A dark secret hides in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man
What inspired my new novel
In 2013, my wife and I travelled through Asia and East Africa for nine months. We spent 33 days on a trek through Himalayan backcountry in Nepal, scrambled up crags in northern Ethiopia, and dove the colorful reefs off the northern tip of Sumatra. But perhaps the most otherworldly place we visited was Burning Man, where we went immediately after our wheels hit American tarmac.
Burning Man was powerful precisely because it was so hard to define. Rather than a wild narcotic-infused bonanza, we discovered that the atmosphere was far more diverse and creative. Lacking the formal structure of a large music festival with stages and schedules, each participant’s experience was shaped by where they wandered when, and whom they happened to meet. It wasn’t a party. It was a temporary community populated by artists, technologists, doers, makers, scientists, goofballs, geeks, and freaks united not by their interests, but by a proactive mandate to accept, support, and give.
Much like spending time in a foreign country, Burning Man made us question the things we took for granted in our everyday lives. Friendships formed quickly and spontaneously. We have since returned, and plan to do so regularly.
Burning Man was a wonderful port of reentry into the United States. At the same time, it reminded us of the impossible adversity people face every day in many of the countries we had just returned from. While we were playing on the playa, the Maldives was wracked by political upheaval, our favorite bookshop in Kathmandu went up in flames, and Sri Lankan dissidents disappeared without a trace.
That was the seed of Neon Fever Dream, my new novel about a dark secret hidden at Burning Man. It’s a fast-paced thriller with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime. The story required substantial research and I’m really excited about how it came together.
International intrigue makes for a compelling page-turner, but in the real world such machinations tear people’s lives apart. A few of those lives might collide against the incomparable backdrop of Burning Man. Stranger things have happened, particularly in Black Rock City.
From there the story grew and changed, taking on its particular shape. A friend-of-a-friend became involved in a federal investigation of Tongan Crips in Utah. My wife and I took some Krav Maga classes in Oakland. A refugee taxi driver told me about how his loved ones had been persecuted by the Karuna Faction. I met journalists and security experts following the evolving relationship between the expansion of technological surveillance capabilities and the role of international criminal organizations. The pieces fell into place.
We often read nonfiction to learn about the world around us. But fiction offers something else, a chance to explore our own subjective experience of living in that world. It gives us a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other human beings. It empowers us to escape and in escaping, reflect. The most powerful stories compel us, move us, and leave us with more questions than answers.
If you give Neon Fever Dream a read, I’d love to hear what you think.
Eliot Peper is a novelist and strategist who writes fast-paced, deeply-researched stories with diverse casts that explore the intersection of technology and society. He is the author of CUMULUS, NEON FEVER DREAM, and THE UNCOMMON SERIES. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.