The Big Idea: Sylvain Neuvel
They say our experiences in life shape us, make us into who we are. Author Sylvain Neuvel seems to agree that it isn’t just what’s in our DNA that makes us unique. Read on to see how his newest novel, A History of What Comes Next, takes this concept for a spin.
What Makes You You? (And why the Tolkien family might sue you.)
In A History of What Comes Next, we meet the Kibsu, mother-and-daughter pairs, all genetically identical, messing with History to take us to the stars. Mia, the daughter in the ninety-ninth generation of Kibsu, struggles with both the life she’s been born to and her identity. She desperately wants to be her own self and not to turn into her mother. That’s, as we all know, easier said than done, especially when you’re a perfect genetic copy of the person you don’t want to turn into.
Writing the Kibsu is really fun but challenging in its own strange way. I work hard to make sure the characters in each of my books have their own voice. I did the same with Mia and her mother obviously, but with the added caveat that they are, in more ways than one, the same person, only at a different age and born in different times. Different, but the same. I can relate to some of it. I was a very different person at twenty-three than I was at forty-three. Some of it, obviously, I had to imagine. I’m not a copy of my dad. Well, not really. It’s difficult for Mia to accept who she is and still cling to her sense of self, but what about the rest of us? Are we as unique as we think we are? It’s not the first time that theme comes up in my writing. What makes a person who they are and not someone else? What is it exactly that makes you you?
What you’re made of doesn’t really come into play. If you dig deep enough, everything in the universe is made of the same stuff; you, the phone or computer you’re reading this on, the rings of Saturn. How that matter is organized is what sets you apart from everything else. To put in another way: You’re a configuration. Your essence, as you call it, is information.
Where do we find that precious information that defines who you are? DNA seems like a good place to start. Every cell in your body contains a copy of your entire genetic code. The alphabet for it is only four letters but it’s a pretty big book. Three billion base pairs, six billion letters. DNA is double-stranded but you get one strand for free if you know the other, so we’re really talking three billion letters. That’s enough to write five hundred and eighty-eight million English words. That’s a lot. It should be more than enough to make you really unique, right?
Well, it turns out that ninety-nine point nine percent of those words are there to make sure you’re not a fish, that you have a mouth, feet, hair, and fewer than six legs. In other words, almost all of your DNA is there just to make you a person, and you share that ninety-nine point nine percent with every other human that ever lived. So much for uniqueness there. The part of your DNA that isn’t shared with absolutely everyone is equivalent to five-hundred and eighty-eight thousand words. That’s, well, less. It’s Lord of the Rings. No, really. That how long the universe says it takes to tell your whole story. It’s not all bad, it includes The Hobbit. But, yeah. You’re a boxset.
The good news is that’s still a lot. A History of What Comes Next will be my fourth novel, add to that my novella The Test and I’m still nowhere close to five hundred and eighty-eight thousand published words. The bad news is… all of it is plagiarized. There isn’t a single word of your genetic code that wasn’t copied from someone else.
If you had written yourself, it would look like you made only the bare minimum of effort to hide that you copied it all. Sure, you wouldn’t have copy-pasted the entire story straight from Mom. You’d have mixed it up a little. A sentence from her here, a couple from Dad there. You might have picked the recessive plot point of Frodo and Sam ending up together, but it would still be obvious to anyone that the whole thing is a ripoff of someone else’s work. There’s a reason we all turn into our parents. We are our parents, a very large chunk of them anyway.
And yet you’re still you. I’m still me. We’re not just the sum of our parents, a bit of grandma and a dash of some long-dead folks we never heard of. Part of me is just me, and there is a part of you that would survive the monster lawsuit from the Tolkien estate. How much of you? Genetically, not a lot. Most of our uniqueness is mutations – We’re a retyped plagiarized Lord of the Rings and the copyeditor has off days like everyone else. Except maybe for the brain. There’s more genetic diversity in the brain, cluster after cluster of cells with their own slightly unique DNA. Why? Brain cells are just cooler, I think. They’re that older cousin that played the electric guitar when we were young. Every other cell is saying: “We can’t do this! It says right here we have to be home by eight!” but brain cells are like: “Are you sure they’ll let us in with these fake IDs?” There’s new evidence that suggests early life experience might play a significant role in the phenomenon and actually change the genome inside brain cells. Life experience will, of course, influence how the brain functions later. Learning new things, making memories, crying to a movie you shouldn’t cry to, hating goat cheese, etc. All these things are physical processes that help create, destroy, or reinforce connections in the brain. You’re never exactly the same after eating goat cheese, or doing anything else for that matter.
In the end, it’s mostly those experiences that make us special. For those with an identical twin, they’re the only thing since the genome they start with is exactly the same, very much like the Kibsu. Mia may look exactly like her mother at that age, but she’s likely as much (or as little) of a unique individual as the rest of us. I doubt Mia will find much comfort in that, but I do. Maybe you should too. The next time someone is rude to you for no reason, or you hit your toe on that stupid table again, or there’s a pandemic and the world makes no sense whatsoever, you can tell yourself two things: First, it sucks. Second, both that thing, and the fact that it sucks are still, somehow, making you a little more unique. Just make sure to treat yourself to a good thing or two, because the good stuff is also pretty good at making you you.