m reading news, Twitter, and a never-ending deluge of emails. I’ve nearly excised Facebook from my life and have long-ago deleted Instagram from my phone. For me, having the discipline to engage with a book is often a challenge.
Like nearly everyone in Peper’s universe, I, too, am sucked in to “the feed.” In his imagined near-future, practically everyone has a biologically integrated device that acts as essentially a smartphone integrated into their eyeball. The opacity can be dialed up or down, depending on how “lost” in your feed you want to get.
Borderless is punchy. Each chapter is only a few fast-moving pages. Like a James Bond film, there’s plenty of action, booze, sex, fights, and quick changes of scenery. But while Bond films are essentially self-contained, the Peperverse, like the Star Trek universe, continues to expand and reveal new angles and shades never contemplated in earlier work.
Borderless picks up where the first book in his Analog series, Bandwidth, left off.
Our protagonist, Dag Calhoun, has retired from the cloak-and-dagger world. But while you might think book two in this series would be about how Dag gets sucked back into skullduggery, he doesn’t really drive the story. In fact, Borderless centers around a secondary character from the first book, Diana.
If the first volume asked the question—how do algorithms manipulate one’s own emotional truth?—this book asks: in a fluid world that incessantly floods us with information, what boundaries should exist?
Again, summarizing the plot without giving too much away is hard. But as Peper himself warned me: if you liked Dag, you’ll love Diana. Like Dag, Diana is on a quest. But while Dag struggled to figure out how someone else knew so much about him, she strives to figure out who wants her to learn so much about someone else.
Like Dag, Diana has to deal with some of the previous antagonists and side-tagonists: Eddie Hsu, Emily, Javier, and Lowell. She has to reveal a matryoshka of a story before the reader reaches the climactic ending.
Smoke and mirrors
Diana opens the story “a few years” after the end of Bandwidth. She and Dag are living together in Berkeley, where he’s just made a stack of his famous pancakes for her. Dag has essentially given up the clandestine life and has retired to being something of an amateur artist with a beard.
But Diana is still going full-force, still operating with the tenacity and deviousness of a former CIA agent. When Dag proposes something as innocuous as having her teach him how to work a garden, she immediately rejects him.
“The words came out harsher than she had intended,” the narrator tells us on page three. “He had already taken her to bed, moved into her home, invaded her life. Wasn’t that enough? The greenhouse, the garden, the plants, they were hers.”
Diana is so much more closed-off than Dag ever was. Her last name is never revealed. In fact, when I began writing this review, I had to text Peper himself to make sure that I hadn’t missed it.
“Is Diana’s last name ever stated?” I wrote.
“Never stated,” he confirmed.
“Is that intentional?”
“Yes, to the extent that it’s an alias, and Diana never reveals details about herself, even a surname alias, unless she’s got a damn good reason,” he continued. “In the course of this particular story, no such reason presented itself. 😊”
And that is one of my favorite qualities about Peper’s prose: there’s enough so that you get the contours of what’s there, but after you sit and digest it for a while, you realize there’s a lot more you don’t know about how the world, its people, and its technology work—or don’t.
Stupid amounts of money
One of the things that I wanted more of in Bandwidth were scenes set in a fictional San Francisco watering hole known as Analog, seemingly one of the few places where characters can go feedless. In Borderless, Peper delivered.
By chapter two, the story has quickly crossed the Bay Bridge. Diana heads straight to Analog after she gets her new assignment. The bar “smelled of honey, leather, and paraffin.”
“As always, Analog was busy,” Peper writes. “Patrons ate, drank, and gabbed. She overheard an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist on a new synthetic biology pathway, a pair of old women arguing over a game of go, and a small group of stand-up comedians regaling each other with rough-cut jokes.”
Diana takes time to chat with the bouncers and even brings treats for the dogs who sit by the “magnificent fire” that “roared in a hearth the size of an ox.” She pays attention to the humans here, too. For Nell, the bar’s hostess (or is it owner?), Diana later brings “original English-language Akira reprints from the early 1990s”—a gift for Nell’s daughter Jorani.
Diana’s assignment, given to her by a man named Haruki, is to do a “full take” on Rachel, the CEO of Commonwealth, the telecom giant that powers the feed.
One of my favorite scenes in the book finds Diana posing as a flower-delivery person and implanting video-surveillance cameras inside a bouquet of sunflowers. She hand-delivers the flowers so she can place them directly inside a conference room where the company is holding a board meeting.
But Diana is taken out of the zone for a moment when she stops to notice how the Commonwealth building itself is designed.
“She was standing in an atrium that took up the entire ground floor of the building and rose hundreds of feet into the air,” the narrator explains. “But the cathedral space itself wasn’t as surprising as the dozens of fully grown redwoods that filled it. It was as if she had stepped off the downtown sidewalk and directly into the grove on Mount Tam. Artificial mist circulated through the trees’ upper branches, and flagstone paths connected the doors and scattered seating areas to a central elevator bank.”
Given that this is a near-future where essentially all of Southern California has been devastated by wildfire and where presumably, a decent portion of the Bay Area’s natural beauty has neither been destroyed nor locked away by Vinod Khosla-type characters, this little detail in Borderless seems all too plausible.
San Francisco is, after all, where the real-world entryway in the Salesforce Tower is plastered with endless screens that show looped videos of California nature, giving the extravagantly designed but ultimately silly illusion that one is stepping past the security desk and into a magical realm where people work for a CRM software giant.
I marveled, as does Diana, at this scene. I also wondered as to why some tech baron of today hasn’t uprooted a redwood grove already.
Here there be dragons
Last week, as I was completing my read of Borderless, I was dispatched to the headquarters of one of the Commonwealths of our time, Google. There, my assignment was to report on the employees who were protesting the company’s inadequate response to sexual-harassment allegations.
However, when I arrived, I saw a gaggle of video news crews standing in a neat line, just steps from where protesters were starting to gather. I walked past them but was rebuffed by nearly everyone I approached. At one point, a security guard told me that a Google employee had reported me as “harassing” employees, when I clearly was not. I presented myself as a reporter and asked a few women if they wanted to speak with me. If they declined (nearly all did), I thanked them and retreated.
The guard informed me, in as nice of a way that he could muster, that I needed to join my assembled colleagues a few yards away.
“This is private property,” he explained. “We normally allow people to walk through here,” he continued, gesturing to the nearby courtyard. “But we reserve the right to close it. We’ve closed it for the event, so you need to go over there.”
I pointed out that there was no signage of any kind indicating where Google’s land started and where the public park ended. But this guard wasn’t hearing any of it. I obeyed and left.
Like Diana, I ignored the borders set out for me. I simply walked around to the other side and walked right through into the heart of the protest, like anyone else.