In his seminal book What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly notes that while we celebrate Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the same theory of evolution around the same time, both of them inspired by Thomas Malthus’s ideas about population growth. Likewise, Albert Einstein is history’s archetypal genius, yet the same year he published four papers that would remake physics, Hendrik Lorentz developed a mathematical architecture for spacetime, and the year before, Henri Poincare identified gaps in classical physics that only relatively could fill. The principle underlying multiple independent discovery also applies to invention and art. At least twenty-three people “invented” the lightbulb before Thomas Edison. And before J.K. Rowling introduced readers to Harry Potter, there were numerous books about orphans attending wizarding schools—including one with a protagonist named Larry Potter!
As I was gearing up to launch a new novel in May of 2020, I learned that one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson, had a book coming out that November. Both Veil and The Ministry for the Future are set in near futures shaped by solar geoengineering and both start with an unprecedented global heat wave that kills twenty million people. I’m writing this blog post in early 2021, a few days after another of my favorite science-fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, announced that he has a near-future geoengineering thriller called Termination Shock set to publish later this year. “Termination Shock” was a working title for the manuscript that ultimately became Veil.
Robinson and I corresponded about the uncanny parallels between our respective novels, agreeing that the startling thing was that more writers hadn’t already explored this territory, and hoping that more would. Of course, while both stories start with a similar concept, they go in entirely different directions. Concepts in isolation are easy to talk about and, therefore, overrated. Most of the value lies in how a concept is brought to life, complete with layer upon layer of contingent idiosyncrasy. That’s why Harry Potter is Harry Potter and Charles Darwin is Charles Darwin.
Ideas aren’t unique.
We remember those who realize ideas in a singular way and make them stick in the culture.
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Eliot Peper is the author of nine novels, including Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Veil. He sends a monthly newsletter documenting his journey as a reader and writer, tweets more than he probably should, and lives in Oakland, CA.