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Similarities between "The Discovery" and Bitter People Without Souls

Not long ago I watched The Discovery, a low-budget science-fiction movie released on Netflix earlier this year whose premise bears some striking resemblances to my second novel, Bitter People Without Souls.  I'm left with a funny mix of feelings.

Before I get into that, I should be absolutely clear about one thing: I am not in any way accusing the filmmakers of stealing my ideas.  Their story and mine are vastly different and go in completely separate directions.  They stand along as unique tales and there's plenty of room in the world for both to exist.  So, don't read anything else you see here as malice or litigiousness.

Hell, if anything, they would probably think I stole something; per the film's entry on Wikipedia, pre-production began in October 2015, which is the same time Bitter People was published.  That means their script would have been completed around the same time I was revising my book, if not months or even years earlier.

Still.  It is an interesting coincidence that we both decided to tackle a similar premise.  And, uh, I'm not totally sure how I feel about it.

To recap, for those who didn't read the book or any of my blog posts about it: Bitter People is a dark comedy / thriller that takes place in America following the discovery of the human soul.  Scientists have isolated the specific biological components of souls and have learned that most people actually don't have them.  Quick to capitalize, soul creation businesses pop up left and right to fill the void for those unlucky enough to be born without, and soon soul insurance agencies start providing high-cost plans to cover the cost of soul implants.  The unexpected side effect of all this is a massive spike in suicide rates among those who have undergone the treatment: they pay tens of thousands of dollars for the medical bills, then kill themselves and enjoy their immortal afterlives.  Bitter People more explicitly follows the exploits of Mary, a soul insurance agent, and a couple of her partners in crime as they establish the first-ever black market for souls.

The Discovery is not that.  The premise is much more pared down: a scientist discovers physical evidence that an afterlife exists - that our consciousnesses travel to another plane of existence - and as a result, the suicide rate skyrockets.  People all over the world start killing themselves to get to the next plane, either out of curiosity or out of desperation.  The son of the scientist who made the initial discovery is deeply conflicted and starts a relationship with a suicidal woman who helps him and his father to discover the true nature of the afterlife.

Now, when I write those two plot recaps side by side, it's pretty clear that they're different stories.  My book is a sometimes-cynical satire about healthcare, morality, and American greed.  The Discovery is a lowkey romantic drama about loss, love, and spiritual growth.  But both stories are born out of the intersection between science and religion: the point at which evidence yields conclusively that the happy stories we tell ourselves about life after death are in fact true.  Both stories deal with the day-to-day ramifications of such knowledge and the mental toll it takes on ordinary working stiffs who have to reconcile those facts with their expectations from society.  And of course, both stories use a spike in the suicide rate as an external conflict to hinge the protagonists' inner turmoil and growth.  There's a whole slew of minor similarities that are so inconsequential that literally the only one who would notice or care is me: group suicide is now a regular occurrence, the scientists use a questionnaire to make predictions on how people will behave in the context of suicide, the main character is struggling with their career due to ongoing consequences from an immediate family member's suicide, there's a minor character named Lacey, etc.

I have mixed reactions.  On a purely egotistical level, part of me is furious.  ("How dare you have an idea that is approximately similar on a base level to something I wrote?!  My story is supposed to be a unique snowflake that impresses everybody that reads it!  You're ruining my magic!")  I'd like to think I'm more mature than that - even if I'm definitely not - so I'm doing my best to stifle any petty jealousy.

Part of me is aggravated because I know that no matter how many people will go on to watch The Discovery from here, it has already reached an audience that is magnitudes larger than Bitter People will ever see.  And couched in that aggravation is more egotism: "My story is clearly better!  It's not fair that so many people are going to see this movie and not read my book!"

Part of me is fearful because I know that The Discovery has mixed reviews.  Will those who didn't care for the movie eventually learn about my book and be put off by it?  Gasp!  What a wretched fate!

But if I'm being honest, most of me has a much more positive outlook.  More than anything else, I just think it's a nifty coincidence that I want to explore further.  How often do you find out that somebody else had a similar idea as you and put it out in the world at the same time you did?  Wouldn't it be great to compare notes?  I wish I could meet Charlie McDowell, the writer/director, and pick his brain for a little while about how he approached his story.  I would love to spend an afternoon deconstructing our respective creative processes and seeing why we each made the choices we did, and whether or not we think we succeeded.

For example: both of us went with the idea that if the afterlife could be scientifically validated, then more people would kill themselves to get this life over with.  This concept is not an easy sell, as it turns out.  One of the worst criticisms I got from my (very limited) circle of first-draft readers was that they didn't understand why a scientific discovery would undermine millennia of religious prohibitions on suicide.  That's a fair point.

I'll defend my choice as such: I'm of the firm opinion that authority dictates behavior.  If a scientific authority that says there is no moral repercussion for suicide whatsoever and you'll definitively go to an afterlife, I do sincerely believe that many people - not most, but many - will interpret that as permission to do exactly that.  You see this all the time with capitalism; Americans traded in our moral obligation to help others with no argument whatsoever just because some jackass wrote a book once that said "self-interest is totally fine, brah."  Morals still matter to most of us, which is why the world isn't total garbage, but you simply can't expect morality to win over everybody's minds.  Unfortunately, that's not how humans operate.  (And if you need more proof, just do some reading on suicide cults.)

I'd love to find out if McDowell had this same thought process, or if he reached his suicide premise for a different reason.  Perhaps he was processing his own grief over a suicide, or perhaps he had an existential inner debate regarding his religion, or maybe none of the above.  I'd love to know more.

So, McDowell, if you're reading by any chance... let me know if you've got time for lunch.  I've never compared notes with another writer like this before and I think it would be deeply interesting for both of us.

For everyone else: check out both of our stories and draw your own comparisons.  The Discovery is available on Netflix, and Bitter People Without Souls is on   Only a dollar, too.  You can afford that.